Leaving Behind Depression

People with depression tend to hide.  They hide their pain.  They hide the truth about their suffering because they fear no one will understand.  So, they hunker down.  They suck it up.  They deal with it.  Millions of Americans do this every day, seven days a week.

What is the alternative?  The polar opposite of hiding seems to be a coming out into the open, a revelation of one’s true self.  This involves vulnerability and trust and not a small measure of courage. But it can be done.  Millions of Americans do this every day, seven days a week.

I know that in my own life, my hiding began in childhood.  Seeking to avoid physical and emotional abuse at the hands of my father, I hid.  I did so to be safe.  Where would I hide?  In the closet behind the hung clothes, the rafters of our garage or the cool and musty basement with the spiders. Sometimes, I would run as fast as I could on summer afternoons into the deep, verdant woods that surrounded my childhood home.  I would lay down in the middle of a pine forest with my dog, surrounded by the trees that were my friends, that were my protectors as they hid me from my raging alcoholic father.

Drifting into adulthood, I didn’t let go of my habit of hiding.  I had learned that others were not safe or just didn’t care.  Like many other depressives, I became a pleaser, an overachiever and a success in my career – all the while hiding a sense of dread that I couldn’t figure out, let alone name.

I now know that I don’t need to hide anymore.  I know that it is okay to be my true self with others I care about: my wonderful wife, my precious daughter, friends who are like brothers and sisters to me.  Not hiding doesn’t always eliminate depression, but I have come to believe that there is a deep healing that takes place in intimacy that no antidepressant on its best day could match.  I have come to believe in the strength and resilience of the human spirit, both mine and others.  We won’t always find love and acceptance when we reach out to others.  But then again, no one does in this imperfect, fragile and beautiful world.  But I do know if we take the risk, if we leave the voices of our childhood that we’re not safe behind, we open ourselves to healing and an end to depression.


Through A Glass Darkly: An Interview with Miriam Greenspan About Depression

Question: Why do you think it is important for us to pay attention to the dark emotions, in particular?

Greenspan: Actually I think it’s important for us to pay attention to our emotions, in general. Too many people have never learned to do this, because they’ve never been encouraged to do it. We have the notion that our emotions are not worthy of serious attention.

Naturally we have less difficulty with the so-called positive emotions. People don’t mind feeling joy and happiness. The dark emotions are much harder. Fear, grief, and despair are uncomfortable and are seen as signs of personal failure. In our culture, we call them “negative” and think of them as “bad.” I prefer to call these emotions “dark,” because I like the image of a rich, fertile, dark soil from which something unexpected can bloom. Also we keep them “in the dark” and tend not to speak about them. We privatize them and don’t see the ways in which they are connected to the world. But the dark emotions are inevitable. They are part of the universal human experience and are certainly worthy of our attention. They bring us important information about ourselves and the world and can be vehicles of profound transformation.

Question: And if we don’t pay attention to them?

Greenspan: Well, the Buddha taught that we increase our suffering through our attempts to avoid it. If we try to escape from a hard grief, for instance, we may develop a serious anxiety disorder or depression, or we may experience a general numbness. It is difficult to live a full life if we haven’t grieved our losses. I also think that a lot of our addictions have to do with our inability to tolerate grief and despair. Unrecognized despair can turn into acts of aggression, such as homicide or suicide. The same is true of fear. When we don’t have ways to befriend and work with it.

Question: You refer to our culture as “emotion phobic” but suggest that we are also drawn to “emotional pornography.” What do you mean?

Greenspan: By “emotion phobic” I mean that we fear our emotions and devalue them. This fear has its roots in the ancient duality of reason versus emotion. Reason and the mind are associated with masculinity and are considered trustworthy, whereas emotion and the body are associated with the feminine and are seen as untrustworthy, dangerous, and destructive. Nowhere in school, for example, does anyone tell us that paying attention to our emotions might be valuable or necessary. Our emotions are not seen as sources of information. We look at them instead as indicators of inadequacy or failure. We don’t recognize that they have anything to teach us. They are just something to get through or to control.

But despite our fear, there is something in us that wants to feel all these emotional energies, because they are the juice of life. When we suppress and diminish our emotions, we feel deprived. So we watch horror movies or so-called reality shows like Fear Factor. We seek out emotional intensity vicariously, because when we are emotionally numb, we need a great deal of stimulation to feel something, anything. So emotional pornography provides the stimulation, but it’s only ersatz emotion — it doesn’t teach us anything about ourselves or the world.

Question: Other societies seem to have ways of acknowledging the dark emotions. Hindu images come to mind, in which Kali, the goddess of death and rebirth, is sometimes depicted with her mouth dripping blood. Why do you think we are so unwilling to face the dark side of life here in the U.S.?

Greenspan: We have lost our connection to the dark side of the sacred. We prize status, power, consumerism, and distraction, and there is no room for darkness in any of that. Americans tend to have a naiveté about life, always expecting it to be rosy. When something painful happens, we feel that we are no good, that we have failed at achieving a good life. We have no myths to guide us through the painful and perilous journeys of the dark emotions, and yet we all suffer these journeys at some point. We have high rates of depression, anxiety, and addiction in this country, but we have no sense of the sacred possibilities of our so-called illnesses. We have no god or goddess like Kali to guide us. Instead we have a medical culture. Suffering is considered pathology, and the answer to suffering is pharmacology.

Question: So instead of Kali we have Prozac?

Greenspan: Exactly. Our answer to serious pain is a pill that will take it away as quickly as possible. We have no sense that death and rebirth are parts of life. Rather than let suffering expand our consciousness, we succumb to feelings of victimization or treat ourselves as sick. For example, psychiatry has no concept of “normal” despair. We speak only of “clinical depression,” an illness that can be reduced to a neurotransmitter deficiency. Even grief after a major loss is diagnosed as a mental disorder if it lasts more than two months. Our culture tells us to get over our pain; to control, manage, and medicate it. Contrast this with the Jewish practice of “sitting shiva” after a death. For seven days following the burial (shiva means “seven” in Hebrew), the mourners stay at home and sit on low chairs and receive visitors. People come to comfort and console them, to bring food and drink, and to give the mourners a chance to remember their dead and express their grief. Mourning is then gradually stepped down. The seven days are followed by a thirty-day period of mourning, followed by an eleven-month period in which the mourner’s prayer is said twice a day. After that, the dead are remembered once a year.

Instead of making us feel we must “get over it,” these types of rituals allow us to stay open to our grief. Rather than being directed to jump back into our routines, we are given permission to move more organically through the grieving process. After my father died, for example, I sat shiva with my mother, brother, and aunt. When the shiva was over, the rabbi told us to go outside and walk around the block. This was to remind us that the world still turns and life goes on. After the intensity of sitting with our grief for days, there was a sense of renewal, of gratitude for the continuity of life. I was struck by the emotional intelligence of this process. It’s very different from the notion that grief is something we suffer in private, by ourselves, and that it becomes an illness when it goes on for too long.

Question: A recent Forbes article named cognitive-behavioral therapy as the most effective treatment to date for depression and anxiety. By changing our thought patterns, the article suggests, we can eliminate our negative feelings and free ourselves from “long-winded wallowing in past pain.” How would you respond to this?

Greenspan: I think there is great value in becoming more aware of our thoughts and the ways in which they trigger our emotional states. If I am always thinking that I am a horrible person, chances are I will feel depressed. If I think instead, I am a human being, and I am not perfect, and that’s fine, it will inspire more compassion for the self. On the other hand, there are certain experiences that slam us with emotion. People we love die or suffer illness or trauma. We need to learn how to tolerate the emotions that accompany such experiences. We can’t — nor should we try to — simply eliminate these feelings, because this will just entrench them further. Cognitive therapy is great for becoming more aware of our self-destructive thought patterns and how they affect our emotions and behavior, but it doesn’t really address how to befriend intense emotions in the body. If I am awash in grief after my child has died, I need to go through that grief journey; I can’t simply think my way out of it.

