KC Voices: Death of the death wish
We’ve been asking members of the KC community to submit stories about life under quarantine, protests, politics, and other subjects that require discussion. If you’ve got a story you’d like to share, please send it to firstname.lastname@example.org for consideration. Today, local therapist Dawna Daigneault shares with us some thoughts on overcoming depression. Which, like, feels preeeeetty relevant right now.
What if we are each a unique Rubik’s Cube–a puzzle to figure out unlike any other?
The cube has size, shape, colors, patterns, motion, and adheres to simple rules. It’s our puzzle to solve before we know how to do anything. Our ability to solve it grows with practice and guidance from beneficial influencers. As we attempt to solve the puzzle, we learn the process of solving. The moves we make either enable us to feel more like ourselves or less.
With the best guidance, you learn that you are not the problem. You also learn that not knowing how to be you is the problem, the puzzle, and discovering who you are is the solution. Moves can be made with your cube before you get it. Even when these moves are loving, you may not want to accept all of them. The patterns on your cube get lined up the way others see you until you know different.
Things become more complex because as we grow-up we learn that we are both puzzle and solver. We can be disempowered in ways that make understanding the puzzle and becoming better at solving it challenging, such as:
- Your moves can be restricted or required by others.
- Your moves can be denied by others and by you.
- Your moves can make things more confusing, like if you learn to make moves against yourself.
Our parents gave us the love they had to give when we arrived. Love is essential to solving puzzles and the people solving them. Most of us got the amount of unconditional love we needed in the first year of life. It was one of our worst behavior years because that is the year we cried about anything and were loved anyway.
My family system made room for me when I was born. They consistently loved me even though I reacted badly to the antidepressants they had been giving my mom during her pregnancy. I cried all of the time, threw-up as soon as the car started moving, and didn’t sleep well. No conditions were placed on me because I couldn’t accept them. No punishment was pronounced because I didn’t know better.
You probably got enough unconditional love in your family, too. I believe that about you because you are engaging in an act of self-care by reading and learning today. You may not have only received unconditional love because conditional love shows up eventually, in every family. I believe that you received enough good love to know how to keep loving yourself.
The moves made on our cubes in childhood are originated by others, mostly by our caregivers who think they already know who we are. They move a few squares on the cube before you know you have a cube. Parents with good intentions start creating a script about who they think or hope you will turn out to be. They may create an expectation of how you should solve your puzzle. Mistakes are made early in your life but not by you.
A theory I love about love from Erich Fromm is, “Genuine love is an expression of productiveness and implies care, respect, responsibility, and knowledge.”
To me, this means, the people who love us want us to be productive in our pursuit of self. They teach us how to care for ourselves by caring for us. They teach us self-respect by providing mutual respect. They are responsible for the power they have over us until we have power over ourselves. And, they don’t assume they know us. They can choose to get to know us at the same time we are getting to know ourselves.
Our family system has structure already in place that allows for personal power to be used by its members. Power is vital to puzzle solving. There is usually someone who has more power–an adult. When we get access to our cube we want to start making moves. We don’t understand that some moves are dangerous, so adults make counter-moves.
My childhood seemed average even though I had a few challenges to overcome. Another challenge was having a foot and leg deformity known as metatarsus adductus or pigeon toe. My feet and my right leg rotated in too much. Braces and corrective shoes were employed early to help me walk more easily.
My mom put me in ballet classes by age three. She reasoned that the exercise would build my muscles and the positions would make my feet and legs rotate outward. She was right. Dance class is where I learned about my personal power. I would be shown what to do and then coached in how to do it but ultimately it was me making myself move well to the music.
You started learning about your personal power, too. By age two you were testing out every new move you could think up. Your caregiver would counter-move and then another more intense show of power emerged–the scream. How powerful that welling up and letting go of pink-faced frustration felt. It was resistance to counter-moves. No matter how many times your moves were blocked or redirected, you kept making moves.
