Monday, January 27, 2020

She Has It All, but She's Depressed

It’s becoming a pattern. Young women write to New York Magazine advice columnist and resident nitwit, Ask Polly. They are great fans of Polly. They imbibe her advice as though it were an elixir. They have been going to therapy for ages. And yet, they are still miserable. Some are even clinically depressed.

Now, if you were as cynical as I am, you might start thinking that the psycho bromides Polly offers up are actually making people depressed. And you might think that some therapists are aggravating the problem. They want you to feel your feelings, but what if your feelings are… depression. Why would you want to feel them? What advantage would you gain by doubting yourself? 

As I have often remarked, such letters never really tell us enough specific details about the letter writer to draw a very good conclusion. We know that Polly does not really care about the specific facts about anyone’s life. She reduces it all to a bundle of feelings and desires. If that does not depress you, if that does you make you feel disconnected from other human beings, lost and bereft, alone with your feelings… nothing will.

Tellingly, the letter writer who calls herself Too Blessed to Be Stressed opens with this:

I love how you can take people’s problems and strip away the layers to reveal the raw human emotions and desires underneath. Compared to some of the heartbreaking submissions you get, I know I really can’t complain about my life. But that’s why I’m asking for your help.

She is quite right about the madness involved in stripping away layers. It makes one think that the Polly approach involves stripping away layers of clothing. In another place it would be called the Salome complex.

If you do it, you will find yourself naked before the world, stripped of your social being, stripped of your place in a family and a community. You will feel depressed, like a pariah, like an outcast. Isn't that what depression is really all about, the sense of being alone and helpless in the world?

So, TBBS has been working on her problem in therapy. How has that been working out?

I really try to work on this. I’ve been regularly going to therapy for years and have grown tremendously through this process. I read your column and I absorb the words and try to follow your advice — I sit with the negativity, I send kindness to myself for feeling my feelings, I try to get to the core and understand and process and let go. But even with all of this work, this little monster asshole inside of me turns me into a weak woman who cannot handle things. And I don’t just mean that I’m a negative Nancy who complains a lot — I mean that I feel pain, sadness, and stress over the smallest, most inconsequential things. I feel overwhelmed and overstimulated. I feel like my brain is on overdrive. I feel like shutting it down, pressing pause, crawling into bed and hiding from it. I wonder what the point of all of this is.

Being stripped naked before the world is like having thin skin. Having thin skin is simply a sign of depression.

Being thin skinned, TBBS is sitting with the negativity, sending kindness to herself, feeling her feelings, understanding the deeper meaning… it’s the Polly program. But it’s also the therapy program. As I said, it is making her depressed. It cannot do anything else. We will forgive those who are purveying the medicine because they have no idea what they are doing.

Apparently, TBBS now has everything she could ever want and still feels depressed. Duh? Let’s be clear here, if you have everything you want for nothing. If you want for nothing you will be lacking in anything that resembles desire. You will stagnate and withdraw, unable to move toward any new goals or objectives. For the record, the absence of desire, of appetite or libido, is an important characteristic of depression. 

As for having it all, the ironic part is that she doesn’t. She doesn’t have a husband. She doesn’t have children. So someone has told her that she has it all, and yet, that someone was obviously lying to her. And thus making her more depressed. Besides, as noted, no one ever has it all. It’s an absurd goal.

Worse yet, we do not know whether TBBS feels that she has earned what she has. It’s a salient issue, one that neither she nor anyone else addresses. Some people gain a great deal but do not feel that they really own it, because they do not believe that they earned it. They feel like imposters. 

You see, Polly, I’ve dealt with bouts of anxiety and depression throughout my 20s, but I’ve chalked it up to this decade being such a transitional, confusing life phase. I would often think things like, “Once I have a fulfilling job, I’ll be happy,” or “Once I have a loving partner, I’ll be happy,” or “Once I have kids, my heart will be so full of love and joy that I’ll never feel unsatisfied again.” And now, in my late 20s, I have a lot of these things! I have a wonderful partner, supportive and fun friends, a stimulating and high-paying dream job, no kids yet but a healthy, happy family and enough independence and stability to do whatever I please. And yet, I’m still so bad at being happy.

Of course, wherever did she get the idea that she ought to be good at being happy? Who do you know who thinks in these terms?

As for depression itself, we note that Aaron Beck, decades ago, declared that most depression is accompanied by automatic self-deprecating thoughts, of the kind: I am worthless. I always get it wrong. I never get it right. 

In order to obviate the influence of those thoughts, Beck prescribed homework exercises. He did not recommend that people put on rose colored glasses and imagine that life was beautiful. He recommended that people make two short lists, an equal number of facts that appeared to demonstrate the validity of the thought and of facts that seemed to contradict it. The point of the exercise was to introduce mental balance, not to see one’s character as uniquely good or uniquely bad.