Question: Is there an appropriate amount of time for a person to grieve? When do we cross the line into “wallowing”?

Greenspan: It’s always a mistake to designate an “appropriate” time allotment for grief. Everyone has his or her own way of grieving, and the important thing is not to be afraid of grief and to let it unfold, to open up and allow it to bring you on its journey. “Wallowing” is not healthy grief but something else altogether. It’s when we get grandiose about our suffering, get caught up in a victim story, or indulge our emotions without awareness.

Question: What suggestions do you have for people struggling with depression or anxiety?

Greenspan: Well, first of all, they need to accept the fact that they are feeling depressed or anxious. That may sound simple, but it is actually quite hard. It goes against the grain. We are taught that we should not accept these states but rather do whatever we can to put an end to them. But we need to become friendly with the beast, so to speak. We need to be curious: What are these states we call “depression” and “anxiety”? What do they feel like? How do we experience them in the body? This allows us to be moved and transformed by them. It is not the same as “long-winded wallowing in past pain.” I think that depression often eventually lifts of its own accord when we let it be. Most people don’t know this about depression. When we fight depression, it becomes entrenched. There are forms of entrenched depression that are life threatening and do require medication. I am not against medication when necessary; I just believe we too often overuse or abuse psychopharmacological substances for so-called mental disorders, and we don’t search for other ways to deal skillfully with these afflictions.

As for anxiety, we are probably all suffering from heightened anxiety right now if we’re the least bit aware of the problems in the world. I’m not saying that we should allow ourselves to be constantly anxious. We need to know how to soothe ourselves and our loved ones without avoiding the darkness. A simple daily practice of conscious, relaxed breathing is often an antidote for anxiety. Some kind of gratitude practice is also helpful: that is, bringing to mind all that we have to be grateful for every day, and feeling thankful. Even if we don’t feel thankful at the time, it helps to be aware of our blessings.

Question: How would you teach someone to “befriend” his or her suffering?

Greenspan: Emotions live in the body. It is not enough simply to talk about them, to be a talking head. We need to focus our attention on emotions where they live. This willingness to be present allows the emotion to begin to shift of its own accord. An alchemy starts to happen — a process of transmutation from something hard and leaden to something precious and powerful, like gold.

This is a chaotic, nonlinear process, but I think it requires three basic skills: attending to, befriending, and surrendering to emotions in the body. Paying attention to or attending to our emotions is not the same as endless navel gazing and second-guessing ourselves. It is mindfulness of the body, an ability to listen to the body’s emotional language without judgment or suppression.

Befriending follows from focusing our attention and takes it a step further: it involves building our tolerance for distressing emotions. When I was giving birth to my first child, my midwife said something that has stood me in good stead ever since: “When you feel the contraction coming and you want to back away from it, move toward it instead.” The feeling in the body that we want to run away from — that’s precisely what we need to stay with. A simple way to do this is to locate the emotion in the body and breathe through it, without trying to change or end it.

The third skill, surrendering, is the spiritual part of this process. Surrendering to suffering is usually the last thing we want to do, but surrender is what brings the unexpected gifts of wisdom, compassion, and courage. Surrendering is about saying yes when we want to say no — the yes of acceptance. This is what really allows the alchemy to happen. We don’t “let go” of emotions; we let go of ego, and the emotions then let go themselves. This is “emotional flow.” When we let the dark emotions flow, something unexpected and unpredictable often occurs. Consciously experienced, the energy of these emotions flows toward healing and harmony. I’ve found that unimpeded grief transforms itself into heightened gratitude; that consciously experiencing fear expands our ability to feel joy; and that being mindful of despair — really entering into the dark night of the soul with the light of awareness — renews and deepens our faith.

Question: If someone is feeling deep depression or despair, it might feel dangerous to them to “surrender” to what they’re feeling. Is there ever a danger?

Greenspan: “Surrender,” as I’m using it, means a radical acceptance of our emotional experience. We can simply say, “I’m feeling despair right now.” How can that be dangerous? If anything, this acceptance makes it less likely that we will act out of the emotional intensity. The danger comes when we can’t tolerate the discomfort of an emotion and so lose our awareness of it. That’s how emotions overwhelm the mind or impel some kind of impulsive, destructive behavior. It’s not the emotion per se that’s destructive; it’s the behavior that comes from not being able to bear it mindfully.

It sounds odd to us, but what we call “depression” can be a creative process and not just a destructive one. My sense of this probably started to develop when I was a child. My parents are Holocaust survivors, and they were grieving the genocide of their people when I was growing up. Psychiatry would, no doubt, have diagnosed my mother as “depressed.” But, as I see it, she was doing the active grieving she needed to do in order to find a way to live after the enormous trauma of being the sole survivor of her family. She is now ninety-five years old and the most resilient person I know. She’s legally blind and mostly deaf but goes about living her life with an almost Buddha-like acceptance. My father, who died five years ago, came through the Holocaust and still had this amazing and innocent zest for life. I’ve learned a lot from both of them.

Question: You speak of an “alchemy” by which grief can ultimately be transformed into gratitude, fear into joy, and despair into faith. How does that work?

Greenspan: Let’s begin with grief. There is a kind of shattering that happens with, say, the death of a child, or any death, but perhaps most of all violent death. Not only is your heart shattered; you lose your sense of who you are and what your life is about. So reconstruction is needed. But first we need to accept that we are broken. This initiates the “emotional alchemy.” If we can hang in there with grief, it changes from a feeling of being “hemmed in” by life to a feeling of expansion and opening. We will never get back to the way we were, but eventually we reach a new state of “normal.” I’m not talking about the mundane kind of “getting back to normal,” in which we find ourselves doing the laundry again (although that is important too), but the deeper kind, which is a process of remaking ourselves and how we live.

Grief is a teacher. It tells us that we are not alone; that we are interconnected; that what connects us also breaks our hearts — which is as it should be. Most people who allow themselves to grieve fully develop an increased sense of gratitude for their own lives. That’s the alchemy: from grief to gratitude. None of us wants to go through these experiences, but they do bring us these gifts.

The same is true for fear. We think of fear as an emotion that constricts us and keeps us from living fully. But I think it’s really the fear of fear that does this. When we are able to tolerate fear, and to experience it consciously, we learn not to be so afraid of it — and this gives us the freedom to live with courage and enjoy life more fully. This is the alchemy of fear to joy.

We are all living in a heightened fear state now, and being able to tolerate fear is a true gift. Those of us who can live mindfully amid the chaos are doing something for the world as well as for ourselves. It’s essential to be able to bear fear and not go off the edge with it — not allow it to impel us to engage in one form of aggression or another.

Question: It sounds as if you’re saying we need to metabolize the fear somehow.

Greenspan: Yes, that’s a great way to put it. Fear that is not metabolized threatens to destroy us — and perhaps the planet. I’m not saying we need to be in a constant state of anxiety, but we need to know what it is that we are afraid of and not turn our fear into destructive power. My third child, Esther, was born with numerous physical and mental disabilities of unknown origin. She is at risk for all sorts of physical injuries and is in pain a good deal of the time. One day she severely dislocated her knee at summer camp due to her counselors’ neglect, and she came home in a wheelchair. She said, “Summer camp was great — up until the knee-dislocation part!” When I marveled at her cheerfulness and asked what her secret was, Esther said, without missing a beat, “The secret of life is ‘Love people.’ ” She is an amazing soul who lives with fear every day. And every day she has the courage to laugh and love. She teaches me that it’s possible to live fully with pain and fear — which is what courage is all about.

