How a label of mental illness drove me to hide in shame
I’m on a mission to shine a light on one cause of ‘depression’ that I wasn’t taught in medical school.
For more than two decades I thought there was something really wrong with me. I thought I was carrying a serious diagnosis of clinical depression. Based on what people around me said it seemed true.
I certainly felt depressed, I had very dark thoughts, I felt hopeless, I was really sad, and I really wanted my life to be over.
When I admitted this for the first time in high school, I felt so much shame. I felt like such a loser as if I was defective. I experienced it again in medical school and tried antidepressants, but they made me feel flat and numb.
So, I sucked it up, keeping it to myself for 15 years until it affected my relationships with devastating consequences.
Eventually the low mood, shame and trying to get by caused me to hit an all time low. And still I hid.
No one knew that I was depressed. Despite having a lot of outward signs of success — the things that my peers said should make me happy — I felt miserable.
The reason I came out with my story in my first TEDx and my recent memoir is because the type of depression I experienced was not due to some brain chemical imbalance. The low moods and suicidal thoughts were not based on a clinical disease. The sadness and hopelessness I felt was not remedied by antidepressants nor self-help books.
Like many creative types and high functioning celebs, the type of depression I experienced is often misdiagnosed.
Why depression caused by society, peers, family and media goes undiagnosed.
I can safely say that social and family programming along with my environment set me up for dark emotional times. Being teased, scolded and shamed for expressing my real emotions and dreams caused me to hide my real self.
Being afraid to show my real self, because I was different than everyone else, made me become a chameleon to fit in. Hiding my authentic self created an even bigger melting pot of self-loathing, depression and anxiety.
The sad truth is that now that I’ve been sharing my story and teaching around the world I’ve discovered that this kind of socially-induced depression is more common than we all think.
And since no one talks about how not feeling safe to be your real self is linked to low moods and suicidal thoughts, there are millions of people suffering in silence.
When we deny or hide our true self we fight our true nature. Fighting with nature costs us energy, time, vitality and precious life. That’s because fighting your true nature is a losing battle.
I have come to understand that a lack of self-love, low confidence and depression were actually linked to not living as and loving my real self. And I’m not alone.
I believe that we all need to revisit the work of Abraham Maslow to remember that self-actualization and self-transcendence are part of humankind’s natural drive. And if our family and societal structure are thwarting that innate drive to be, express and evolve our authentic self, then we are setting ourselves up for more suffering and less productivity in our workforce.
Living somebody else’s purpose instead of your own is now becoming more widely reported as a contributing factor to depression, and even anxiety.
Denied expression of our authentic self can lead to depression
What has also inspired me to go further is the need for connection and reassurance that is lacking from the conventional therapeutic model for depression and anxiety. I recently founded the Real Self Love Movement with my friend and colleague Helene Philipsen. You are invited to join us at www.RealSelf.love. You can download the Real Self Love Manifesto, several guided meditations and attend live Masterclasses for free.
You can read the full account of how I broke free from depression and anxiety and healed past shame in I Love You, Me! I’ve included a short excerpt of the book here for you to understand my perspective.
If this resonates with you and you’d like to add your voice to the mission or get support, please join the Movement and share this post with those who also need a safe, loving community to finally feel free to live authentically.
How I Learned to Love and Be The Real Me
In August of 2005 I asked God to take my life.
After an impromptu vocal performance in a dreamy night club in St. Tropez, France, exhilarated but confused, I was ready for my life to be over. No, I wasn’t drunk or drugged. I was so blissed out from temporarily living the life I really wanted, that I didn’t want to go on living the miserable life I had before.
The irony is, from the outside, it appeared that I had an ideal life. Back in the United States I had a beautiful home, a sexy convertible car, a million-dollar business and all the trappings of success. Only three years into my professional career I’d already published my first book, appeared on Oprah — multiple times — and I was slightly famous.
As “America’s Empowerment Doctor” I was known for setting people free from disease, depression and dead-end careers. I had people coming to see me from far and wide to help them heal and have a fabulous life, like mine. I regularly appeared in magazines and TV talk shows flashing a bright smile from ear to ear.
But my smile did not reflect true happiness. Not at all. On the inside I was miserable. Nobody could tell, of course. When my career seemed to be at an all-time high and I had everything that one would consider worthwhile, I was utterly miserable. It was painful because I didn’t like who I had become. My media image was that of a prudish know-it-all who wasn’t following her own advice: “Honor your dreams, for they are the treasures of your soul.”