One ought to know that this technique, the basis for cognitive therapy, has been operational for decades now. Apparently, Polly knows nothing of it. The therapist TBBS has been consulting knows nothing about it either. So, this young woman has gotten in touch with her feelings, but this has compromised her interactions with other people in the world.

Her view is simply too one-sided, too pie-in-the-sky and therefore she has become so thin skinned that she cannot deal with adversity.

Why do I get into the same patterns of negative thoughts? Why do I cry for no reason on a beautiful beach vacation, get mad at my loving and aging parents as if I were still 12 years old, obsess over being skinny enough, pretty enough, successful enough? Recently I had a meaningless situation where a stranger got mad at me, and you’d think they physically assaulted me with how distressed I got. Why haven’t the Things That Would Solve Everything turned me into the positive, grateful, and grounded person I long to be? And what the hell will happen to me when the inevitable bad things in life do come my way?

You will note the first word of the last text. She wants to know why. And yet, the basis for cognitive therapy was ignoring the question of why, of refusing to dig up the past, of rejecting the idea that we should blame it all on Mom or on the Devil.

So, “why” is the wrong question. It is even the wrong question when Jordan Peterson thinks it’s the right question. 

What has TBBS learned by reading Polly and from her five years of therapy? She has learned how to complain. That’s quite an achievement, don’t you think?

I hate hearing myself complain to people, and I’m so exhausted from obsessing over things I can’t control. I want to repurpose this energy into something useful like reading more, learning new skills, going outside, being a better friend, daughter, partner, or just being a human in the world. My mom always tells me that I stress too much over nothing, that this stress is bad, and that I should enjoy life. It’s an oversimplification, sure, but so clearly describes exactly what I want. Why can’t I be that way, Polly? What will be the Thing That Solves Everything?

TBBS is trapped in depressive thinking. As you might know, one of the important characteristics of such thinking is: to think in all or nothing terms. She has everything but it feels like she has nothing.

She can modify this thinking by tallying up specifically what she has and what she does not have. We do not want her to run everything through an all or nothing lens. We do not want her to impose this level of distortion on reality. We want her to overcome her feelings of being lost and alone, weak and vulnerable, naked and afraid. 

So, here we have another snapshot of what’s wrong with the therapy culture.

Because I am in a constructive mood today I will spare you Polly’s commentary.


Anonymous said...

Women today, especially the young, have been hoodwinked into believing that they can and will find as much deep gratification and fulfillment in a career as men can and will. This is simply not true, because men and women are wired differently.

She says she has a partner, but does she have a committed, monogamous relationship? There is tremendous heart satisfaction and security to be found in such.

Take courage, young women! Inspect and understand the pretty lies for what they are, and true fulfillment as a woman. You don't have to walk in a man's shoes to find it. Be a woman.

UbuMaccabee said...

Anon, thank you. Well said. Men and women need one another at the deepest metaphysical level to be complete. Women need men more than all the fish and bicycles in the entire world. The lie that we are the same, or could ever do without one another, is at the root of most of the misery in the West today. A philosopher could meditate just on the breadth and depth of the bonds between men and women for their entire life and never exhaust the subject.

Anonymous said...

She's very self-involved and wants Polly to tell her to get MORE self-involved. She thinks everything revolves around her when almost nothing revolves around her. The best thing she can do are activities that force her to concentrate on tasks/skills. Otherwise she ruminates which is a waste of time.

Rick said...

All of these precious snowflakes need a summer nin an outward bound program so they can develope some self worth and see her life at little more clearly.

DCE said...

It sounds to me that she bought the lie that she "can have it all". She thinks she has it all, but there are some major parts of life that she's missing that apparently both her therapist and the Polly-bot have chosen to ignore, or worse, don't even recognize. She's been turning inwards, something that seems both the therapist and the Polly-bot have been foisting on her as a means to discover her problem(s). From my experience all that does is make depression worse, gives someone more to beat themselves up over. How does that help?

Old Lady in Texas said...

The other thing I heard in TBBS's letter was that she had spent her 20s doing all of the things her peers tell her she's supposed to do. I didn't get any sense that she ever figured out what SHE wanted to do with her life. Besides the indicia of depression, that may be another reason for her distress.

Walt said...

This set off a lot of thoughts, some of which may be far too simplistic. But. Who guaranteed that she'd (or anybody would) be "happy"? Where's it say that in the contract? ...Maybe the thing is to STOP "feeling her feelings. " Stop taking her own mental and emotional temperature. Maybe just before she's about to pop off at a stranger or throw a tantrum at her parents, she should stop, take a deep breath, push Reset, recognize a pattern, and consciously try something else. Maybe if she acted better (even in the sense of a stage performance) she'd feel better. Maybe if she stopped copping out about how her feelings stop her from doing things she thinks she'd like to do, she should just lock her feelings in the closet and do those things. Or otherwise admit that she really doesn't want to do them, that she actually enjoys--or somehow feels safer in--her misery. Or (genuine question) am I misunderstanding the mechanics of her condition?