Question: You tell a story in your book about a man whose fear actually informed him of an otherwise invisible and silent danger.

Greenspan: You’re thinking of Adam Trombly, director of the environmental organization Project Earth. Trombly was out walking through a cow pasture on a beautiful day in Rocky Flats, Colorado, when he was suddenly seized by a sense of dread. He regarded his fear as evidence that something was wrong, so he took some soil samples from the area and had them tested. It turned out that the level of plutonium oxide in that spot was thousands of times higher than the acceptable standard. A fire at a nearby nuclear installation had released plutonium oxide into the atmosphere. The accident had not been reported, but Trombly’s fear alerted him to the problem and the coverup. It carried information from the earth. Of course, most scientists would consider this ridiculous or, worse, certifiably psychotic. We don’t honor information brought to us by our feelings, and therefore we don’t learn how to develop our intuitive ways of knowing.

Question: The alchemists had a saying about “finding gold in the dung heap” — literally in the shit. In many ways you are mining the dung heaps of our lives for spiritual and psychological gold.

Greenspan: Yes. “Shit happens,” as they say, and it will continue to happen! I think the hardest thing is to feel that the shit is purposeless. This is at the heart of the emotion we call “despair.” Despair is an existential emotion. It occurs when our meaning system gets shattered and we have to construct a new one. But our culture does not value this process. We don’t see any value in the shit. We want to flush it away. It takes courage to allow our faith and meaning to be dismantled. Despair can be a powerful path to the sacred and to a kind of illumination that doesn’t come when we bypass the darkness. As the poet Theodore Roethke put it, “The darkness has its own light.”

Question: You went through a very difficult time with the death of your firstborn son. Did that experience bring about a process of emotional alchemy in your life?

Greenspan: Aaron was not just an ordeal; he was a blessing. His birth and death were my initiation into the ways of the dark goddess and the occasion of a radical spiritual awakening for me. He was born with a serious brain injury and was destined to live only sixty-six days. There was no apparent reason for this. I was healthy, and I’d had a healthy pregnancy. When he was born, I was an agnostic, a social activist, and a humanist, not a “spiritual” person. My life was centered on the women’s movement. I had no ideas about reincarnation or life after death. I could never have predicted what happened with Aaron.

I remember looking in the mirror on the morning of Aaron’s burial and thinking, I am going to bury my son today. There was an absolute clarity to this. So much of the time our consciousness is not grounded in reality, but at that moment I was able to accept reality. Then, at the cemetery, when we buried Aaron, I heard this clear voice that said, You are looking in the wrong place. I had been looking down at the casket, and when I heard the voice, I raised my eyes. And, looking up, I saw Aaron’s spirit, which I can only describe as a magnificent radiance — like the energy I’d seen in his eyes, only magnified. And the message was that he was ok. I was flooded with a sense of peace. It’s hard to describe because we have no language for these kinds of experiences of spirit. I wouldn’t wish this kind of grief on anyone, yet at the same time, experiencing a baby’s death in your arms and then seeing his spirit leaves you profoundly changed: I became a more grateful person. What I know about emotional alchemy grew from this ground.

Question: I have a friend who recently underwent intensive treatment for cancer that involved a period of isolation — to protect his immune system — and massive chemotherapy. During that time he prayed, meditated, read spiritual writings, and generally stayed “positive.” He felt a great deal of gratitude for his life and for his family and friends, and he kept his mind focused on uplifting things. His approach was an inspiration to me. It was also in keeping with the latest research that suggests negative emotions can make us sick. How does this fit with your idea of healing?

Greenspan: The sacred path of the dark emotions is certainly not the only path there is. It is the path we are on when we are on it, which is usually when we can’t avoid it. But journeys through dark emotions aren’t incompatible with the ability to focus on the light. My daughter Esther went through two spinal-fusion surgeries within one month. If she hadn’t had the surgeries, she would not have lived, but there was no guarantee that she would survive the procedures either. While she was in the hospital, my husband and I tried to be a source of positive energy for her, because it was not the time or place for us to be communicating fear and sorrow. It wasn’t that we didn’t feel scared, but we needed to keep her spirits up. There are times when connecting with “positive” forces, whether through friendships, or reading, or prayer, or simply keeping your sense of humor, is essential. There really is no duality here.

The ability to journey through the dark emotions brings with it the benefit of being more open to the emotions we call “positive,” including joy, pleasure, wonder, awe, and love. When I teach workshops, participants cry, but they also laugh. There is a surprising amount of laughter and humor and just plain fun that comes out of this work.

Question: Do you think negative emotions can make us sick?

Greenspan: Yes, I do, when they are unattended to. When we don’t know how to handle their intense energies, they can become stuck. Research shows that depression and anxiety have a connection to heart disease, immune disorders, cancer, and other ailments. This doesn’t mean that emotions cause cancer. Thinking so makes it easier to ignore research on how environmental contaminants, for instance, are linked to cancer. But stuck emotions do put stress on the body. That’s one reason why mindfulness and the metabolism of emotions are so important. If we don’t digest the emotion, it just sits in our bodies and contributes to ill health.

Question: Is all depression a result of avoiding the dark emotions?

Greenspan: A lot of it is, I think, but certainly not all. Depression is a complex biochemical, psychological, social, and spiritual condition. We call it an “illness” because our culture favors the medical model of explanation. Though it’s perfectly true that depression is correlated with a drop in serotonin levels, this doesn’t mean that serotonin deficiency causes depression. This kind of scientistic reductionism is one of the main drawbacks of our culture’s way of thinking about human problems. Depression is correlated to a lot of things — including gender and a poor economy. It’s also important to make a distinction between despair and depression. Despair is a discrete emotion that, like all emotions, comes and goes; depression is an overall mental and physical state that we might say is chronic, stuck despair.

Question: I think we all want to believe that if we do things “right” — eat the right diet, follow the right spiritual practice, choose the right mode of living — we will be protected somehow from the calamities of life. I have a number of clients in my own therapy practice, for example, who were shocked and hurt to find themselves in the midst of a breakdown even after having done everything right. It was as if life had betrayed them somehow.

Greenspan: I think this is a particularly American mindset, this notion that if we get it all right, we won’t suffer at all. We have even assimilated some Eastern practices through this lens, using them as a strategy for avoiding suffering. We have a hard time tolerating uncertainty. And there is so much uncertainty in this age of terror and environmental crisis. We want to believe there is something we can do that will guarantee a positive outcome and keep us safe. This is an illusion, of course, but sometimes we need our illusions to get us through the day. The illusion I’d had before my son was born was that if I had a healthy pregnancy, exercised, did yoga, and ate well, then everything would turn out fine. I’d even lived with the illusion that because my family history of genocide had involved so much suffering, somehow I would be spared any extreme suffering myself. But my child died, and nobody knew why. I wondered why for a long time. But at some point I realized that “Why?” was the wrong question. There was never going to be an answer. Instead the question was “How?” — how was I going to live now? Illusions are a false way to feel safe. But there is no guaranteed safety. Life is inherently risky, and all we can really do is live well.

Question: For those of us who pursue a spiritual practice, there can be a sense of shame or failure when we feel sad or afraid; if we were enlightened enough, we think, we’d always approach life with a calm, loving heart.

Greenspan: Yes, we carry this mistaken belief that enlightenment means we do not suffer anymore. But it is possible to suffer with a calm, loving heart. These two are not mutually exclusive. Enlightenment for me is about growing in compassion, and compassion means “suffering with.” Enlightenment has something to do with not running from our own pain or the pain of others. When we don’t turn away from pain, we open our hearts and are more able to connect to the best part of ourselves and others — because every human being knows pain. I’m not sure what enlightenment is, but I’m sure it has something to do with turning pain into love.

