Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Depression, Anxiety, and the Web of Obligation

I've come to a gut-level realization at age 41 that I wish had come sooner. It's this: Acting to please myself is a good thing. For me and for others.

For most of my life, I've been fearful of asking for what I really want. Especially if it temporarily displeases someone else. Hell, sometimes I really haven't known what I really want. I've been ensnared in various webs of obligation--familial, cultural, occupational. What may have started as an external pressure quickly became self-imposed. And I've told myself that if I suffer and deny myself, I will be a good and selfless person. Great cosmic rewards will ensue.

I can't tell you how many choices I've made in life that were no fun at all. I've pursued hobbies, religions, and jobs that brought me no joy; changed my appearance drastically to meet various standards; played the martyr mom with no time to herself; gotten locked into old, tired family dynamics. The guiding principle was, "Forget about who you are--this is who you should be." My surface-level desire was to gain approval and avoid criticism; this became an unceasing force-field that blocked my intuition. If you had asked me at any given point, "Are you doing what pleases you?" I would have said, "Well, it builds character. That's good for me, right?"

I no longer think that's a logical train of thought. If it were, I would not have suffered with such intense depression and anxiety. Hell, the depression and anxiety became part of the whole misguided belief system--See? I'm suffering! I'm doing it right!

All of this is not to say that goals don't come with sacrifices. But there is a huge difference between moving toward a personally meaningful goal, accepting short-term discomforts along the way, and making self-denial a goal unto itself. The latter carries with it a puritanical assumption that happiness is wrong.

Here's a great example of what I mean. I have a child with developmental disabilities, who needs a lot of time and attention. It matters greatly that I give her that time and attention in a purposeful way, with the goal of helping her rise to various challenges so she can gain security and self-efficacy. Obviously, that helps me, too--a calmer kid means a happier home life, and more time for me to take a bath and read a book. I may have to weather several epic tantrums before I can take that bath, but knowing I am pursuing my own happiness as well as hers is immensely comforting.

By contrast, I've had periods with my daughter in which I let myself get completely overtaken and exhausted. I felt unable to say "no" to her tantrums and demands, burdened by her needs, when the real burden was the misshapen gratification I got from playing Atlas. At those times, she's sure gotten a lot of my time and attention, but in the form of coddling, lecturing, and yelling. I've done things that perpetuated her anxiety and helplessness, while appearing on the surface to be a great sacrifice. Who really benefited? She missed opportunities for growth, and I missed my bath.

I am not surprised, nor do I blame myself, that it took me so long to find the contentment that should have been my birthright. I was a Type B, through-and-through, stuck in a family of origin with many outspoken Type A's. Appearances, education, credentials--I don't believe it's inherently wrong to value these things, but it is against my nature to do so. I'm really happiest with a quiet and externally unremarkable life; while I can be very ambitious and concerned with excellence, I must always take pains to protect my downtime. The rat race has eaten me alive at several points. And--much as this would have horrified my younger self-- I am perfectly content with no makeup, old clothes, and those "extra" 10 pounds. I grew up thinking all of this was shameful--that contentment, itself, was shameful.

In addition, I have had relationships with family members that have caused me unhappiness, yet I've felt unable to ask for the changes I want, lest I be perceived as selfish. I recently took a huge step in changing one of these relationships. It's really a sea change, for me and for that person. In the short term, this change does mean causing another person's unhappiness--that's really scary. But I did it. I realized it was selfish to continue on the way things were. All that person was getting was my resentment, anyway.

In making this change, I was acting on a growing sense that pursuing my happiness is not selfish. And in the process of making the change and weathering the fallout, I came to understand this at the gut level. Entire periods of my childhood and early adulthood, which had felt foggy and confused, now made sense. The roadblocks in my marriage and in my parenting became entirely surmountable. I started eating what I really wanted, and stopped using shopping as a substitute for self-care. I'm sorry I don't have better words for this awakening, but if you've ever had one, you know that it rearranges your entire brain and your entire past, present, and future.

Which isn't to say that I have drifted to a higher plane than you poor mortals. The function of an awakening is not to wipe away all problems, but to cast them as soluble. Solving them is still a lot of work. I am still going to play Atlas, worry about added sugars, and feel guilty for leaving the floor unswept. But I can always strive to be happier, now that I understand that that's a worthy goal.

It strikes me as funny, what a bad name "happiness" has gotten in modern times. Puritanical attitudes toward pleasure and relaxation have a flip side--binges and indulgences that bring more guilt than joy. And then there are the prominent figures who claim that happiness is about irresponsibility and private gain, hence the "prosperity churches" and visionaries who ignore fate itself. I myself confused finding happiness with hurting others or being self-indulgent. Imagine my relief--joy is not a finite resource! Not for me. Not for anyone. Now if you'll excuse me, my son and I are going to watch the "Duck Song" on YouTube for like the 4,000th time. Yay!


Lisa Sniderman, LCSW received her M.S.W. from the University of Chicago in 2003 and has been a licensed clinical social worker since 2005. She is a past member of ETD's Mental Health Advisory Board as well as one of our storytellers. Click here to read more posts from Lisa.

1 comment:

  1. We are all facing mental health problems from time to time. People should be more aware of it.