what is depression? sometimes tracing the various meanings of words can help in understanding the concept or experience for which the word stands. a while ago i spent a few hours trying to pin down when the word “depression” was first used. it looks like henry maudsley, a british physician (there were no psychologists before the late 1800s), was the first to use the word, in the early 1800’s. before that, and right through to freud (who, as far as i can tell, did not use the word “depression”), the term “melancholia” was used. this dates back to the greeks; melancholia literally means “black bile”.
when you look it up in the dictionary, “depression” is derived from “deprimere”, and “deprimere” means “to press down”. the interesting thing, though, is that “supprimere” (to suppress) means “to press down”, as well.
what is the connection between suppression and depression?
to suppress actually means more literally to press down. the prefix sub(p)- always refers to a downward notion (e.g. to submerge). freud saw suppression as pushing something down into the subconscious. this is a pretty normal process – we cannot be aware of everything that ever happened to us. perhaps the subconscious can be compared to what we have stored in the basement. most of what’s stored down there is simply because we have no use for it right now. however, there are the odd things that we stick in the basement because looking at it day in, day out is just too uncomfortable or painful. we stick them in the basement, far out of sight, probably even locked away in a trunk. problems arise (!) when there’s too much in the basement (maybe it even starts to stink from down there?), or when some of the things in the basement should either be thrown out or brought upstairs (that is, into consciousness).
i cannot give you an example of something that i have currently suppressed – it is the very nature of suppression that i am not aware of it.
to depress – that’s a more complex affair. the core meaning of the prefix de- is “away from”. down, aside, up, whatever. just get it away from me! it is interesting to think about that in the context of melancholia – black bile. the function of bile is to aid in the process of digestion, especially fat, a hard-to-digest food item. could we think about depression as pushing away that which is hard to digest? or as taking something inside (“eating” something) that we then push through the digestive tract rather than letting it “mix with our juices”? or is depression about swallowing things so fast that our bile cannot keep up with it? or is depression, as many suggest, about swallowing our anger? again, it is interesting to note that the greek word for bile – chole – is closely related to the greek word for anger – cholos.
in my opinion, the emotional part of depression most definitely involves not dealing with our feelings. (there may also be a chemical component to depression.) that can sound a little harsh, no? i immediately think, oh no, there’s something i was supposed to deal with and i didn’t! like not paying a bill. but it goes much deeper than that. in most cases we are simply not in a position to deal with the feelings. maybe we don’t know how. maybe it’s too scary or seems overwhelming. maybe the depressive feelings are closely connected to old experiences we have hidden away (suppressed).
there’s one thing we can do, though, even in the middle of depression. never mind all the emotions we have already pushed away. we can deal with that later. but we can stop pushing right now. we can stop putting things in the basement right now. and instead of resisting our own feelings, we can start to resist – or better even, simply move out of the way of – pressures from outside.
like when i moved out of the way of time pressure yesterday.
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