People with a spiritual practice sometimes try to “transcend” suffering. I call this a “spiritual bypass.” It’s different from what your friend did: focusing on the positive while going through chemotherapy. That was essential to his survival. A spiritual bypass is not a conscious choice; it’s avoiding difficult feelings by “rising above” them, when we are really not above them at all: To truly rise above, most of the time, we must go through. I think there is such a thing as genuine transcendence, but in my experience it is most often a form of grace; we can’t make it happen. A spiritual bypass is a kind of false transcendence. Some New Age ideas carry this flavor: they deny the evils of the world and claim that only love and light are real. This amounts to a dismissal of the pain of millions of people.

Question: Psychologist James Hillman has said, “We cannot be cured apart from the planet.” You point out that our psychological theories — and perhaps some of our spiritual ones as well — emphasize individualism to the point that we have become myopic. Our world is suffering while we struggle to fix ourselves.

Greenspan: One of the main aspects of this myopia is that we don’t see the connection between our “personal” sorrow, fear, and despair and the pain of the world. We think that we are totally alone in it. And the isolation makes our emotions useless to us. There’s a connection between not being able to tolerate our own pain and wanting to look away from other people’s pain and the pain of the world. But the world is always with us. Emotional energy is collective and transpersonal; our seemingly private pain is connected to the larger context that I call “emotional ecology.” I think many of us have a profound emotional sense of global crisis, of the brokenheartedness of the world, and it affects us in ways that we don’t discern.

Of course, we are only human, and sometimes we need to look away, because the pain and chaos are just too much. We numb ourselves — all of us do — to get through the day, to protect ourselves. But psychic numbing is not pleasant — we don’t really feel alive — and it deprives us of our ability to act. Each of us has some gift to give the world. When we become numb, we lose that potential, and the world loses out, too. Staying open-hearted in this era of global threat is really a challenge. Again, my parents have been my models. During the Holocaust, they saw firsthand the worst that humans can do. My father lost eight of his eleven siblings and the rest of his family. But the Holocaust did not destroy his extraordinary openheartedness. He told me once that, after the war, he considered killing some Germans and then killing himself. This was shocking to me; he was such a gentle, loving, and generous man. He had his demons to deal with, but, in the end, he chose to live and raise a family, to put his faith in life. He knew how to maintain a strong connection to the life force even in the midst of a maelstrom of hard emotions.

Question: Even if we’re convinced of the connections between our emotional states and the state of the world, many of us would feel embarrassed to say, “I feel sad today because of the bombings in Iraq,” or, “I’m depressed because of the shrinking ice in Antarctica.”

Greenspan: True, there is no public forum in which we can make statements like this. For that matter, there is very little private space, either. This really is a hindrance — that we do not have an acceptable way to express our sorrow on behalf of the world. We can speak about specific events, like 9/11, but only for a short time, and then the topic is exhausted. There is a taboo about revealing one’s personal emotions about the world — even in a presumably receptive setting. I once took a yoga class in which we were encouraged to state our prayers at the beginning of class. Many people prayed for inner peace. One morning, after having read about the hole in the ozone layer, I prayed for the world. After class, someone angrily said to me, “Why are you bringing the world into the room?” I was baffled and told her that, as I saw it, the world was already in the room, and the room was in the world.

Question: Does the world need us to have feelings about it?

Greenspan: I think so. When I was in retreat at Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health years ago, I had this mystical experience with a beautiful tree. I call myself a “reluctant mystic,” by the way, because I’ve had so many mystical experiences, clairvoyant dreams, and visions that have come to me unbidden. Some of them haven’t been welcome, and none of them can be understood with the analytic mind.

Anyway, at Kripalu, I was walking through this lovely meadow, and I felt a gentle tapping on my shoulder. When I turned around, there was no one there, but I found myself gazing at this spectacular Camperdown-elm tree. I felt as though the tree was calling me, so off I went to it. I touched the tree and had a kind of erotic experience of interspecies communication — of exchanging life forces with it. I felt nourished by the tree and felt that I was giving nourishment in return. After a while I noticed that many of the tree’s leaves had holes in them. I was concerned that the tree might be sick in some way, so I went in search of the groundskeeper, who told me that the elm trees on the property had gotten sick and died. The community had prayed for this tree, because they loved it so much, and it was the sole survivor of the elm disease.

I grew up in the South Bronx and haven’t had extensive experience in nature, but I can tell you that communion with nature is more than just a poetic phrase. One of the most tragic things about our age is that we have lost this communion, and its wonder. With each generation, we lose more of it, and that loss is making us more and more anxious and depressed.

Question: In your book you use the word intervulnerability.

Greenspan: When I say we are “intervulnerable,” I mean we suffer together, whether consciously or unconsciously. Albert Einstein called the idea of a separate self an “optical delusion of consciousness.” Martin Luther King Jr. said that we are all connected in an “inescapable web of mutuality.” There’s no way out, though we try to escape by armoring ourselves against pain and in the process diminishing our lives and our consciousness. But in our intervulnerability is our salvation, because awareness of the mutuality of suffering impels us to search for ways to heal the whole, rather than encase ourselves in a bubble of denial and impossible individualism. At this point in history, it seems that we will either destroy ourselves or find a way to build a sustainable life together.

Question: Just after 9/11, the New Yorker devoted its back page to a poem by Adam Zagajewski titled “Try to Praise the Mutilated World.” I’m sure I am not the only one who had that poem taped to the refrigerator for months after the attacks. In many ways, the path you propose mirrors the poem’s sentiment: we must try to love the mutilated parts of ourselves, just as we must try to love the mutilated parts of our world.

Greenspan: Our mutilated parts and those of the world are interwoven. If we have a child who is crying and needs our attention, we don’t just tell her to “stay positive.” We turn our loving attention to what’s hurting her. We may also try to distract her with an ice-cream cone or a toy, and that’s ok, too. But it’s important that we tend to the parts that are crying. There are so many wounded parts of the world right now, and they keep telling us that they need our loving attention.

Miriam Greenspan holds degrees from Northeastern University, Columbia University, and Brandeis University, and she served on the editorial board of the journal Women and Therapy for a decade. Her first book, A New Approach to Women and Therapy (McGraw-Hill), helped define the field of women’s psychology and feminist therapy in the early eighties. In her most recent book, Healing through the Dark Emotions: The Wisdom of Grief, Fear, and Despair, she argues passionately that the avoidance of the dark emotions is behind the escalating levels of depression, addiction, anxiety, and irrational violence in the U.S. and throughout the world.

Her therapeutic approach encourages what she calls “emotional alchemy,” a process by which fear can be transformed into joy, grief into gratitude, and despair into a resilient faith in life. She questions the prevailing psychiatric attitude toward grief and despair, which relies heavily upon psychopharmacology to return us as quickly as possible to a “normal” state. Her focus is on transformation rather than normalcy.

This interview first appeared in the January 2008 edition of The Sun Magazine. All rights are reserved by The Sun.



When Crap Befalls Decent People

How can we continue to believe in God when good people are beset by bad stuff and tragedies?  Read this excellent blog from Beyond Blue sprinkled with wise insights from Rabbi Harold Kushner

The Swampland: An Interview with Dr. James Hollis about Depression in the Law

Dan:  What is depression?

Jim:   I think first of all we have to differentiate between depressions because it‘s a blanket term which is used to describe many different experiences, different contexts and different internalized experiences of people.  First of all, there is the kind of depression that is driven by biological sources and it is still a mystery as to how that works.  We know it affects a certain number of people in profound ways.   Second, there is reactive depression which is the experience of a person who has suffered loss and as we invest energy in a relationship or a situation and for whatever reason, that other is taken away from us, that energy that was attached to him will invert as depression.  Reactive depression is actually normal.

