When I first looked into writing this blog I thought I would right it in third-person perspective as I now specialise in anger, stress and emotional management. But depression and anger was a big part in my life so I will write this as a sufferer of both.
I left school with one GCSE above ‘C’ in art, attended three colleges, a failed year at university and had around 20 different jobs. Then in my early twenties I slipped into depression. I had lost my identity, my self-esteem and confidence were at rock bottom and my life was going nowhere.
Did I think anger played a part in me becoming depressed or compounded the symptoms, no not for one minute. Did I shout and scream or get aggressive, no. Aggressive behaviour is only one end of the spectrum; the other end is passive aggression. Both can have a major impact on individuals’ lives and the people around them. The passive side by it’s nature can be hidden and for some they don’t even know the effect it is having on them. Anger is part of our lives; it’s a natural feeling and it’s only in the way we express it that makes it healthy or unhealthy. When I got angry I felt I didn’t want conflict or confrontation so I held it inside of me. I didn’t have the words of the means to express myself in a healthy way, so I ‘contained’ myself.
I looked to the outside world to help me, which we all need but with low self-esteem I relied on others to make me feel better about myself, rather than take responsibility of my own life and actions. I had needs such as being heard, belonging and to be understood. When these needs were not met I felt frustrated, and part of this was anger. Why couldn’t anyone understand me, why can’t they feel how I do and no I can’t just snap out of it! When I looked below the anger I found hurt and below that fear.My fear is that you (a person, society or the world) won’t meet my unmet needs. This fear drove feelings of helplessness, hopelessness and powerlessness, three things that defined my depression. We need to meet our own needs and not assume it’s the responsibility of others. Communicate these needs to others; people are not mind readers.
Another aspect of my depression was shame. Healthy shame is an emotional signal to say we have and will make mistakes, it gives us permission to be human. Toxic shame is the belief in the statement ‘ I am fatally flawed’ and I experienced this in the sense of absence and emptiness. Toxic shame is paradoxical and self-generating; there is shame about shame. I needed others to make me feel better about myself but when they did I didn’t believe them, I was in a cycle of suffering. The only way out of toxic shame is to go through it. There are no short cuts and all the avoidances (bypasses and self-anaesthetisation) are ineffective in the long term. I was not even aware this was happening to me and only now I can look back at my life can I understand the part shame played. But embracing my shame would involve emotional pain and pain is what I thought I was avoiding by not looking at it. We need to change our shame from being internalised to externalising it. Healing the shame is simple but difficult. People will readily admit guilt, hurt or fear before they would admit shame.
I look back at how stress played a part in my depression. Stress is different things to different people. To a mountaineer it is the challenge of going to the limit to achieve a demanding goal. To a homeward bound motorist it can be the hassle of traffic and exhaust fumes. To me it was what finally got me out the bed in the morning to get to work. I suffered by not having too much stress in my life leading to distress, but too little. Hypo-stress is little known and it can be very subtle, but it can be just as harmful as too much stress. I was withdrawn from the world into myself and bored, unmotivated, lethargic, restless and knowing what might help me but could not be bothered to do it. People looking into my world might have seen me as lazy, unsociable and hard to talk to. Stress is an unavoidable part of our lives just as anger is, but it needs to be balanced.
I joined the Royal Navy in 1999 and served twelve years. It started to build the two foundations of emotional health, self-esteem and confidence. My depression still has it’s effect on me now and always will, but having experienced it I feel it has made me a stronger person. Depression is a complex mental health illness and one that is unique as the individual suffering from it. In my personal and professional experience anger and stress are two common themes that run through it and working with them can be a significant factor in promoting recovery.
Externalise your depression, I held onto mine trying to think my way out of it, but that made things worse. Talk to someone and communicate your needs.