Health

What To Do If You Are Depressed: Identity and Shadow Work

Welcome to Part XV in our “What to Do If You Are Depressed” blog series. The last blog focused on adaptive thinking and guided folks on how to “catch, check and change” their thoughts in healthy ways. Today’s blog focuses on some deeper domains, including reflecting on one’s identity and philosophy of living, defenses and shadow works, and concludes with a general approach to psychological mindfulness. This is our last official entry, although I will offer final summary of the blog tour summary that includes links to the entire blog series so that in the future folks can just click on one link.

The principles of active change that we have explored in the second half of this series have been focused on pragmatically reversing cycles of shutdown and finding more adaptive ways of being in the world. This final entry is a bit more abstract, broad and deep. It focuses on developing your philosophy of living and a fuller understanding of yourself. It is based on the idea that if we are going truly organize our lives in a way that really allows for a “growth-to-goodness” trajectory, we need a core understanding of our place in the universe, a framework to make sense of right and wrong or to assess valued states of being, and ways of reflecting on things larger than our lives. This is the moral/ethical, existential, spiritual, and/or religious dimension to living. It deals with questions such as: What is it that makes human life valuable and worthwhile? What is our place in the cosmos? How do we know what kind of life we ought to lead? What is authentic well-being? What is evil? Who am I really and, given that, how should I live my life?  

To answer these questions in meaningful ways requires exploration, reflective thought, and searching for systems of meaning that resonate with you. One potentially helpful place to start is here, with the “eulogy” exercise on page 11. The eulogy exercise involves thinking about your life’s trajectory having come to the end and looking back on what it meant. It is a perspective that helps folks sort out what really matters in the world. As this entrepreneur notes, facing death can really give one perspective on such things.  

In addition to reflecting on one’s own life and values, I think it is crucial to explore the ideas of others. Victor Frankl’s classic (and short) book, Man’s Search for Meaning. is a great source for thinking about good and evil and how one wants to be in the face of great tragedy. A more broadly educational source for thinking about meaning is the Great Course titled, The Meaning of Life: Perspectives from the World’s Great Intellectual Traditions. Another potentially useful course focused on developing a deeper understanding of who you are is Jordan Peterson’s self-authoring platform. The point here is that we humans seeking meaning in our life world and need it to unfold as a storied “lifequest”. As such, we need a broad reference point to make sense out of our lives and to know what we are or ought to be headed toward. This is why it is crucial to develop a philosophy of life that informs you about who you are and the kind of life you hope to live. This connects to an earlier blog in the series, where we explored your values.

We need to acknowledge here that the quest to deeply understand one’s identity is not just about developing a clear set of values and a richer understanding of how you want to be. It also needs to involve what is called “shadow work”. As is well-known, we humans engage in much defensive filtering of information. We filter out stuff we don’t like to think about and stuff about ourselves we wish was not true. Old wounds, vulnerabilities, areas of low self-esteem, needs for power, feelings of resentment, and so on drive much of what we do, even as we deny this to be the case. Shadow work refers to peering behind the filter of self-consciousness and seeing what the subconscious system feels that we are trying to deny. Consider, for example, I have had people say to me, “My depression must be biological because everything in my life is fine.” This framing suggests that they are likely defended against things. Why? Because everyone gets injured or has longings or dark feelings that might contribute to feeling shutdown. A blanket denial of the possibility of problems is thus suggestive of someone who has not pulled back the veil and looked squarely at the darkness that is much of the human condition.

As such, I do recommend that, in addition to exploring one’s identity and values, one also explores the darker side of one’s psyche. What do I mean by this? I mean the stuff that your self-consciousness system tries to block, deny, repress or rationalize. These are psychological defenses, and here is a helpful list to familiarize yourself with them. To get a clearer sense of why we “defend”,  here is a blog on the defensive system and how it functions.

An implication of the fact that we shield our psyche’s from unwanted or painful thoughts gives rise to the important idea that there is a “shadow” side to our conscious being. Your shadow can be thought of as the part of you that you hope you are not, but fear you might be. Here is a blog on the shadow and dancing with another’s shadow, and here is a video on the shadow. Finally, here is a self-help course that folks can take devoted to understanding your shadow. My point here is that the shadow is an important psychological concept for you to be aware of and shine some light on.