We would have to figure out where that fine line is and where it might cross over into something that was more than normal.  When we say that a person is grieving too long or it is affecting their lives so profoundly, that’s a judgment call, of course, but we do know people that have been sort of destroyed by reactive depression because they had attached so much of their identity to the other, whatever it might be: a position in life that they lost or a relationship that was important.

But I think none of us can avoid occasional reactive depressions because life is a series of attachments and losses.  Most commonly, when we think about depression, however, we are really looking at a king of intra-psychic phenomenon where we might say there are parts of ourselves that are contending with each other.

If you think lawyers have to deal with outer-litigation, there is inner-litigation going on continuously as we are subject to a lot of interpersonal strife and conflict between values.  For example, there are conflicts of duty and we have an obligation to many competing values within us.  I mean, one of the most obvious duties that we all live with is that you have to earn a living to support yourself and your family and on the other hand, the price of the particular way in which you are doing it is psychologically and perhaps, physically, costly to you.  So already, there is a significant conflict there.  If the ego continues to override that conflict without addressing it, we could expect the symptoms, including the symptoms associated with depression, to show up.

In effect, the good news and the bad news are the same here in the sense that the psyche is not passive, it’s active, it’s continuously expressing its point of view and it is manifesting in our body which is somatic issues in our emotional life,  in our behaviors and of course, in our dream life.  Those expressions of opinion are often something we call “symptoms” in the contemporary mindset and we want to sort of replace symptoms as quickly as possible and that is understandable.  At the same time, the real question is why have they come, what is our own psyche trying to say to us.   Or, put it another way, for what reason is my psyche refusing to cooperate with the agenda that my conscious life has addressed and emerged into?

The withdrawal of energy is often profoundly conflictual within and produces a lot of suffering.  The more I might push myself, the more depressed I might get.  So from a psycho-dynamic standpoint, you would say, well, what really is the value conflict here and how is it that we can learn from the psyche and what we might consider a more appropriate set of choices for you.

Dan:  You know, from what I have seen and from what I have researched, about 10% of the U.S. population suffers from depression.  There have been a couple studies actually about lawyers and law students with depression that show that as many as 40% of law students in America at some point during their 3-year career as law students will deal with depression. Out of the million lawyers in America, about 28% suffer from some type of depression or about a whopping 280,000 lawyers. A recent study on law students is equally troubling: 17% screened positive for depression.

What do you think explains that Jim? What is it about the legal profession that explains an almost tripling of the rate of depression for those in the law?

Jim:   It is hard to generalize.  We would have to look at each individual lawyer on a very personal basis to see what are the factors involved there, but I might say sort of categorically that the legal profession is, by its nature, adversarial and I have known many fine human beings who were lawyers who inwardly suffered when they were in conflictual situations.   I recall one lawyer who I worked with many years ago in another part of the country who was torn by conflict within his family.  He became a lawyer and then he became severely depressed because exactly that kind of conflict that he had suffered so much in his personal life was replicated in his professional life.  He said to me that if I got to trial and failed to settle it, that he was personally a failure.

When I asked him what he meant, you meant, he said, “My whole job is to try to work it out beforehand. Of course, he played that mediatorial role between his parents at some point earlier in his life and so I realized in many ways, his depression was rising from the fact that he was driven into  a role in his family of origin and he identified with that role,  and it sort of rolled over into his adult sense of profession and he chose the law in good faith, but  it was really the unconscious complex that was making the choices for him and to his credit, he was able to look at that and frankly leave the profession and become an educator which is what his real enthusiasm was for.

I would say that first of all, we have to recognize that one is always pitted against someone else in the law. It is seldom a cooperative operation and for some people, they would thrive in that, but for many people, that is a source of great internal stress.   Secondly, many times, lawyers – – like physicians- – are increasingly really prisoners of systems of what appears to be an empowered profession.  It is often one that is highly constricted and constantly scrutinized in having to be reporting all the time to one authority or another, so one can often experience some loss of personal authority and personal autonomy.

Thirdly, with lawyers, there is always this sense in which one has to question, what am I serving really.  Theoretically, the law asks us to serve others with impartiality and everyone deserves a right to a hearing, and these are laudable values, of course.  But, I think often what one can feel is that one is in a compromised position in the first place.  Again, for some people that can cause great internal conflict.  One can even feel that one has in effect, prostituted one’s conscience at times, or one’s talents and that too weighs heavily on lawyers.

But, I would have to say, in each person’s life, we would have to look at what are the factors. There are obviously people who are psychologically appropriate for the various natures of the work.  I know there are many aspects of the law and we would have to try to identify what is the psychology of the person coming into that.  In my profession of psychotherapy, there are many who come from very troubled backgrounds.

They often got identified as children as helpers, mediators, as persons who had to sacrifice their own interests on behalf of stabilizing their environment.  So there is a high rate of depression and stress, burn-out and substance abuse among therapists as well and also the nursing professions and all the professions where you might say is a caregiving function or a service function that one will often find one’s own psychological history exacerbated, intensified and even worsened.

Dan:  I would like to read a brief passage from your wonderful book, “What Matters Most: Living a More Considered Life“.  In there you write:

“The recovery of personal authority is critical to conduct in a reconstruction of the second half of life.    If we are a little more than our adaptations, then we collude with happenstance and remain prisoners of fate.  No matter how sovereign we believe we are, we remain the loneliest of surfs to the tyrannies of whatever remains unconscious”.

I think one of the things that I found interesting, as I read further on in the book, is your notion of psychological adaptions and how they relate to somebody who is suffering from depression.  Can you elaborate on what role adaptations serve with depression?

Jim:   Well the fact that we have survived as individuals and also a species in an often very difficult environment is a function of our capacity of that adaptation. Without the ability to adapt one would be destroyed by the conditions of life. But then, you see, to some degree one’s becoming identified by whatever the environmental factors were that necessitated that adaptation, what happens is through repetition or the fact that these adaptations often occur very early in life, I mean adaptation such as avoidance patterns or the way our engagement with others works out or our compliance adaptations and so forth, these often tend to get replicated a lot and become sort of behavioral systems within each of us.

So that we can fast forward several decades and find ourselves really the creatures of these adaptive patterns: patterns that were once protective, but because they keep getting applied to new situations become constrictive and oblige repetition.

Sigmund Freud noted early that the power of the repetition of compulsion and the power of programming within each of us. The problem of the unconscious, of course, is that we can’t say anything about it definitively and yet these behaviors and their patterns keep falling into the world from us so therefore we would have to admit that they are coming from us and therefore, we have some accountability for it.  

And so, as a therapist, one of the things that we look to discern is what are the patterns that are coming out of this person’s life, from where they might they come and then to make these adaptations more conscious and to see how they get systematized,  and then at some very profound  level, we could see a person who is operating  in a very powerful position outwardly can, in fact, be enslaved  to the messages of decades ago.  What he believes is his free choice is often his protective mechanisms and again, they are there for good reasons, but they completely ignore the fact that the individual has grown up.

He now has a consciousness, he has an empowerment, he has a capacity for resilience that were not present in the life of the child and therefore, there is a kind of unconscious regression every time one of these implicit messages takes over consciousness, so, until we can begin to recognize what are the silent messages to which we are in service, we remain prisoners of history and the very adaptations that were necessary during our childhoods are now constricting agencies.  Working through that and stepping into risk, stepping into an enlargement of vision and honoring the desires within us that wish to be expressed through us into the world.

