Bob’s Mysterious Depression *
A client of mine, Bob, a thirty-nine year-old waiter, complained of chronic depressed moods despite the fact that nothing particularly depressing had occurred in his life. He couldn’t figure out why he always felt down since everything seemed to be in order—he had a good marriage, a decent job, and great friends. He claimed he was depressed “for no reason” and told me he had a chemical imbalance in his brain. In a rare moment of rudeness, I laughed, and said “In the words of the great Tom Petty, ‘You believe what you wanna believe’. Let’s find out what’s going on. What’s it like to have depressed moods all the time?”
He drew back at my gruffness but nodded, seeming to sense what I had meant. He described his depression, saying, “It feels weird, bad…”
“Tell me more,” I said.
“I’m out of it…”
“Can you give me more details? Imagine I’m an alien from another planet and have no idea what a depressed mood feels like. Describe it in a way I can experience.”
He looked down and pondered my question. “I don’t know… I feel useless.”
“Hmm…I’m still not quite getting it,” I replied.
We went back and forth like this for a while. I wanted him to convey a sensory description of his experience, for example, a feeling like, “I feel empty and lost,” or a picture such as, “It’s like there’s a huge stone I’m dragging around,” or a body expression like a gesture of collapsing— something I could relate to. But the more I tried to get him to do this the vaguer he got.
If you don’t have a precise sensory description of an individual’s problem you can’t work on the process because you don’t have real data; all you can do is come up with generic ideas and superimpose them over what’s happening. This is what psychologists and psychiatrists do when they interpret a sad feeling as a “symptom” of a disease, and ask preconceived, leading questions about apathy, hopelessness, loss of interest or pleasure in things, sleep problems, appetite and weight changes, lack of concentration, social isolation, and my favorite—repeatedly going over thoughts. It’s a way to gather general information that could mean anything but is useful for concocting a diagnosis that requires medication.
So, I tried something different. I asked, “What would you have to say to someone to make them feel like you do?”
“What do you mean?” he replied.
“Imagine you could say something to me that makes me feel like you feel. What would you say?”
He thought about my question for a minute, and said, “If I was going to make you feel fucked up like I feel, I’d say, ‘You’re a piece of shit. You’re no good.’ But I wouldn’t say that to you…or to anyone. That’s mean.”
“Right, that’s mean. Say it to me more.”
“Yeah. Amplify this mean, nasty character.”
“Um… ‘You’re the worst person in the world. You don’t deserve to live. You’re useless. Worthless’… But I’m not mean like that.”
“Right, but this meanness is in you somehow. If it’s okay I’d like to role-play this meany and say these things to you.”
“But why? What’s that going to do?”
“I don’t know but this is what’s making you feel depressed, so let’s explore it.”
He looked a bit confused but agreed to try. I pointed at him and said, “You’re a piece of shit, the worst man in the world, a good-for-nothing dumbass, a failure.” I went on like this for a few minutes and encouraged him to just notice what he feels. At one point he looked to the side and then down, putting his head in his hands. Then he looked up at me with a tear in his eye. He shook his head.
“I can’t believe it. This is so weird. I actually feel like this toward myself in some way, but I didn’t know. I can’t explain it.”
“I love myself!” he blurted out. “But I guess I don’t really… I mean I tell myself everything is great but deep down I sort of feel like a failure.”
“I don’t know…like I’m going to be forty soon and I’m a waiter.”
“What’s wrong with that? Sounds fine.”
“I know. That’s what I think too. But something in me says I’m fucked up, like I should be doing something else with my life.”
He didn’t answer. I waited a minute for him to reply, and finally, he said “I wanted to be a lawyer but didn’t think I could do it, so I didn’t.”
“Why did you think you couldn’t do it?”
“I don’t know… Because I’m a loser?”
“Oh, I see. The same mean voice that said you weren’t good enough to become a lawyer now says you’re not good enough because you’re not a lawyer.”
Bob opened his eyes wide and nodded. “Screwed if do, screwed if I don’t…”
“Are you saying that’s why I’m depressed?”
“Yes. You have an unconscious critic.”
“What does that mean?”
“You have an inner critic that makes you feel like crap but you haven’t been conscious of that critic. You’re reacting to an invisible enemy. There’s a critic and a victim of the critic. Up to now you’ve been the victim but you haven’t known what you were being victimized by. Now you know.”
He nodded. “So, what should I do?”
“I don’t know. What do you want to do with a critic that says you’re no good, you suck, being a waiter is bad, and you could never be a lawyer?”
Bob scratched his head but didn’t respond.
“Think about it. In the meantime I’ll judge you,” I joked.
“Fuck you!” he suddenly shot back.
I was a bit shocked, and immediately asked, “Are you saying that to me personally or to me playing the critic?”
“Ah great! Well, I say, shut up, don’t talk back to me. I’m the all-powerful critic oppressing you. You can’t stand up to me.”
“Yes, I can.”
“No way. You’re too weak.”
Bob had been leaning back in his chair but suddenly sat up straight.
“I like your posture. Do that more,” I said.