I need to say here that diving into the shadow is not recommended for folks in the middle of a moderate-to-severe Major Depressive Episode. The reason should be pretty obvious (folks are already in hell and seeing hell all around them). However, it can be helpful for folks who struggle with depression some and want to explore deeper into their psychic lives. I mention it here at the end of our pragmatic journey out of the cave of depression because I believe that doing shadow work and coming to terms with one’s shadow enables individuals to develop a more robust character and a lifestyle more resilient to depression. Thus, it is an appropriate task to engage in as the system recovers and is in a place to engage in searching and growth.

CALM M.O.: A General Approach to Fostering Mentally Healthy Living

Although the work of finding out who one is at a deep level can only be done by the individual finding their own path, I do believe there are some key principles folks can follow. Obviously, the idea of the shadow gives some frame for where to look. But what about the “how” to look? During this blog series, we have repeatedly emphasized the stance to try not to give into the emotional reaction to “avoid and withdraw,” but instead work to override that instinct and try to “seek and approach,” with the goal of finding paths of investment that nourish your soul.

I will leave you with a basic approach to cultivate healthier emotional living, encapsulated in the acronym: CALM M.O. Said as the word calm followed by the letters “M” and “O”, it is structured to offer a quick frame of reference that fosters an integrative approach to psychological mindfulness. Being mindful means being aware of one’s surrounding and adopting a reflective and accepting stance rather than an automatic or instinctual “mindless” way of reacting or resisting or escaping. The M.O. stands for two things. The first is a “Metacognitive Observer,” which means one adopts a reflective, mindful attitude where your mind becomes the object of observation. It also doubles as “modus operandi,” which means mode of being and reminds folks that it takes effort and practice to learn how to do this.

The CALM is an acronym that stands for the attitude of the MO. The “C” stands for curiosity and refers to a questioning, open attitude that asks questions such as: What am I feeling? How am I reacting? Why am I thinking the way I am? What are the goals of the people around me? (For an excellent book on curiosity, see here.) The “A” stands for acceptance and the capacity to tolerate difficult emotions and situations, without having to run away or decompensate. This is a skill that takes practice, and here is a book on fostering an acceptance mindset. The “L” stands for loving compassion, which refers to adopting a general attitude of care and respect for both one’s self and others. (This book offers a wonderful resource on cultivating an attitude of mindful compassion). Finally, the “M” stands for motivated toward valued states of being. This means adopting a reflective attitude of what are my goals in the short term and long term and how can I act in a way that moves me toward them. It uses the metaphor of a CALM MO flashlight to try to help folks internalize the idea that when they are feeling conflict and distress, they turn one the inner light and adopt a curious, accepting, loving attitude that is motivated toward adaptive outcomes. Here is a blog that elaborates on the concept a bit more. It must be noted here that this process of developing a CALM MO frame of mind that can be activated reliably and when under duress is not easy. It involves learning the skills of psychological mindfulness and developing each capacity identified. And it involves practice, first in role plays and imagination and then in real life, but not super difficult situations. Finally, one grows into the capacity to enter the space under even difficult emotional circumstances. 

Conclusion to the Series

The tour started with finding one’s self in the cave of a depressive shutdown, which is a brutal place to be. Here is the beginning entry. We have acknowledged the nature of depression as a state of shutdown and charted a possible path via awareness and acceptance. We focused first getting a clear understanding of depression, neuroticism and well-being. Then we shifted into active, practical domains and focused on skills fostering behavioral activation, healthy lifestyles, healthy biology, more adaptive processing of emotions, reviewed the keys to fulfilling relationships, adaptive thinking and finally have concluded today with deeper work on the self and developing a life philosophy that fosters both awareness of the darkness and an authentic growth-to-goodness outlook for the soul (i.e., the form of one’s life).

I hope you have found this blog series helpful. As everyone who has been depressed knows, it sucks, and I extend you compassion in your suffering. The magnitude of depression is enormous and we all need to come together and share in offering the best we can to help reverse the cycles that feed the beast.  As such, please share this series with any one you think might benefit. I will put a final “full summary” blog together so it can be sent with one link.

If you have any questions or comments or recommendations, feel free to post them here or email me at henriqgx@jmu.edu. I wish you all the best in your journey.


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Thanks for sharing this, you are awesome !

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