Sounds simple in the abstract, but in fact people often find is that their most difficult obstacle are their old fear-based adaptations that once were necessary long ago, but today are binding us to a disabling past.

Dan:  Here’s another quote I would like to read from your book, What Matters Most:

“All of us feel shamed by life. All of us consider ourselves failures of some kind, screw ups in something really important to us.  Notice how shame, consciously or unconsciously pulls us away from risk, ratifies our negative sense of worth through self-sabotage or compels us into frenetic efforts of overcompensation or yearning for the validation from others that never comes; how much each of us needs to remember one definition of grace as accepting the fact that we are accepted despite the fact that we are unacceptable”.

It is just a beautiful passage that I think captures so much.  A lot of your writing addresses the issues and problems that all of us must face at mid-life.  Can you talk about that some more? What connection does shame have to do with all of this, with depression suffering and so forth?

Jim:  I would like to respond to two things.  Before we hit mid-life, we often identify with those adaptations that carry us into our lives and create relationships, professions and life patterns.   Then by mid-life, we can typically no-longer ignore the protest that may be coming from within us or in our marriages or in our other behaviors.  It is at that point one might begin to question what is going here really.  “Who am I, apart from my history? Who am I, apart from my roles?”

It can lead to a very interesting conversation which can, in turn, lead to some significant changes and a greater freedom in the second half of life.  But, I think most people feel shame.  Now, the difference between shame and guilt is that with guilt we feel that we are accountable for something we did or failed to do and often that has a powerful effect on people’s lives.  But shame is a feeling that who I am in itself is not sufficient or it is contaminated in some way.

So people can be shamed by the conditions of their birth or the conditions of their family origin or by events that occurred in a person’s life wherein he or she feels that they were insufficient or inadequate.  The kind of generosity or forgiveness or acceptance we would give to another is often very hard to give to ourselves and so typically what we do is we double our work or try to anesthetize our suffering.

But I think shame is an often neglected feature in peoples’ lives and will show up in two primary ways. One is through patterns of avoidance and hiding out from the life we want to live.  The other is grandiosity which is an over-compensation so that one has to continuously try to prove one’s worth to others and that exertion, in the end, leads to greater and greater sense of frustration and emptiness.

Since we are often not conscious of any of this, whatever accomplishments are there are never enough.  It can drive a person higher and higher and higher in his or her efforts to demonstrate personal worth as a treatment plan for guilt.  That person remains very much hooked by that which invariably leads to excess and then leads to consequences which again feeds the shame cycle again.    I think one of the hardest things in life, in addition to recovering personal authority, is learning self-forgiveness and self-acceptance. These are not easy things because they must include honest accountability for choices made, choices not made and for consequences that are choices produced.

Dan:  Jim, would it be fair to say many successful people or those who strive for success, in some way continually over-compensate in their lives and careers?  And when they, in some sense fail to meet these unconscious goals of success, however well or fully defined, they feel shame? It seems to me that this is a reality for a lot of lawyers who are engaged in a very competitive, win-loss type of career.  And they often do not have a place to go to work that through.

Jim:   That’s right.  I think most folks have seen the film, Citizen Kane. That whole story basically was a portrait based on the life of overcompensation; a power-driven person who is still compensating for the conditions of poverty and shame of his childhood.   If one could have unlocked that secret early, his path in life might have been less destructive and less driven by demons, so to speak.

Frankly, that’s the role of therapy. I believe therapy is such an important means by which one can have a conversation with oneself.  Too often, people associate therapy with some grand pathology.  But I think if we explore it rather as a kind of encounter with one’s deepest self, that one will begin to realize that I myself am a mystery, I am a complexity, I am a richness of which I know only a small portion from a conscious standpoint.  It is not about self-absorption or narcissism.

Quite the contrary, it is a humble dialog with a therapist. And then one becomes, frankly, less dangerous to the world. We become a more available partner, spouse, parent, and colleague and I think can begin to zero in on what really does matter to us, what choices we are making.

Dan:  One of the things I took away from your book is the idea that most of us, on an unconscious level, believe that life is a problem to be solved rather than mysteries to be lived.

I think that this insight has helped alleviate a lot of my depression and others I know.  With depression, there’s so much ruminative thinking.  We get caught in this vicious circle of trying to solve depression.  Or, in a greater context, larger issues such as, “Why was I born into a family with an alcoholic father?  Or, “Why am I such a screw-up?” We try to answer these negative questions over and over again.  But these are questions with no true answers.

Jim:   I think that we need to realize that suffering depressions – – and I put that in the plural- – is actually a normal human experience and highly functioning people and capable people often have what I would call “pockets of depression” and yet are not governed by it.

These pockets of depression have to do with real losses they have experienced in their lives or the experience of internal conflicts.  The human condition itself involves suffering and we always have to ask a question, “Is the way in which I am experiencing my suffering and my conflict, is it leading me to a larger life or is it leading me to a smaller life?”  “Does it enlarge me or does it diminish me?”

And I think we usually know the answer to that question.  The flight from suffering leads to an inauthentic life, to a superficial life.  So, I think it’s important to recognize that in the course of our journey, we will, from time to time, visit what I call “The Swampland of the Soul”. And in every swampland, there is a task and if we can identify that task and address it, it can lead us out of victimhood and into a large consciousness.

One of them is depression.  So again, we have to remember that the word means “to press down”.  So, we must ask ourselves, “What is being pressed down?” “What energy, what value, what agenda, what desire is being pressed down and are we the unwitting agencies of that oppression or is it something that has happened to us along the way with which we identified and what life wishes to be served? And in many cases, people, by just asking these questions, will be led to a larger life, a change, if not a change of direction or course in life, a change in some of the attitudes with which they address daily life.

James Hollis, Ph.D. was born in Springfield, Illinois. He graduated with an A.B. from Manchester College in 1962 and with a Ph.D. from Drew University in 1967. He taught the Humanities 26 years in various colleges and universities before retraining as a Jungian analyst at the Jung Institute of Zurich, Switzerland (1977-82). He is a licensed Jungian analyst in private practice in Houston, Texas, where he served as Executive Director of the Jung Educational Center of Houston from 1997-2008. He is a retired Senior Training Analyst for the Inter-Regional Society of Jungian Analysts, was the first Director of Training of the Philadelphia Jung Institute, and is vice president emeritus of the Philemon Foundation, which is dedicated to the publication of the complete works of Jung. In addition to the book “Living a More Considered Life: What Matters Most,” he is the author of “Finding Meaning in the Second Half of Life: How to Finally, Really Grow Up“.


An Interview with Will Meyerhofer About Depression in the Legal Profession

Will Meyerhofer, JD LCSW, is an author and a psychotherapist in private practice in NYC.  He holds degrees from Harvard, NYU School of Law and The Hunter College School of Social Work.  Following law school, he worked as an associate at the BigLaw firm of Sullivan & Cromwell in New York City before becoming a therapist. He is also the creator of the website and blog The Peoples’ Therapist.  I spoke with Will about what depression is, how it forms and why so many lawyers are afflicted by it.

Dan:  As someone who has suffered from depression and treats people for depression, what is depression and how does it develop?

Will:  When Freud was asked why he went into neurology, and medicine, the career which developed, for him, into psychoanalysis, he said he was inspired by Charles Darwin’s astonishing breakthrough with the theory of evolution.  Freud was an admirer of Darwin.  That’s relevant, because evolution, I believe, plays an important role in depression.  Depression is an evolutionary adaptation of humankind gone wrong.

It’s a bit like Sickle Cell Anemia, which is actually an adaptation in our blood intended to prevent Malaria.  Unfortunately, that adaptation can also go too far and result in a harmful blood disorder.

