I hear from clients on nearly a daily basis that the way they are dealing with a struggle is they simply choose not to think about it. On the surface that seems like an awesome idea. Just don’t think about the childhood trauma or the significant loss and the problem goes away. “Dr. Guess, now that we have concluded that this significant occurrence in my life does not affect me at all in the present day because I don’t think about it, will you please help me with these nagging depression/anxiety symptoms that seem to come out of nowhere?”
During my doctoral residency, I had to go to Minneapolis to complete a five-day intensive on a series of psychological tests. This was not my favorite residency intensive because it was not on the straight-forward black-and-white testing that was in my comfort level as a new psychologist. I love giving tests that give me a number in return. “Your IQ is 102.” I like how clean that sounds.
This particular intensive was on the messy tests, also known as projective tests. The swamplands of the soul would be traversed. Picture a room full of budding psychologists giving tests that are designed to reach to the depths of your being – pretty scary stuff.
At that point in my life I believed that I was one of the best when it came to compartmentalizing my feelings. I was literally coming to the residency from my father’s funeral. I hardly remember driving to Minneapolis, but it was good to be able to dive into work and not think about the chaos in my swamplands for a while.
I was taking and giving assessments and flying through the requirements of the residency when after a lunch break we were to take the Thematic Apperception Test or TAT. The TAT is a series of cards with drawn images from what looks like 1930’s Hollywood movies. Despite the chaos in my personal life I had come to the residency prepared. I had seen all these cards before and even knew how they were “scored”.
One to-be psychologist flashed a card in front of me and said, “Please tell me a story about this picture that includes a beginning, middle, end, thought, and feeling.” I knew the drill and I knew that I was simply a test dummy for this student to prove she could give the test accurately. What I did not expect to gain was any kind of insight.
The purpose of the TAT is to, “…reveal the underlying motives and concerns…”. They weren’t joking. I gave all my energy and effort to not have loss, grief, sadness, and pure torture as the theme of my stories. However, despite my attempts, every story seemed darker than the one before. Each card I would tell myself, “Okay, light and easy. Light and easy.” Then the story would emerge. Card 1: “This kid looks like he loves his violin. He is very good and then his dad dies…” Okay, I will do better on this one. Card 2: “Well, obviously they are at a funeral…” Seriously? Light and easy. Card 3: “This little boy is sitting in his barn. He must be an orphan…”
I knew that being in a room of helping professionals was not the place to show weakness; however, there seemed to be no way around my “underlying motives and concerns”. My biggest take-away from that residency was not the knowledge of how to give assessments, but rather that there is something to that psychology stuff. That swampland of the soul is a real place and sometimes we can’t help but trudge around in it.
It is at best difficult to simply not think about significant experiences in your past. Your experiences, both good and bad, will shape your thoughts and behaviors. The sticky thing is that the ones you try to push away the hardest are the most insidious influencers of your mindset. Don’t let these traumas and losses linger around in the dark indefinitely. Bring them out, explore them in the light. You will be amazed at how the unexplained depression and anxiety will start to fade.
If you are struggling with unexplained depression or anxiety symptoms, perhaps it is time to share some of your struggles in an empathetic atmosphere. If it is time for you to move past your past, please contact the office for an appointment.