Depression is not just one feeling; it is a complex internal experience. Depression tends to involve a mixture of the following feelings, which tend to be stuck: unhealthy guilt, shame, despair, and helplessness. This can sound like, "I'm not good enough...or... my efforts aren't working... so why bother?" These kinds of thoughts lead us to feeling stuck, lost, frustrated, empty, inadequate. They are the feelings that lead to behaviours like isolating from friends, hiding from the world, staying silent about our needs and feelings, not asking for help until we're desperate.
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Often, there is also healthy sadness and grief around loss that underlies depression (e.g. loss of a job or a loved one), as well as anger at injustice (e.g. "I didn't deserve this!"). However, these healthy, "fresh" feelings cannot be accessed, because they are blocked by all of the guilt, shame, and helplessness.
The processes that produce these stuck feelings of shame and despair tend to be: 1. Self-criticism and 2. Self-silencing. This is true for all kinds of depression, including for folks who struggle with people pleasing.
In my practice, psychotherapy for "people pleasers" experiencing depression tends to consist of working with self-criticism in order to "soften" it, and to arrive at greater self-compassion and self-acceptance. (The goal is not to eliminate self-criticism persay, but rather change one's relationship with it, so that the Critic doesn't feel as powerful, and so that there is room for other Parts of Self that are more loving and supportive). Psychotherapy with people pleasers experiencing depression also involves working with self-silencing to help folks find their voices, and express their experiences more freely to themselves and to others.
Self-Criticism in People Pleasers
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Self-criticism in people pleasers tends to be an important process that underlies experiences of depression. People Pleasing Critics tend to be looking out for the best interests of other people over the interests of oneself, in an extreme, unbalanced way. This cuts people off from their own needs and desires, which furthers the experience of depression. The parts/voices inside tend to sound like the following:
You're not doing enough for __________ [your kid, your friend, your partner, your boss, etc.]
You should be doing more!
You're a failure, inadequate
You're not good enough as a [person, friend, parent, spouse, worker, etc.]
WHO DO YOU THINK YOU ARE?!
You're Selfish! You only care about yourself!
YOU ARE MAKING THEM FEEL BAD! You are hurtful.
Don't speak up, because that would make them feel even worse.
They don't like you; you are Silly, a Loser, Pathetic.
They are mad at you; you must have really done something bad, made a terrible mistake.
You're not helping enough! You're letting people down.
You are unlovable, broken, unworthy of care; You are only useful if you help others.
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One way that a People Pleasing Critic can manifest is as a saviour complex. You may feel compelled to "rescue" others, to "fix" their problems for them. Yougo beyond empathy; you take responsibility for their pain. Your inner critic tells you it's your fault if they feel bad. A part of you believes others won't survive without your help.
At the same time, you minimize and invalidate your own pain. You may do this by labeling others' struggles as "more painful" than yours; you play “suffering Olympics” - and you lose every time. When you do try to prioritize your own needs and feelings, you feel guilty.
Another way that self-criticism can manifest in people pleasers experiencing depression is the core belief that I am only worthy IF... IF I give enough, achieve enough, caretake enough.
In people pleasers, huge efforts to please, or to contribute meaningfully to people or society at large, can be motivated by an effort to justify your existence. You believe that if you can only find a way to be more useful, you will feel more worthy. In the words of Brene Brown, you engage in "thehustle for worthiness."
The subtext here, is the belief that I am not worthy enough, just as I am. Just for being me, for being alive, for existing. For doing my best to live a good enough, connected enough life as a breathing, feeling human being. This fundamental struggle in self worth comes tends to come from a deep wound, and requires work to soften this Critic that says - "You are only Worthy IF..."
Roots of Self-Criticism
A healthy toddler does not approach life as a project of justifying her existence. Instead, she walks around with a healthy sense of entitlement, to her needs, to her feelings. She is busy getting to know herself; she is not preoccupied with the needs and feelings of others. Eventually, she will learn empathy, that others have feelings too, and that she needs to play nice and factor them in. But this comes later; first, she comes to know her own insides.
At some point, however, an injury or a series of injuries occurs, that interrupts healthy development. That leads to a child becoming preoccupied with how others see her before she even knows her own experience. Perhaps a parent, however well-meaning, is hypercritical, rejecting in some way. Perhaps a child is bullied, and they are left with an overwhelming sense of shame, and have nowhere to turn with this pain.
Enter self-criticism. Inner Critics often take on the voice of a critical parent or an important other, like a loud and persistent echo. Rather than allowing oneself to focus on one's own experience, through one's own eyes, the Critic projects the judgement of others. When this occurs, what the Self needs is to set an internal limit. To say - "Back off! Stop it! You are hurting me! I need space to get to know what I think and feel about this, without all of your judgement!"
At other times, the Critic is overprotective; it is an attempt to protect the self from further shame/embarressment/pain. "If I shame or criticize you first, no one can come and embarrass you unexpectedly." Of course, this isn't helpful. This kind of critic needs to know that the Self is strong and wise, capable of more effective self protection and self soothing. That if someone criticizes me, I can bear the resulting distress, however uncomfortable; I let myself hurt, cultivate self-compassion, have a hot chocolate, phone a friend. The wave of pain will pass, and I can be present with myself in the meantime.
Self Love (Image: Selene Metanoia @reflectionthroughart)
People Pleasers and Silencing Vulnerability
Another important internal dynamic related to depression in people pleasers is the tendency to silence vulnerability, and to overidentify with one's strength. Some people pleasers see themselves, on some level, as very strong and competent, especially in helping others and coping with life's ups and downs independently. This identity of self-sufficiency can often be traced back to childhood, to being forced to grow up too soon, being a "mini-adult."
As an actual adult, this can look like being there for others 'at the drop of a hat,' and yet having a hard time reaching out yourself; the worse you feel, the harder it is. It can look like smiling and saying you’re fine when you’re not - even with people who you suspect may actually want to know. Deep down, you may be afraid that the other person will judge you, dismiss you, make you feel worse. Or, that you will be "too much of a burden." When you do reach out, you tell yourself you are "weak" or "needy."You're just so used to being the strong one.
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But this extreme self-sufficiency is exhausting and unsustainable. Healing is about learning to accept your human vulnerability and fragility, and to cultivate the sense that you too are needing and deserving of care.
Self-Silencing and Depression in People Pleasers
Relatedly, an important internal process that underlies depression in people pleasers is a tendency to self-silence. Maybe we have too much on our plate, and we need to ask for help from a boss. This kind of situation may trigger past relationships in which asking for help from others did not provide the help we needed; perhaps we were attacked, shamed, or dismissed when asking for help.
In addition to stirring up quite a bit of anxiety about what might happen if I do express myself, a big part self-silencing is the idea that there is no point in expressing myself because I won't get the help I need.
So why bother asking for help from friends, partners, professionals, even from myself, if I don't expect help when I call out for it? If I am used to having my voice squashed down, rather than responded to, of course I am not going to be comfortable using it freely.
Therapeutic work with self-silencing involves working with the part of self that has learned to silence you, as another overprotective part, that has witnessed you being silenced by others in the past, that fears being silenced in the future, and so sees your self-expression as completely pointless. It also involves connecting with the part of you that, despite all of this, yearns to allow a more free and authentic stream of expression of your insides into your own consciousness, and into the world outside of you.
Photo by Andrea Piacquadio
If you are looking to do some deep and transformative work with your depression and people pleasing tendencies, to feel better, and rediscover your own experience and expression, please reach out!