“Why couldn’t I have figured this sooner?”
Have you ever said this? If you have, and I bet that you have, you’re in good company. Hindsight is so much more clear. And no matter what the “thing” you wanted to figure actually is, then may need to look back and grieve.
You couldn’t have known that you’d slip and fall and break your leg on the stairs. You couldn’t have predicted a car coming out of nowhere and slamming into you. What seemed like a simple headache turned out to be something much worse, but you aren’t a worrier so that never occurred to you.
You can wish you’d realized or that you were clairvoyant. But you’re not.
With Perfectly Hidden Depression, it’s hard to figure out that your perfectionism is actually hurting you. No one is particularly worried about you. You’ve got great friends and lots of them. You’re successful in your career. Maybe someone you’ve allowed to get a little close to you has said, “You know, you don’t stop for anything. How long has it been since you’ve taken some time for yourself?” But you’ve laughed it off. “I’m fine. I wouldn’t know how to relax anyway. I’m not good at it.”
I’ve had many people say these very words in my office. “Why couldn’t I have figured this out sooner?” My advice is generally to realize that although you can go looking for that one domino that, if picked up, would’ve stopped something painful from happening. But often that one domino doesn’t exist.
In Perfectly Hidden Depression (PHD), that “domino” is beginning to hide. It’s about not realizing the damage of hiding your real self for many years. And when you figure it out, you can feel as if you’ve robbed yourself of years of being truly connected with others, not in a superficial way, but in a way where you’re truly known.
Feeling the Grief of What You Learn from Hindsight…
That’s when you may need to feel a deep grief. Grief that you were hidden for so long that now can feel needless. Grief about opportunities not taken because of your PHD. Grief about the circumstances or the trauma that led to the creation of your PHD. This is a normal part of any healing process. As you recognize and gain new information about what it’s like to live your life differently, you may have to mourn.
That’s when your own self-compassion plays a role. Trying to be perfect wasn’t needless at the time. It served its own purpose.
And remember, you don’t actually know whether or not coming forward or risking would’ve created at an earlier time. You only know what taking the risk has created today.
So, your goal is self-acceptance, even self-acceptance of what you may now wish you’d figured out earlier.
Let’s talk about Spencer’s story as an example of just what I’m talking about.
Taking the Risk…
Spencer had entered therapy to find ways to bolster herself for what she feared would happen if she told the secret she’d been keeping from her family for many years — that she was gay. Although she’d been mostly living with her partner, Claire, for well over three years, she had her own home, and when family would visit, she’d welcome them there with open arms.
A cheerful, smart, hardworking woman in her late 20’s, she wasn’t out in the law firm where she worked. She talked there about things she and Claire did over the weekends. But she feared rejection. She was popular and funny at work, keeping everyone in stitches. But when not headed to Claire’s, her nights would be spent sitting in the dark, and overeating.
Her parents had been loving but had given her the message over the years that they didn’t think she was quite smart enough to be successful, and she’d been determined to prove them wrong. They also were conservatively religious and although they’d never mentioned any problems with being gay, the subject wasn’t discussed. They often told her they worried because she was alone and asked her about dating. Her answers remained vague. Her mom shared way too much with her about her own problems, and Spencer dutifully listened and gave advice for hours. So much of her own life was sequestered, she didn’t have much to talk about except work and focusing on her mom was easy. Claire, whose family knew and supported the couple, was growing impatient.
When Christmas approached, she said to herself, “It’s now or never. I can’t spend another holiday like last one.” The day came. She’d written a letter, which she sent. And she had a visit scheduled with family the following weekend. She didn’t hear anything for a couple of days, but then her parents called. She was shocked to discover that they were very supportive. “It’s good to know that you’re not alone.” They talked extensively the following weekend and asked to meet Claire. When they did a few weeks later, things couldn’t have been better. And Spencer and Claire began to plan to get married.
That’s when Spencer’s grief became palpable. Why had she spent so much time and effort hiding? She ruminated about time missed and opportunities lost. “I’ve wasted a whole decade of my life, trying to be what I thought others expected.” Before any planning could continue, her work was to sit with that grief and all of its components.
Spencer’s story is about a literal secret that kept her real life and emotions locked away. You may have had similar secrets and ones that you believed if anyone “knew,” they’d reject you. If you identify with PHD, I’m fairly sure that’s the case. But the import of the story is that grief can await you when you realize that change is possible. And it’s vital to work through that grief. Write about it, talk about it, and feel it.
And remember, have compassion for yourself. And work on acceptance of all of you — even the part that wasn’t ready to be vulnerable or wasn’t prepared for a sense of being exposed and even rejected.
That part of you needs your acceptance as well.
You can’t know something before you know it. It takes the right time — the right moment– when you can risk what you’ve feared.
Because you can no longer choose to hide.
You can hear more about Perfectly Hidden Depression and many other topics by listening to Dr. Margaret’s new podcast, SelfWork with Dr. Margaret Rutherford. Subscribe to this website and receive her weekly posts as well as her podcasts, plus Dr. Margaret’s eBook, “Seven Commandments of Good Therapy.”