This week, I received another very poignant and eloquent email from a woman — we’ll call her Judith — who recognized herself as experiencing Perfectly Hidden Depression. She’s recognizing that her past, filled with abuse that she’s never dealt with, has governed her more than she’s ever realized.
I’ll let her words say it all.
“I have always had an overly optimistic view of my life, fervently believing I’m extraordinarily lucky, that my life has been blessed and unusually wonderful. I care for everyone around me, I put other people’s problems before mine, and volunteer a huge amount of time to a cause I feel strongly about in my community. I’m constantly studying (an area my perfectionism is very evident) and am self-employed, running my own business. Externally, I’m successful, living a happy and fulfilling life.”
“Internally, I’m like an automaton, going through the motions just to get through every day. I don’t feel sad, but I don’t feel happy either, and if you asked, I don’t think I could remember the last time I felt actual joy… Suddenly, with your information on PHD as a frame of reference, I look back on my life and see a long list of traumatic experiences. For a long, long time I’ve minimised and even ignored these experiences, and now I understand that that is the only way I know how to cope at all.”
She goes on to describe her confusion in how to go about the business of change in her life, feeling overwhelmed by beginning to allow herself to feel emotions that are connected with many traumas that she’s tried to ignore and avoid, and dealing with her long-term marriage, a marriage that she calls a definite “victim/saver” relationship.
What Is It Like To Open Up About Past Trauma?
What can Judith do?
It’s far from easy. If you’ve denied, ignored, avoided, or discounted early trauma and kept the emotions and memories of it on lock-down for years, then beginning to allow them to surface can be freeing, but also frightening. Think of a bag of garbage that has been sitting and rotting away for a long time. When you first open it, the nasty smell can almost knock you over. You want to run away from it. It’s too overwhelming.
Emotions from past trauma are like that. When you first begin to feel and express them, whether it’s through your own private work or working with a trauma therapist using a technique like EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing), you can feel as if they’re too strong to handle. So you want to take that kind of work slowly and carefully. Working with a therapist who has trauma experience can be very beneficial.
Why Not Leave the Past In the Past?
What’s the benefit of all this hard work? Why not leave the past in the past?
Imagine that you are trying to paint, but that you can only use a few colors. No vibrant reds. No boisterous yellows. Only fairly muted colors are on your palette. That is what happens when you suppress pain or emotion from the past. It may seem to deaden or allow you to distance yourself from the worst of your feelings, but it also robs you of the most positive and fulfilling emotions.
Your emotional palette shrinks. So, like Judith, you don’t feel true joy. You may save yourself pain. But recognize that, in some ways, you’re still being victimized by whoever hurt you in the past. Because you can’t connect with true joy.
It’s a decision only you can make.
In Judith’s case, as with many people who’ve used perfectionism and avoidance of pain as a coping mechanism, she was drawn to someone who she could try to fix, and from her description, that task hasn’t been possible.
“I don’t know if I’ll be able to simultaneously find the strength to fight my own internal battles as well as learning how to place boundaries in an already well-established relationship.”
Taking one thing at a time. First, finding ways either through therapy, authentic supportive friendships or personal work to address issues with perfectionism. That work in and of itself may change the way she views the relationships as she grows in her understanding of herself.
Maybe you’re living a life like Judith’s. Maybe you look like you’re going gangbusters, but internally, you’re on automatic and hiding your lack of joy.
You can reach out. You can always change.
You can feel joy again.
If you want to take a questionnaire to see where you might fall on the spectrum of PHD, please click here.
Please confidentially email me at firstname.lastname@example.org if you experience or have questions about Perfectly Hidden Depression. Or you can read more of my posts here on Psych Central or on my own website.
If someone has been hanging in there with you for years, and loving you well, click here for “Marriage Is Not For Chickens,” the new gift book by Dr. Margaret!
You can hear more about PHD and many other topics by listening to Dr. Margaret’s new podcast, SelfWork with Dr. Margaret Rutherford.