I frequently put things away where I can find them later.
I convince myself they’re in a safe place, somewhere I will easily remember the next day, the next week. Or the next year.
Then when I need them, I can’t find them. I can remember the choice to get them out of my sight, when they were in the way or making things look messy.
But, when it’s important to use them, they’ve vanished. I’ve put them somewhere where it’s too hard to find them.
I’ve hidden them far too well.
That’s what people who experience Perfectly Hidden Depression (PHD) have done. Some time in the past, it was important to stash away feelings that didn’t have an outlet for expression.
I’ve been writing a lot about PHD and am currently interviewing people who believe they experience it. The vast majority of the people I have interviewed for my research have answered “yes” to this question: “Did you grow up in a family where feelings of sadness or pain were avoided, or where you were criticized or punished for expressing them?”
It appears with PHD, that suppression of painful emotions becomes entrenched, a habit, and a way of living. It is even likely that the person who is doing it no longer recognizes how they hide.
How do you know if you’re talking to someone with PHD? They are fantastic at evading detection, as they’re afraid of the vulnerability and loss of control involved.
But if you watch and listen closely, you will notice something. Even when they are talking about something painful — something that a lot of people might tear up or look sad about — their faces show very little emotion.
It’s normal to work through grief. It’s healthy to not be stuck in sadness. But this is different. This is active discounting or denial of pain.
So, if I have someone with PHD in therapy, I will watch this process, and then ask a question.
“If I could hand you a video of the last ten minutes of this session, and I asked you to turn the sound down, what do you think you’d look like you were talking about?”
They usually don’t know how to answer.
“I promise you that you wouldn’t be able to tell that you were telling me about being raped in college.” Or, “Being flung across the room by your father,” or, “Watching your mother get drunk every night.”
“You look more like you’re telling me what you ate for dinner last night.”
Obviously, the actual events vary. But the strategy to cope with them is the same.
Hide what you feel. Detach from your emotions. Show only what is safe to show.
Yet underneath, there is intense sadness, or anger that has slowly dripped down into the deep recesses of your psyche. There is self-doubt and insecurity, masked by perfectionism and always striving to be the best — at everything. There is an aching loneliness behind the smiling face that you believe protects you. There is anxiety that the world you’re controlling will come crashing down, and your vulnerability will be exposed. So you grasp even more tightly to the image and “good life” you have created.
The better the life you have seemed to create, the more you can feel the pressure to keep up the facade. The more perfect the life others perceive you to have, the harder you may feel you have to work to maintain that image. It’s never ending.
It’s a vital skill in life to focus on the positive. No doubt about it.
You can carry a good thing way too far. You can avoid, discount and deny anything painful.
Now, when it would be appropriate and healthy for you to feel those feelings, you struggle to get at them — because you have hidden them away so well. And they are keeping you from engaging in life fully.
It feels if you do, you’ll never stop crying, or your rage will consume you. If you don’t, you’ll never fully live.
You will stop crying. Your anger will fade.
But you have to risk connecting with those feelings. And get the help you need to do so safely.
This post originally appeared on Dr. Margaret Rutherford’s blog. Reprinted with permission.
Photo: Getty Images