Sadness can represent more than a feeling. It often signifies a way of thinking and behaving that leads us down a self-defeating path. Our familiarity with a depressive mood becomes a way of being and a style of relating. Sadness becomes a companion symptom that we carry around as our false self - it is not authentic.
My patient Anna was enveloped by a melancholy mood. Her husband had recently declared that the relationship was devoid of passion and he wanted out. His feelings caught my patient off guard. How could Bob be willing to throw away 10 years of marriage? What was behind this erratic edict?
There was no exploration of Bob's pronouncement that his marriage was over - and there was no exit strategy. In response to his decree, he became anxiously avoidant and hid in his work and his night classes. He was stressed by the emptiness of his life.
Anna internalized Bob’s projected frustration and began taking self-inventory to assess where she'd gone wrong. She had always been supportive of her husband but had noticed his recent unhappiness. She began contemplating, "What did I do to create this wreckage? How could Bob arrive at this disturbing, unilateral conclusion?" The more Anna ruminated about her marital woes, the more despondent she became. She was immersed in the feelings of her husband and carried the burden with her. At no time did she inquire, "What's this convoluted conduct all about? As an equal partner, do I have any say in this?" Instead, she perseverated about her husband's unhappiness and her role in disappointing him.
As is often the case, Anna’s pattern of getting hooked by the feelings of other men was embedded in an adverse childhood experience. Her father was in the military and served during World War II. She had strong recollections of a strained relationship between her father and mother. Her home was thick with negative energy. The air was sterile and stale. Her father stayed to himself, rarely interacting with family members in a warm and caring manner. Anna viewed him as "troubled" and stayed clear of his path for fear of aggravating him. At an early age, she knew her father's behavior was not normal and viewed him as being an emotionally detached, unfulfilled man. He was always "into his head," rarely demonstrating any emotional connection with others.
One time, Anna had watched a History Channel segment about the Holocaust experience. Anna was fascinated by the plight of the Jews and told her father about her newly acquired knowledge. She was taken back as her father came alive for the first and only time in their relationship. He was able to provide her with a first-hand portrait of the way in which he and his comrades had made valiant efforts to protect Jewish families from the Nazi’s. Although the connection at that moment was profound, she realized for the first time how the ravages of war had blunted her father's emotional experience.
Anna felt sorry for her father. She felt obligated as a daughter to wear her father's depressive feelings as her own. She viewed it as a responsibility to protect him by sinking into the "dusty corners" of his sadness.
As Anna and I continued our therapy, a core interpretation derived from adverse childhood experience began to crystallize. Anna's coping strategy as a child was, "I must take responsibility for others' feelings in order to protect them." As a kid, Anna performed to please, in a valiant effort to try to wish her father's pain away. As she realized that she was incapable of impacting his mood, she unknowingly took on his sadness and branded herself as defective for not being able to make her father feel better.
Anna’s dysfunctional, interpretive script would come back to haunt her during adulthood - she would maintain her love affair with misery. In response to her husband's abrupt declaration of dissatisfaction with his marriage, Anna easily latched onto her self-defeating childhood coping script. In treatment, our approach was to make Anna aware of her negative interpretations related to taking on the burden of significant other's feelings. As she learned to acknowledge and be conscious of this maladaptive way of relating, she learned new skills to refute the pattern and respond more rationally. Anna worked to establish the following self-nurturing patterns:
- To make more realistic self-appraisals of her thinking and behavior
- To learn emotional detachment from the burden of others' feelings
- To give up the need to please others as a means of trying to fix their feelings and behavior
- To get in touch with the kind of transformative anger that leads to self-empowerment - "I deserve better than this!"
- To set appropriate boundaries
- To learn assertiveness skills as a style of relating - "I can tell others what I need and want"
Anna began detaching herself from her husband's burdensome feelings. She appropriately confronted him about his marital dissatisfaction. In order to maintain power and control, he dismissed her request to explore his marital unhappiness. With that in mind, Anna began working to protect and support herself by not playing into the verbal antics of her husband. Like it was as a child, Anna learned that other people's responses and feelings are not her fault. While experiencing significant relief, she will continue her journey to leave behind her love affair with misery.
Note: This case is a composite drawn from my practice as a psychotherapist. It has been altered to protect the individual’s right to confidentiality and privacy.