He sat up even taller and puffed out his chest but didn’t say anything. Then for some reason I decided to do the same thing and sat up tall and also didn’t speak. We both laughed at this funny non-verbal face-off. Then I continued, saying, “You suck.”
“Fuck you. I do not suck.”
“Yes you do. You’re were born no good and will always be no good.”
“No. You’ll never amount to anything.”
As we argued, our postures grew taller until at one funny moment we both stood up. Suddenly, there was silence. I asked him what it felt like to stand face to face with me like this.
He thought for a moment, and then smiled. “It’s like the weigh-in.”
I shook my head, not understanding what he meant.
“The stare-down before the fight.”
“Oh, yeah? Tell me what happens.”
“‘They stare each other down. Then the next night the announcer says, ‘Let’s get ready to rumble!’ and they beat each others’ face in,” he said with a laugh.
“You like that, huh?”
“Yeah, for some reason I do.”
“Well, let’s get ready to rumble, Bob! Time to really fight the critic.”
Transforming the Critic
For the rest of the session and in many subsequent ones we worked on him fighting back against his critic. It was a two-part process: First, he had to become aware that there was a silent voice—an unseen thought pattern—spooking him from his subconscious, and second, he had to react, argue, wrestle, debate, and dialogue with it. Outside of therapy each time he felt depressed he imagined and felt into what the critic was saying to him and then responded. He spent a lot of time writing down these inner conversations in his journal.
A few months later the critic had lost much of it’s power over him, and his depressed moods began to fade. They didn’t go away completely but now he had a way to work on them. Over time, they went away for good because he inhabited the power that the critic had once used against him.
Everything You Experience Has a Sender and a Receiver
Did Bob have a chemical imbalance in his brain? Did he have a mental illness? Did I cure his disease? The answer to all three questions is no. He didn’t have a chemical imbalance nor a disease needing to be cured. There was nothing wrong with him, nothing needing to be changed, corrected, or fixed. The only thing he needed was awareness of his process. My interventions didn’t help him get rid of an illness; they simply helped him engage with his subconscious.
The way I did this was to ask him the simple question, ‘What would you have to say to someone to make them feel like you feel?’ The reason I asked him this is because every process has two parts—a sender and a receiver. You don’t feel a certain way for no reason; something makes you feel that way even if you’re completely unaware of what it is. You’re the receiver of some kind of information communicated to you either internally or externally. As the receiver your job is to identify the sender and it’s message. By asking this question, Bob was able to tap into his subconscious and become aware of the negative thoughts he hadn’t known were there.
In information and communication theory events occur only as a result of a signal traveling from one source to another. There’s no such thing as an event without a signal transfer. In the human process every experience happens as a result of a signal transfer of information that’s constantly being communicated between various parts of your mind, and between you and your environment. There’s no such thing as a one-part process, or, in the words of my first blog post, one-note music. Bob’s depression was only one part within a two-part process. I helped him uncover the other part—the hidden sender of information that made him feel depressed. Doing this enabled him to bring his inner critic to consciousness and process it.
Three Kinds of Critic Processes
There are three kinds of processes with the inner critic. The first was illustrated by how Bob initially suffered the effects of the critic but had no awareness of the critic itself. This is why he said he was depressed “for no reason.” “No reason” means you’re simply unaware of your process.
The second type of process happens when someone doesn’t have a critic, he or she is the critic. One doesn’t say, “I have an inner critic saying mean things to me and it makes me feel bad,” but rather, “I’m no good, I’m unattractive, nobody loves me, I’m never going to amount to anything,” as if these are self evident truths. There’s no dialogue, only a monologue. I’ve had clients with whom I tried to dialogue but it didn’t help because they were so identified with the critic that its voice was experienced purely as their own thoughts. There was only one part, one note present, instead of two. In these cases, I had to use other interventions.
In both of these examples the person isn’t conscious of the critic. In the former, the critic makes him feel depressed but he doesn’t know it’s there; in the latter, he is the critic, he’s one with it, and therefore has no conscious awareness of or relationship to it.
The third kind of process is what Bob eventually discovered, which is awareness of the critic as a part of your mind you can interact with and transform. When you do this you’ll be able to not only integrate your power like Bob did but also discover something else: Critics aren’t only bad. Often they convey an important message you need to hear—wisdom that will help you grow. Sometimes a critic starts out nasty because it wants to get your attention, but if you dialogue long enough you discover that it has a nugget of gold for you. However, you never know what you’ll learn until you jump into the process.
Chemical Imbalance Baloney
The notion that you feel a certain way for no reason except for a random, mysterious chemical imbalance in your brain (that nobody’s been able to even remotely prove) is purely a hypothesis, a guess, a stab in the dark, in lieu of real knowledge of the human process. Sure, take an antidepressant, drink a beer, smoke a joint, take a bath, go for a run, make love, eat ice cream, work out, listen to your favorite music, or forget to sleep like I do, and you’ll alter your brain chemistry. But this has nothing to do with the meaning and purpose of your moods, emotions, and thoughts. To relate to these things you have to work on your process. It’s up to you if you want to medicalize yourself or discover who you really are.
Let’s get ready to rumble!
*Client names have been changed