The moves that hinder personal power often begin in childhood. As conditions are placed on us, we surrender certain uses of power in exchange for acceptance or safety. At first, our family just wants to keep us safe, but conditions evolve just for the convenience of not having to clean up a hundred daily messes or answer a hundred daily questions. We learn not to make certain moves on our cubes. When we don’t know why we stopped making some of the moves, we may not know to go back and check to see if that move is important to remake later.
The beginning of a death wish may start here–where we innocently give up authentic moves in order to belong.
In theory, personal power is productive when it is nurtured by a safe but responsive guide. When we are taught the boundaries of basic safety, we learn to be safe. However, additional conditions made to keep you the same, may feel disempowering, and emotionally unsafe, because they aren’t seeing you.
Our parents did what they knew how to do to be who they knew how to be. We have to trust that they have made sense of their own cubes and know how to help us make the best moves for us. That is a simple concept that becomes complicated by the lessons they’ve missed, the moves they are afraid to make, and the mistakes they hide from the world. When I refuse to see myself, I don’t fully see you.
Anger is a signal. It shows up when we dislike a move, disagree with a counter-move, or feel disrespected by the moves people make. It’s functional and useful until it isn’t. It’s important to learn the difference between feeling angry about making wrong moves versus being a stuck-mover.
My family was full of imperfect people loving imperfect people. My parents had the power to make decisions that we decided to obey. My older brother and I were washing dishes one evening and I made an accidental discovery with a spoon I was rinsing under the water. I turned it for a final rinse and the cradle of the spoon directed the full shot of water onto my brother. I laughed, he barked out his irritation and I got a swat for doing it on purpose–but I hadn’t. I had just discovered the simple physics of spoons. I was wrongly accused and punished with no recourse.
Your experience with the accepted conditions that direct your curiosity away from danger but also away from the things you’re interested in can create angry feelings. The unfair punishments that could be inappropriately harsh can create angry thinking. If you don’t have recourse to discuss your objections to what seems unfair with the adults running the system, then that anger may go inward.
The moves that we stop making may keep us out of trouble but may get us into trouble with ourselves. When we aren’t allowed to stand up for ourselves, we may not stand up to ourselves. We need to learn which moves to make or not, at the right time, in the right way, and with the right people. We also need to learn alternative moves if we are with the wrong people, in the wrong place. But if our parents have a limited repertoire of moves, they won’t have the solutions we need.
The beginning of a death wish may continue with internalizing guilt and shame over our controlled and surrendered moves.
The theory extends to anger in that when we aren’t loved for who we are, we can’t be wholly productive. Disempowerment causes more wrong moves which can be self-destructive. Why wouldn’t we get angry about a process that allows us to move against ourselves?
Our families rely on certain consistencies for the system to run smoothly. A smooth system isn’t necessarily a healthy system. Sometimes things run smoother when one person’s power is supreme but if you’re not that person you may often feel disrespected. Hating a situation means the signal flares of anger were ignored too many times.
Things we start to hate in the system we live in include, not being given enough opportunity to use personal power in constructive ways, not being heard when we talk, not being valued enough to listen too, not being shown the best way to do something, along with being labeled as defective in any way, and being overlooked or picked on.
My family system was flawed, too. When I listen to my counseling clients tell me about their dysfunctional families I think, “Welcome to the Club, the biggest club in the world.” I think back to my teenage years and how I felt different from most of my family members. It wasn’t a familiar topic at the time, I didn’t even know there was a name for the difference–I am introverted. This may seem like a little problem compared to the issues I could have named but the point is that I felt different and didn’t know how to talk about it.
I was being raised in a system that supported extroverts. I became more extraverted but also tired. My mom seemed to get energy from going to the many events we attended but I was lagging in energy at the end of those social gatherings. I didn’t know how to talk about what I needed. My parents didn’t know how to coach me about being introverted and I saw the attention (rewards) extroverted behavior won my siblings. So, I fit in by having a more outgoing personality.
