Depression and Modernity

Depression is a huge burden affecting millions today and becoming more common in Western countries, as well as in developing countries that are “Westernizing” their economies.

When i read this in The Mindful Way through Depression, i wondered why that is and had a hunch it has something to do with our hyper-individualism. In the book, they don’t go into this further even though – to me at least – this cries out for an explanation.

This morning, during my meditation, i realized that in my case shame and depression are linked. Somehow. I wasn’t quite sure how. Just an intuition that they were. So i searched for shame and depression and stumbled on a fascinating article by Thomas Scheff, a sociologist. In “Shame and Community,” Scheff argues that people without secure social bonds tend toward shame and depression. Scheff writes:

This paper suggests there may be two social components to depression. The first and more powerful component would be the patient’s current social milieu, the lack of secure bonds in his or her immediate social network. [...]. The [...] recalling of moments of solidarity within a community, especially when these memories are recounted to another, may lift depressive mood. If that is the case, then a proximate cause of depression would be the lack of such memories, or, if there are such memories, failure to recall them.

A commentator on the article, Golan Shahar, builds on this link by bringing in a personality distinction. People who tend toward dependency usually respond fairly well to treatment. Self-critical people, on the other hand, sabotage their treatment because they are unable to create the deep bond to the therapist that would heal their social wound.

Self-criticism is, of course, linked to shame (234):

Self-critical, introjective individuals [...] tend to view themselves as lacking, deficient, and unworthy. [...] Self-critical individuals would feel that others perceive them as deficient and lacking as they perceive themselves.

So, we get stuck in a vicious cycle: Thinking we are unworthy of love and belonging (Brené Brown’s definition of shame), we are unable to make the deep connections that would validate us and prove our worthiness. This pushes us into depression, which furthers the sense of unworthiness, isolating ourselves more.

Shahar doesn’t stop there, though. He had read Scheff’s article, after all, and knew that an individualist explanation wasn’t sufficient to explain depression in the modern world. He ends his article with this indictment of the modern world (236-7) (see article for citations):

While all individuals are susceptible to the influence of modern myths of individualism, self-actualization, independence, mobility, and professionalism, some individuals are more likely than others to internalize these myths. I would like to suggest that introjective, self-critical individuals are particularly likely to internalize the above myths. Indeed, in their relentless emphasis on achievement, their struggle for defensive independence, and their chronic shame and perceived inadequacy, these individuals exemplify, or represent, modern society. Arguably, introjective individuals are sensitive not only to the perfectionistic messages conveyed by their parents, but also to those conveyed by society as a whole. Lured into believing that an additional success would finally alleviate chronic feelings of shame and inadequacy, and that improved performance would ultimately yield acceptance by self and others, those individuals are trapped in a labyrinth of unsatisfying success that only serves to exacerbate their shame, inadequacy, and self-punitive stance. Their collapse, as manifested by symptoms of depression [...] is evidence not only of their individual vulnerability, but also of the vulnerability of the society from which they scrupulously absorbed their values.

What is interesting to me is that most healing modalities that i have experienced over the years do not take the social component into account. They suggest a solution that can be attained by the individual without a community (at least one that persists beyond a retreat). I am guessing that i am not the only one who has experienced this as an additional source of pain: My longing for community is pathologized and my inability to heal myself is yet another failure. Unless we acknowledge the link between how we live and our mental dis-eases, we will not be able to reduce the epidemic numbers of depression. And depression thus becomes another symptom of cultural trauma, our inner wounds that stem from mainstream culture’s normative pressures. In this case, we failed at being an independent individual.

And what about the link between depression and shame? As Scheff explains: “depression is a defense against emotional pain that seems so continuous as to be unbearable. Rather than feel the constant pain, one numbs the senses.” And “the primary emotion is unacknowledged (unconscious) shame.” So underneath that depression is likely shame, at least when the depression stems from a perceived sense of isolation or severed bonds to others.

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