A few months ago, I was surfing the vast wave of entertainment in my Netflix streaming application when I discovered a veritable gold mine of nostalgia: “Winnie the Pooh,” a 2011 film featuring many of my favorite childhood friends. In the long years since I had last seen them, I was delighted to find that Winnie the Pooh’s appetite for honey had not waned a bit, that Tigger was still nearly manic with unbound energy, and that Piglet was still occasionally conquering his fears despite being a “very small animal.”
And then there is Eeyore, the pessimistic, gloomy, chronically sad, anhedonic, and lethargic grey donkey. As a child, I never really liked Eeyore much, but that day, the moment he appeared on my television screen and spoke in his all-too-familiar depressed drawl, I couldn’t help but feel pangs of compassion. As a therapist intern, I wanted to know more about Eeyore’s depressive feelings and how they came about. (It’s geeky, I know.)
Depressive feelings, and all other feelings, have many different origins and meanings. Generally speaking, however, feelings become integrated into one’s emotional self through consistent, reliable, empathic attunement. In other words, when a caregiver is attentive and lovingly responsive to the child’s feelings, the child learns that these feelings are acceptable and can be openly expressed. In time, the feelings become a regular, welcome part of the child’s emotional life and expressions of the child’s whole, integrated self.
As I explained last week, when such attunement is absent in the child-caregiver relationship, the child learns that feelings that the caregiver can’t tolerate are unacceptable, which is quite painful. In order to preserve the relationship with the caregiver, the child learns to hide or disavow those feelings in order to avoid being hurt, and that part of the child’s emotional self splits off, resulting in a fragmented self.
As a result, the child never learns to manage or express the unacceptable feelings—depressive feelings, in Eeyore’s case—and when the person experiences those emotions, they can be overwhelming. Moreover, the individual is often terrified to express the unacceptable feelings in relationships for fear that he or she will only have another pain-filled experience, similar to those in childhood.
So, that part of the fragmented self stays defensively well-hidden, tucked away beyond the reach of everyday encounters. After all, a fragmented self is still the only one we have, and we will naturally resist anything that threatens it. However, when something does happen that the feelings do come out and the depression returns, the feelings of guilt, sadness, and hopelessness can be devastating, even debilitating.
Depressed people (and anxious people, for that matter) sometimes say that they don’t feel like themselves for good reason; in a way, they aren’t themselves, or at least, a part of themselves they know and recognize. They are experiencing a part of themselves that they may not experience too often. On the other hand, perhaps they feel depressed or anxious all the time, preventing them from becoming familiar with other feelings and aspects of themselves.
Either way, counseling can help. Those who are depressed or anxious understandably simply want the unpleasant feelings to go away, but to simply whisk them away would be like amputating a limb. These feelings are as much a part of us, of the human experience, as all other feelings. Therapy invites us to examine the unpleasant feelings and be understood in them for the first time. The experience of “being seen” in the formerly unacceptable feelings can help us integrate these feelings into our lives and experience them and our relationships in new, profound ways, a sentiment that Eeyore would surely appreciate.