Human beings have an enormously long childhood – the period of dependency following birth.  That is chiefly due to our single most important adaptation – large brains, which at full size, would never fit through the birth canal.  So we are born with a partially developed brain, about a third of its full size.  As a result, our brains require a strikingly long period following birth– at least compared to most other higher species – to develop and mature.  During that time, we’re utterly helpless.  Many species are born, brush themselves off, and a couple of hours or days later, they are up and running around – just think of horses birthing foals.  That’s not true for people.  Humans take 10-14 years before they’re in any shape to take care of themselves.  Our brains don’t even reach their full size until we’re about 6 years old.

Dan:  What does this long period of childhood have to do with depression?

Will:  We humans experience a very long period in our lives in which we demand and require enormous amounts of care in order to survive.  Otherwise we’d die.  Little children comprehend that situation on a cellular level.  If you walk away from a little child – make it clear that you are planning to abandon him for any length of time – that little child is going to absolutely flip; he is going to scream so loudly it will peel the paint off the walls.  That’s because he knows he could die if he is abandoned.  A child will always experience solitude as abandonment.  To put it bluntly – the role of a human child is to please.  It’s more intense for humans than for other life forms, because we require a lot more care and for a much longer period of time.  Reptiles lay eggs and disappear.  They might even feed on their own young and not think much of it.  But mammals need care – milk from the mother.  And of all the mammals, humans need the most care – years and years of it.  So humans spend many years learning to please.  We grow up with this directive to please – and blame ourselves if we fail at that task.  It gets coded into our brains and becomes a trained behavior, an instinct.  Keep in mind, the threat of death is real.  Historically, as a species, humans display high rates of infanticide.  This phenomenon exists in many species.  Birds often cull their young, and throw hatchlings out of the nest if there is insufficient food.  But with humans, because we require so much care in our early years, if things are bad, it would not be uncommon to take a child who is disfavored – perhaps an illegitimate or disabled or otherwise undesirable child – and leave it out in the woods to die or simply abandon it as a street urchin.  It is incumbent upon every human child to please so he can receive care and survive.

Ok, so how does this apply to depression?  Under stress, humans regress – they fall back instinctively into old, unconscious behaviors acquired during childhood.  In our case, that means falling back into the childhood pattern of locating the fault within –  feeling that you’ve failed to please, and that if you’re not pleasing, you are going to die.  So, when you are under stress and things aren’t going well for you, you blame yourself – it must be your fault.  Instead of acting like an adult, and getting angry and thinking – I’m not being treated well, I have a right to get angry and advocate for myself, or take care of myself, if no one else is going to do it – instead of that healthy, adult functioning, it’s the old regression, to “I’ve failed.  It’s my fault.  I’ll die because I’ve failed to please.”

An adult – unlike a child – does not have to experience solitude as abandonment.  You can say I am an adult.  I am independent.  I can take care of myself.  Not only that, I can choose an environment that’s healthy for me and I can reassure myself.  I can self-sooth, I can self-parent.  I can say to myself, hey you are a good person, come on.  You choose who you are going to be each day. You are proud of who you are. You make that determination.  You make that judgment whether you are worthy of being valued and receiving care each day.  And you can tell yourself, Hey cheer up, you are going to get through this.  You’re going to surround yourself with people who value you because that’s what you deserve and you are going to take care of yourself.  And you can feel angry if you’re not receiving the care you deserve.  That – in a nutshell – is how you address depression.  You snap out of the regression to behaving like a dependent child and become an adult, a parent for your own child.

Dan: What signs do you look for to diagnose depression?

Will:  There are two major indicators for depression that give it away each and every time.

First, I see an absence of appropriate anger.  A child does not get angry when the parent fails to provide him with suitable care – the child sees himself as helpless.  You can’t get angry at someone if you need them desperately, the way a child needs a parent.  It’s not where the hell are you, I need a feeding, my diaper needs to be changed.   Instead, the child’s in absolute panic and thinking I’m bad, I’m bad, I’ve failed here, I have failed to please – now they’ll leave me to die.  That is the first characteristic of depression – absence of appropriate anger.  If I ask a depressed client “Are you angry right now?” I’ll always hear the same answer.  It will be always be some variation of “I’m only angry at myself.”  The rest of that statement would be “. . . because I’ve failed to please and can’t survive on my own.”

The Second indicator of depression is a dismantling of a person’s self-esteem apparatus. There’s no sense of pride in yourself or a sense of value in who you are and what you do. You think I failed, I hate being me.  A depressed person will insist, over and over again –I’m only angry at myself.  I don’t like who I am.”  That’s because the depressed person’s fantasy is to escape into someone else – someone who will please, and therefore be worthy of care – and survival.

Dan:  The absence of appropriate anger and a dismantled self-esteem.  I think those are two things that people on the street and even lawyers would associate with lawyers. We expect them to be tough and strong.  We expect them to have high self-esteem and take pride in what they do. In your experience, why is the exact opposite true for lawyers struggling with depression?

Will:  At a law firm, you are reduced to a child-like helplessness.  You have no right to speak your mind, to self-advocate – to stand up to authority.  Instead, you go helpless, and try to please.  Any anger, if it is acknowledged to any degree, is tightly bottled.  You can’t show it.  The environment at law firms is uptight, rigid and extremely constrained.  You can’t say to the partner – “Oh, for heaven sake, it’s Friday – why are you bothering me with this?”  You say – “Yes, sir.  I’ll do it right away.”  If the partner – who is clearly exploiting you to make money – announces you are going to be working all weekend, you say “Absolutely, no problem.”   You do not put up any kind of a fight.  Lawyers, especially young lawyers, imagine themselves as helpless as young children in the law firm environment – utterly dependent on the partners, utterly incapable of advocating for themselves, or providing themselves with the care they need on their own.  They permit themselves to be abused in an extremely toxic, exploitative environment – they often don’t even seem to realize they’re being abused.  They’re too busy attempting to please their abusers.

Dan:  Will, you treat a lot of lawyers with depression.  Is depression in some way different for lawyers?  Are there different causes for their depression?

Will:  If I were to design an environment specifically to create depression, I would design a law firm.  The reason is that lawyers are pleasers.  A lawyer tends to be the kid with the best grades in the class – a generalist whose primary skill is getting good grades – pleasing teachers.   If you are really good at math, you become a mathematician or a scientist.  If you are particularly skilled on the violin, you become a musician.  But if you get an “A” in everything, then your only skill set is getting good grades – and to monetize that skill set, you wind up heading to law school.  That’s pretty much how I did it.  I got into Harvard and then went on to NYU Law.  I wasn’t spectacular at any one thing – I was a generalist.   I was also the teacher’s pet.  I was an excellent student – but what is an excellent student?  It’s someone who gives the teachers what they want. Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, they dropped out of Harvard, they weren’t good students – because they – and others like them – were geniuses, and entrepreneurs, not good students.  Lots of geniuses drop out of college – it’s a common feature they share.  They’re not pleasers. Einstein struggled to complete the academic rigamarole required to get a teaching post – he was too busy re-inventing physics.

Lawyers tend to be good students.  A genius or an entrepreneur – an individualist – says I’m going to do it my own way and the hell with you.  Screw Harvard. I don’t need it.   This is in contrast to lawyer, the pleaser – the type of person who says I’m going to compete viciously with my peers and get straight A’s at Harvard and then go to a top law school and compete some more to get more straight A’s and then get a job at a top law firm and keep on competing.  What happens to a pleaser when you get to these top firms? You do what you are told.  And you compete.  That’s a very typical lawyer behavior – you are essentially pleasing partners who are replacements for your parents and teachers, what therapists call the idealized parent object, the primary object – the person you’re programmed to please.  And you are killing off your peers – the other children who compete for parental attention and care.