Yeah, right! In truth I’m a performing artist with a medical degree — an actress who played a doctor on TV. Yet, I wasn’t honoring my dream to sing, act, and perform. Instead I secretly lived with depression for over a decade.
Every day I struggled to put on that happy smile before leaving the house to face the world. I had a deep sense of not being good enough, so I would strive to learn more facts, do more good, give more love, and achieve more goals. Despite being pursued by multiple suitors I couldn’t seem to keep a relationship to save my life. My heart ached for love, the love and acceptance I didn’t feel I deserved, but desperately wished for.
Many people are surprised to learn that I suffered from a lack of self-love and depression for decades. But it’s true, I didn’t love myself and I felt like a fraud.
My tactic to deal with the internal gloom was to achieve more success, attain more degrees and certifications, and accumulate more accolades for my work. I would give my time and money to family, friends, and charities — things that our culture says will make us happy and honorable. However, when I achieved something great I’d see only the faults, the imperfections; all the places where I had fallen short of my ideal.
After all the work and sacrifice I didn’t even allow myself to enjoy the fruits of my labor. I didn’t enjoy the mental or emotional boost of a job well done. Instead, fearing that my ego would get puffed up, I denied the brilliance of my accomplishments. Even while others cheered, applauded, and congratulated me, I never felt good enough. I didn’t feel worthy of admiration.
I hid behind a protective shell of doing, but I was dying inside.
I was plagued by the dreaded “Imposter Syndrome.” I was constantly anxious and worried that someone would discover I didn’t really know my stuff, that I was a fraud. I didn’t dare show how pitiful I felt because I had made that mistake before. I was met with looks of disbelief as those around me said I should be grateful for all that I had. I was grateful, but I didn’t feel proud or fulfilled. My reputation for teaching and inspiring others left me isolated. I had no one to confess how I really felt. I hid behind a protective shell of doing, but I was dying inside.
Eventually, I realized that no matter how much I achieved, how much money I made, or how rich my personal lifestyle was it would always be society’s ideal, not mine. So somewhere around age thirty, I began the several-year-long process of shedding my perfectionistic skin and to stop trying to live up to other people’s ideal of accomplishment and success.
I stopped doing things for the sake of looking good and relaxed my standards. I soon discovered that other things in life could bring me true joy and fulfillment. After years of therapy and soul-searching I learned that the depression I experienced wasn’t solely linked to my insatiable childlike need for approval, nor was it purely biochemical.
My sadness was also caused by my denial to fully express the desire of my soul to create and perform artistically.
To understand this better, let me take you back a few years in my timeline. Throughout my childhood I could be found on stage, on TV, or performing at my mother’s house parties. This was the time when I felt most happy and fully alive. However, my father always told me that musicians and actors are a dime a dozen and that there were no guarantees that I could support myself as a performing artist. So as an adult I denied my soul its full creative expression. I held back the most passionate part of myself because I mistakenly believed that the arts were frivolous, and that being a healer would be more worthwhile. In my case, was I ever wrong!
Always curious and constantly researching my own journey of self-loathing, depression, and anxiety, led me to ask a lot of questions about life and love. While searching for relief from my own mental anguish I hit rock bottom and I cried out to the Divine for help. It was during a serious emotional low point in 2005, my “dark night of the soul.” My life felt like a lie, except for that glorious night in the South of France.
I was on a retreat-style vacation where, in true artist fashion, I courageously sang my heart out to a club of partygoers who didn’t know my name or boring US TV image. It was pure bliss! And it was a far cry from the boring routine I lived back in the US, the very dim life I was set to return to in a matter of days.
Following the ecstasy of entertaining as my most bold self I returned to my hotel room in Cannes. All alone, the familiar dark mood returned when I realized that in just three days time I’d have to return to my life in America.
It was then that I cried out to God to take it all — my body, talents, and business. I sobbed, “I don’t know what I’m doing with my life! YOU take it!”
I was wracked with an intense longing for meaning, a glimmer of joy, and some kind of relief. I wasn’t suicidal, I would not have harmed myself. But I did want out of my personal pain. In total despair, I sobbed and flung myself onto the bed; my body trembled intensely. What happened next was a mystical, out of body, near-death-like experience where I thought God was answering my prayer to end my life…
To read more about how I learned to love myself and live free from depression get a copy of the book, I Love You, Me!
This post includes excerpts from I Love You, Me! My Journey of Overcoming Depression and Finding Real Self Love with a foreword by Karena Virginia. Visit www.RealSelf.love for free guided meditations, live Masterclasses and more from Dr. Andrea and other Real Self Love Leaders from around the world.
This article first appeared on AndreaPennington.com