Your losses in childhood, even though they may seem small, add up over time. Micro-losses that happened ten thousand times in a few important developmental years make a big difference in loving or hating your life now. Do you know what you gave up to fit into your family? Does anyone know what you gave up? Did you remake yourself using the approved moves instead of the moves that resonated with you? Do you give yourself permission to stop stopping your authentic moves?
The moves we make that make us hate our lives, the many missed or required moves that add up over time cause us to us feel less like us. We make moves that seem make others feel better, but feel farther away from our truth. If the system you grew up in didn’t teach you that some of the moves you get to make aren’t going to make sense to everyone, you may be afraid of making those moves–even when they are the best move for you.
The next level of death wish development may include being afraid or ashamed that you haven’t solved your puzzle or think you can’t.
A quote by Martha Nussbaum is helpful, “Our emotional life maps our incompleteness: A creature without any needs would never have reasons for fear, or grief, or hope, or anger. But for that reason, we often feel ashamed of our emotions…”
Our family system may have allowed for apathy to develop because it didn’t tolerate anger. Apathy is an eraser. It will show up as an option that seems reasonable given that you can’t show those ugly awful feelings you’re experiencing. By the time you discover apathy as an option, you’ve learned what not to say. So, it makes sense that learning to not feel might work, too.
My experience with apathy has become one of the saddest parts of my job as a counselor. I can see the harmless application of a technique that works to stop the pain. A life of not feeling pain sounds like a win. When we stop feeling pain, we stop feeling power, too. Apathy requires a full surrender of self and that is why it isn’t harmless at all. It’s not loud, rude, or aggressive but it is destructive.
You may have dabbled in the use of apathy after a break-up. First, every song you hear is a sad song, and then you only notice the mad songs, and then you just want to stop caring. Caring takes energy. So, you stop talking about it, stop thinking about it, and hope to stop feeling the hurt. Maybe, nobody told you that sometimes hurting is a good thing. That hurt means that you attached, that you cared, that you were in it to win it. It means that you honor the power of another person to withdraw, for whatever reason, from something you invested in. Feeling hurt doesn’t stop life not feeling anything might.
The moves we learn that allow for apathy as an option include not being allowed to make important moves for ourselves, not being allowed to say what we value without backlash, not being allowed to show feelings without judgment, and not being allowed to be true to ourselves in the million ways we need to. The none-moves disempower the solver quietly.
Further death wish moves may include us trying to avoid our self or shutdown from hating ourselves for what we’ve become.
A theory that proves helpful from Stephen Hayes is “practice makes permanent.” What we start practicing in childhood, even the denial of our right moves becomes our auto-pilot. This default setting can make us feel stuck or incapable but the world is full of teachers who will listen before advising. These teachers, counselors, mentors understand that you are the expert in being you and they believe in your next best moves.
Nobody is born with a death wish. None of us wanted to grow up to create one either. It happens slowly in the millions of small decisions that take us away from our true self until the day the love script is replaced by loathing, “Why keep living a life that isn’t mine?” This thought allows for more self-annihilation scripting. “If I’m not me, then I’m not worthy.” “What’s the point?”
The Fuck It Switch can only be flipped so many times before it seems useless. Anger is exhausting and it doesn’t create real meaning. In fact, the more meaningless our personal power seems the angrier we get. So, we hit the switch–turn that feeling off. The erasing of one feeling leads to two, three, and so on. Not feeling really isn’t living and so the point, the meaning of living, gets lost more easily.
My favorite story about finding meaning in an oppressive system comes from Viktor Frankl when he was a prisoner in a death camp during WWII. He had been a prominent doctor in Vienna curing suicidal patients before his hospital was seized and he lost his place in the world. He was trained to observe and learn about people, so he did. He watched his own thoughts about loss, pain, fear, and surrender. He kept learning about himself through the worst period of his life. He didn’t let his captors, the war, or his losses steal his right to keep making moves. They were mental moves–but all his.
