A core belief of depression is not only that “Life sucks,” but “It will always be this way.” This hopelessness can lead to suicide.
That’s why I’m so grateful to the folks who are reaching out to gay youth with the “It Gets Better” message. Started by Fort Worth City Councilman Joel Burns, who spoke openly about his struggles growing up gay, the message to “hang in there” past the pain is simple but profound. The “It Gets Better” message is at the core of psychological resilience.
I recall my mom giving me that message when I was a kid by repeatedly counseling me, “Tomorrow this will be behind you and you will be looking back on it!” I have used this belief to calm myself through anxieties throughout my lifetime.
Many of my therapy clients were not so lucky.
Their parents did not give them life survival skills because they were too caught up in their own pain. My clients-as-kids dared not imagine a brighter future; life was about minute-to-minute survival. Fantasizing about a happier time was a luxury they could not afford. Keeping expectations low protected them from being blind-sided by more disappointment. Why set yourself up, when the other shoe always drops?
This adaptive survival strategy becomes a problem when they’ve grown up, escaped their dysfunctional families and built loving homes. They cannot allow themselves to see and appreciate how far they’ve come, to experience joy in the present, nor to dream. Expecting to suffer, they make sure that they do, even if it is of their own making. Plagued by chronic anxiety, they still anticipate the worst. They may call themselves “cautious” or “realistic,” but this life-stance can morph into chronic negativity and even paranoia.
I use a powerful imagery exercise with these clients. Here’s how it goes:
- Close your eyes and connect to a recent moment when you actually did feel good, even if it was fleeting.
- Now turn up the volume on that moment and really experience it. Then, while holding onto that feeling, imagine yourself walking back into the past, down a long hallway with many doors. Pick a door and walk through.
- You’ll see a vision of a child in the distance, sitting in front of your childhood home. As you get closer, you notice that the child is a younger version of you. Sit down beside that child and let them know, “I’m from your future, and It Gets Better.”
- This child has been waiting for your arrival, waiting to hear from you. The child has been wanting to share the pain they’ve been experiencing, so you just listen as the child shares their pain and sadness and anger.
- After a while, pick her up and carry her with you away from the house, through the door and back into the here and now.
Often a person who has experienced a painful childhood is reluctant to go back and greet this child-part of herself. She may say, “That’s ancient history. It doesn’t affect me now. Why go back and feel all that pain again?”
Far from “not being affected” by our histories, in fact, that child may be running the show (like the little man behind the curtain in The Wizard of Oz). The kid-part can lead us into poor relationships and bad career choices. She may push love away, or fuel deep sadness, uncontrolled rages, gripping addictions or paralyzing anxieties.
Sometimes the reluctance to travel back in time is really because deep down she believes she was essentially a bad kid and deserved the poor treatment she received. Or she fears that if she connects to that kid, she’ll feel burdened and drained by her incessant needs and demands.
In fact, by re-connecting to and embracing your child-part, and letting yourself know that this time you will be heard and cared for properly, you may start to feel more whole… and more hopeful. When the kid-you hears “It Gets Better,” the adult-you may be able to actually relax and experience some childlike joy again.
Re-connection and hope will get you through…