Dan:  Big firms then have collections of pleasers and demanding partners.  What does that do to the psyche of a lawyer?

Will:  A law firm takes all these pleasers, herds all these kids who have always gotten A’s, and concentrates them in one giant feeding lot.  So you have an entire law firm stocked with pleasers, and no one to please!  There are no more teachersThe partners are the closest thing to a parent-object, and they’re overgrown pleasers themselves.   It ends up with everyone competing with everyone else and everyone feeling like they’re failing.  Throwing people under the bus is not a management technique except in a law firm.   Anyone who’s ever worked in big law firms will tell you that folks get thrown under the bus every day at those places.  It’s the antithesis of good management.   That’s because they’re all competing – no one is stepping back and getting pleased, and saying – hey, you’re doing a terrific job!  Good management is a requirement for happiness at a workplace.  Everyone seems to realize that but lawyers.  Employees need to feel supported, appreciated and motivated.  They’ll do better work if they believe they’re good at what they do.  Employees need to feel like they want to come in everyday because they like their workplace.  Every time you walk in, you need to feel like Yeah, I know everybody here, my boss knows me, he respects me, he thanks me for my work.  A good manager understands this – it isn’t rocket science.  A fundamental management principle is that a review process needs to be supportive.  There should be about 90% praise, and the constructive suggestions should be just that – constructive and suggestions.  You don’t get anything remotely resembling that in a law firm because everyone is busy instinctively competing with each other like little baby animals trying to kill off the other baby animals as though they might die if someone else succeeds.  Management technique, at a big law firm, amounts to throwing someone else under a bus, and thinking you feel better afterwards – like, somehow you’re now in a safer position.  It’s madness.

Dan:  Please tell us about your two books.

Will:  My first book, Life is a Brief Opportunity for Joy, actually started out as notes for  young therapists.  I was doing trainings for volunteer counselors at a hospital and I kept repeating the same things over and over to them, explaining anxiety and depression.  So I started with these notes and realized there was a book there that I could use with my clients.  That’s one way to look at therapy – as educating your clients – training them, really, to be therapists themselves, to the extent that they gain an understanding of emotions and how they work.

The first part of the book is about gaining awareness and understanding how anxiety and depression work. The second part tackles applying that knowledge to your life as you live it.

It’s interesting, how I came up with the title.  I wrote this phrase, somewhere around the middle of the book – “Life is a brief opportunity for joy.”  It was a literary agent, later on, who read the book and spotted it and said, that’s your title Will.  It seemed to sum up the entire book.  Let’s face it:  We are all heading to the same place – oblivion – a hole in the ground.  It’s a brief trip and it goes by quickly. Our mission is to be joyous. Life is a gift – it really is.

Many many lawyers make themselves incredibly unhappy. I think sometimes it’s as if they’re determined to make themselves miserable.  And depression is, at its heart, a self- punitive behavior.  You are doing this to yourself.  You are beating yourself up. You are being a bad parent to your inner child, by abandoning him to panic and attack himself for failing to please.

Dan:  So when someone struggles with depression as an adult, they’re basically repeating the maladaptive patterns they learned in childhood – – but this time they’re doing it to themselves.

Will:  Pretty much.  You’re not pleasing others, so you blame yourself for that failure.  You place the fault within and dismantle your self-esteem.  That’s what I did.  Instead of saying to myself maybe I don’t belong here, I kidded myself I did belong there.  The truth is, I never belonged in the legal profession.  I went because of the money and to try to please my mother in some misguided way.  I was a writer and a young therapist, at heart.   I would have become a therapist if my parents had done a better job handling my coming out as a gay man.  I  would have gone into mental health right away because I was fascinated by it.  But my parents hated that I was gay and sent me to a psychiatrist to be “cured.”  That scared me away from mental health, and in the end I wanted to make my parents happy and provide them all the money and the status to compensate for being gay.  I didn’t even understand what law was. I just went into it blindly thinking well, okay, status and money.

Dan:  Now, tell us about the second book and why you wrote it?

Will:  Well, the second book has a silly title, Way Worse than Being a Dentist: The Lawyer’s Quest for Meaning.  I have a literary agent friend who always seems to come up with my titles and she came up with this one, too.  We were kidding over coffee and I said, well basically, if you’re not smart enough to get into medical school, you have two choices.  You can aim a little lower and go to dental school or you can become a lawyer.  Weirdly enough, I’ve had people write me who read the book and said “You know, I went into dentistry and I am glad I did.”  Or, “I went law and damn I should have gone into dentistry.

So that was the idea – you should have been a dentist.  There are people who bash dentists and talk about their high rate of suicide or depression.  In actuality, I think that’s a myth.  The dentists I know are fascinated by it and doing a lot of good for people.  I have a bunch of dentist friends.

But anyway, I came up with this silly title and the book was based on a bunch of columns I wrote for Above the Law, along with additional materials that were either too personal or too honest or too long or too – something – to get included in the original published columns.  Every time I wrote a column, I thought of more I wanted to say and I realized I was starting to exorcise my own demons from that very traumatic experience of trying to be a lawyer years before. I dedicated the book to the partners of Sullivan and Cromwell, just for a laugh.  The back photo, if you really look at it, is my firm’s facebook photo from my very first day at Sullivan. They took my photo in a suit and tie – I was terrified, but trying to look confident and successful.

Dan:  Give us just a few thoughts or ideas about how lawyers can recover from depression.

Will:  First of all:  Remember who you are.  I had a friend at the firm, years ago, a brilliant guy. He went to Yale Law School and then onto Sullivan and Cromwell.  I remember him looking at me one day as if he were saying the most forbidden thing he could ever admit: “Will I just don’t think I’m very good at this.”  And I remember thinking, God, that’s how I feel.  This guy was so accomplished and I thought, My God, they have really torn him down. He has forgotten who he is. I told him “Look at your record. You were a Yale undergrad and then Yale Law” and on and on; top of his class in everything and I said “How did they do this to you?”

How do you remember who you are?  There are a couple of things that can help to snap you out of depressive thinking.

One, remember that you are not always right, but you are not always wrong either.  It might not be your fault when things don’t go right at work.  Depressed people tend to put the entire fault on themselves.  Everything is their fault, they failed and they feel they have no right to anger. I always tell my clients “Look, you have the right to have anger, even if you’re just angry that it’s raining outside.  Get angry about something.”  It’s about dignity.  The inherit dignity of being an adult and possessing a right to your own opinion, a right to your anger.

A child doesn’t really get angry.  He gets scared and terrified.  But an adult can say, hey, maybe this isn’t the right environment for me.  I remember someone at Sullivan & Cromwell, at some point, very sadistically telling me, “Maybe you’re not cut out for this place.” At the time I was desperate. I went to my office and wept because I had to be cut out for it. I had to succeed.  Then I realized maybe I am not cut out for this.   And I remember laughing and then I thought Oh my God, there is a way out. I don’t have to please.  I can please myself.  I can remember who I actually am.

I pose this question all the time to my lawyer clients:  Who are you really, inside?  They say “Well, come to think of it, I was an English major, I loved reading, I loved computer games and I always wanted to go bicycling,” or whatever.   It starts to come back and they remember who they are:  “You know, I love to bake cupcakes and I love to go hiking. I’m mad about punk music from the 70’s.”  Whatever floats their boat – their very individual, quirky, personal boat.  And then a person starts to come back to who they really are, to their true self.  That’s the beginning of the end of depression – simply remembering who you are, giving yourself the dignity to be you – not trying to care for yourself by pleasing others, but doing it directly – by caring for yourself, in the way you need to be cared for, the way the child inside you – who celebrates life and drinks deep of joy – needs to be cared for.  That’s how you beat depression.


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