You may have caught yourself thinking about the meaninglessness of your life – or how pointless a situation seems. The first flip of the Fuck It Switch feels validating. It is a powerful resistance to refuse to let someone keep changing your cube. Just chuck the cube = done. But what are you done with? Ending pain also ends power. Once it becomes a habit to chuck the cube, the last chuck is easy. Practice makes permanent–when you practice giving up your truth, your story, your power, you’re already not living.
The moves at this stage become a pattern of wrong moves that you didn’t make all by yourself. You may have thought you were making the best moves because they came with acceptance. When acceptance comes from someone else, we learn to get it outside of ourselves, instead of building our own. Wrong fight, wrong way, wrong surrender, and wrong life moves result from detouring from our truth.
The death wish has taken years to evolve into a willingness to surrender our last bit of power, to accept an inability to become authentic as a solution to what’s been puzzling us.
An idea that Viktor Frankl provides, “Where intellectual cognition fails an existential decision is due. Vis-à-vis the fact that it is equally conceivable that everything is absolutely meaningful and that everything is absolutely meaningless, in other words, that the scales are equally high, we must throw the weight of our own being into one of the scales.”
Our drift into meaninglessness makes it easier to throw our weight, our cube, away. To surrender all of our power to the nothingness. Unproductive isn’t what we were made to be. No matter how unmanageable your puzzle seems today there is another move to make. Our potential waits for us to remember it.
We are going to make a lot of wrong moves and still solve the puzzle. This isn’t a race–people who seem to have it figured out may not have. The ones who do have something solved are the ones happy to help you make new moves–the best moves for you–because that’s what they love to do.
My puzzle is mostly solved and mostly solved is good enough. My life is filled with wrong and right moves. I make fewer major adjustments to it as I get older, but I enjoy playing around with new ideas. When I studied psychology in college, I learned some difficult lessons. I had to come face to face with the version of myself practicing wrong moves. I made myself look, hard, at those moves. I cried a lot about the messed-up patterns on my cube. Then I started making new moves–got some of those wrong–and made different new moves–then got more of those right for me.
You have the potential to make new moves, more productive and useful moves, no matter how many wrong moves have been made. It’s not your personality (which is just a pattern of repeated behaviors that we accept as us). It’s not out of your control–even if you’ve been controlled by others. It’s hard until it isn’t. Remember, practice makes permanent–so new moves get easier.
The moves here are to keep solving the puzzle. Stop judging the wrong moves and, learn from them. Feel the moves and you will know which ones resonate with you – keep those moves. Don’t compare cubes and don’t follow someone’s pattern unless it makes you feel more like you.
A Life Wish works to restore your potential and your power.
The theory that works here is to put your weight into being you. That’s all we have to do to have a meaningful life. Meaninglessness arrives slowly from too many ‘not me’ moments. You get to be here–to exist–so be you. Make your moves, be more you.
Our ability to learn from our mistakes is an opportunity to be unique. Using Fromm’s concept of genuine love, we can know ourselves better, be responsible for shaping our story, be more caring and careful with our moves, and respect the process of becoming ourselves.
My cube isn’t solved. I have some of my patterns figured out, but I have more learning to do. It’s daunting and exciting to learn more about myself. One of my favorite experiences was mapping as many of my moves as I could, through working with a trusted mentor and reinforcing the moves that make me more me. With practice, I crafted new patterns that make a life to love.
You are not lost; you just aren’t yet found. You can pick up your puzzle and start making moves. It’s okay if they are mistakes–you can learn more about who you are not meant to be from mistakes. Life wishing is about power moves that invite respect, moves that connect, moves that feel genuine and kind, moves that inspire more and different moves.
Your power is in your next move.
The theory from Fromm is, “The affirmation of one’s own life, happiness, growth, freedom is rooted in one’s capacity to love, i.e., in care, respect, responsibility, and knowledge.” Loving ourselves is possible when we use our power to keep solving our puzzle and make life-affirming moves.
The Trevor Project Lifeline 1-866-488-7386
The Institute on Aging Friendship Line (Hotline) 1-800-971-0016
1-800-273-8255 National Suicide Hotline
Text HOME to 741741 Crisis Text Line