(This post about depressed men is from the Storied Mind Newsletter Archive.)
When I was learning about the experience of veterans with PTSD, I came across a video of a young soldier talking about his recovery. What he said captured a basic truth about the problems that many men have with their feelings, especially when living with depression.
He told about learning to let himself feel anger and fear as normal emotions rather than as dangerous extremes he had to shut down. If you were ruled by your feelings in combat, you could become dangerous to yourself and your fellow soldiers. With PTSD and depression, however, he had become wary of all strong feelings – all the time.
It had been a revelation for him to learn through therapy that it was OK to feel anger, fear and other deep emotions. He had been relieved to get to that point, but now he faced another question. What do I do with those feelings? How do they translate into everyday life? How do I behave with them?
At first, I was amazed to hear this and thought how lost he was when it came to his feelings. But then I realized that he was at an earlier stage of the same process I had been in for years. In fact, at his age I had even less awareness than he did.
The Difficulty of Holding Back Feelings
Like this young soldier, I grew up presenting a calm face to everyone and seemed to walk undisturbed through situations that left others reeling in anger, fear, confusion, tears or laughter.
I usually felt what most other people were feeling, but I didn’t want to show it. I had learned quite well how to suppress the outward signs of emotion. Although it seemed quite natural and effortless for many years, in fact, the stress of not showing feelings is enormous.
You’re not actually controlling the feeling itself but are struggling to maintain a physical restraint on your body. Your body fights back, as it would against a straight-jacket, because it is trying to do something the nervous system doesn’t want you to control, like crying or laughing or following the neurochemical pull of the fight-or-flight stress reaction.
The strange thing is that the body has an excellent built-in system for regulating emotional responses. If you don’t tamper with it, feelings come and go fairly quickly, but if you consciously intervene you only prolong the feeling that you don’t want to have or to express.
The effort is exhausting and deeply stressful. It’s no wonder that people like the young soldier who learn that it’s OK to be angry or afraid feel enormously relaxed. They can finally release the physical tension and pressure of control.
The Cost of Control
Holding in feelings doesn’t help you deal with them. You imagine you are controlling yourself, but I always feel more controlled by the feelings I’m trying to hide. If I “win” the battle and succeed in keeping them out of sight, I get little in return for the effort.
On the other hand, I have blocked myself from reaching out to anyone or deepening a relationship. Most communication comes through the nonverbal expressiveness of the body and its ability to reflect all the bluntness and subtlety of human feeling.
The only thing I’ve communicated by constraining my feelings is that I don’t want to communicate. That comes across as: I don’t trust you enough to show you what I’m really feeling.
So in the name of control, I have exhausted myself, greatly increased my stress level, intensified the feelings I’m uncomfortable with and cut myself off from close relationships. That’s a good scorecard for depression but a severe setback for living.
What to Do with Feelings?
The young soldier said that he didn’t know what to do with his rediscovered feelings. The remark hit home with me because I have so often sat alone with that same confusion. So much feeling – what can I do with it all? It’s a big step to accept and live with the emotions as they arise without trying to deflect or avoid them. It’s a bigger step to trust others enough to share what you feel.
When I thought about expressing what I felt openly, I could only imagine doing that in my closest relationship of all, with my wife. Even then, I felt much like a kid learning to walk or ride a bike. There was nothing spontaneous about it, even though spontaneity is what I was hoping for.
I had the idea that I needed to “do” something with my feelings, as if I were still controlling them but for a different purpose. Rather than hide them, now I would show them.
The Depression Effect
One of the worst things about my depression, in terms of emotion, is that it exaggerates the dangers of accepting feelings for what they are. I become convinced that there is something threatening about my emotions, that they could have a devastating impact if I let them loose.
Perhaps I believe this because depression feeds on isolation and kindles fear at the prospect that it could be broken by reaching out to someone. I can’t be sure, but again and again I hit a wall of depression when trying to speak with my feelings.
I become self-conscious, tense, hypercritical and remain as far as possible from the relaxation and trust that are so vital to a close relationship. Words about feelings don’t mean so much to my partner unless she can also sense the musical accompaniment of the feelings themselves in every gesture.