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Depression: The Invisible Backpack

Sometimes when we’re faced with uncomfortable feelings people say, “Put it behind you,” and we do – we shove it into the invisible backpack we carry around without knowing it’s there. That backpack started out so tiny we didn’t even know it – maybe when we were afraid of the dark and someone said, “There’s nothing to be afraid of.” What do we do with our fear? That reassurance doesn’t make the fear go away, it makes us have nobody to feel it with. So the backpack gets started.

We need to set some feelings aside as we grow up because we have nobody to receive our feelings and be with us and help us know it’s OK to let them flow through us. Anger is another feeling that often gets packed away, especially for girls, but often for boys, too. Most parents don’t take well to their children being angry with them. Even the most enlightened parents sometimes send subtle signals of disapproval. To a child disapproval feels like love is being taken away. A child will do whatever it takes to feel loved by a parent, even if it means not experiencing his or her own feelings.

The backpack gets heavier over the years – but remember, it’s unconscious. We don’t often know we’re adding to its weight. We honestly believe we’re “putting it behind us,” and in a way we are – but not the way we think. We think we’re putting the past into the past, but what we’re really doing is putting the intolerable into that backpack. It’s an unconscious process, and it’s nobody’s fault.

Most parents do their best to bring up healthy people who will have a good sense of morality and be capable of giving and receiving love. Frankly, I think most parents do pretty well, especially in the face of a difficult world. For many parents, part of bringing up children means showing them what works, how to be happy, how to be normal and acceptable. For most adults, this means “do as I do” when it comes to which emotions are tolerable and which are not. Parents subtly mold their children, often unconsciously, to avoid certain aspects of certain emotions. A woman I worked with is a good example: Anger at children was tolerable and could be expressed, and so could anger at husband. But even minor annoyance with her own parents was hidden. When we looked at how her parents expressed emotion, we saw that her own mother expressed anger freely at the children and father, but anger at grandparents was expressed only when the grandparents were not present; when they were present the mother showed only sweetness to them, attempting to please them. This woman had not been aware that she was following in her mother’s footsteps until she looked at this history.

Not all people follow their parents’ example – in fact, some people are very careful not to, making an effort to give better parenting than they got. But even then, there is the subtle demand on both parent and child to avoid certain aspects of some emotions.

When the backpack gets too heavy, people begin to feel depressed. Some people can actually feel the weight they’re carrying. People have said that they feel as if they are carrying an invisible burden. They may lose the capacity to enjoy some of the activities they used to enjoy. There may be changes in appetite or sleep.  Movement itself sometimes feels as if it’s just too much effort – and that’s a very important clue that your backpack might be full to bursting.

So how to deal with this cumbersome backpack? Take things out and reclaim them.  Everything in that backpack is a bit of who you are. It’s all precious information.  When we put things away, we did so because they felt intolerable. Taking them out can feel a bit daunting. Here’s why: When we hid those things away we were young. Those feelings really were intolerable back then – but now we’re older and stronger. So even though it feels daunting, taking them out and examining them like the precious old things they are is the best thing to do.

This unpacking shouldn’t be done alone; it’s best done with a guide. It might be a mentor, a spiritual teacher, a therapist, or somebody else, but it must be someone who is non-judgmental. And your guide must have already unpacked a lot of her/his own stuff. It’s having done a lot of one’s own unpacking that develops the capacity to be a good guide.

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