If you’ve been feeling down and are on the fence about getting professional help, this article may help you make a decision.
Culturally, asking for help is a big deal. It says, “I can’t fix it on my own.” In the United States, we are socialized from early on to believe we’re supposed to be able to take care of things independently. So the impulse to get help goes against our social conditioning – it puts us in conflict with ourselves.
At the risk of sounding anti-American (I really do love our country), I need to mention a criticism I have: our culture inundates us with images of independence and self-sufficiency.
The image of the lone hero is an icon of American culture. Movie characters like Indiana Jones, Batman, James Bond and numerous Clint Eastwood roles all reinforce the message that struggling single-handedly is something to strive for.
Whether we are male or female, we all get the same message. More, we get the impression that it works. The image and message of self-sufficiency translates as internalized demands to “go it alone,” “take care of it myself” and to “not burden anyone with my problems.”
In this article I won’t delve into all the ways Western culture tells us to “do it” on our own. But I will say that even in the field of psychology, theories of human development assume that autonomy is the pinnacle of psychological strength and mental health (Jordan, 1984, 1989, 2010, Miller and Stiver, 1997).
Here’s where I defend the impulse to get help. Just because “going it alone” is an accepted American value doesn’t mean it’s necessarily appropriate or effective when it comes to your emotional, psychological and/or spiritual well being.
Remember: once upon a time we all believed the world was flat. Relational-Cultural Theory (RCT), recently identified by the American Psychological Association “as one of the ten most important psychological theories today” (Carlson, e-Connections Newsletter, 2012), offers a new perspective.
Based on listening to what people said about their actual experience (Miller 1976, Miller & Stiver 1997, Robb 2006, Jordan 2010), RCT scholars found that relational “connection,” (Miller & Stiver, 1997, Jordan, 2010) not emotional isolation, is central to healthy human development.
What that means is, if you’ve been living up to the cultural messages to manage it by yourself, you’re spinning your wheels. You’re going to make better, faster progress if you let a professional support you.
Why The “Lone Hero” Strategy Doesn’t Work – Neuroscience
We are now seeing that the values of psychological self-sufficiency replete in our culture work against mental health (Jordan, 2010). Recent findings in neuroscience bear out the centrality of relationship in well-being (Siegel & Hartzell, 2003; Cozolino, 2006; Banks, 2010).
The idea, “I don’t need anyone,” is incorrect. That’s right. It’s just plain wrong.
Self-reliance might have its place, but it doesn’t apply to mental health. In the last ten years, studies of the brain have revealed that human beings are “wired” for relational connection.
What’s more, healthy brain development is dependent on healthy relationships. Daniel Siegel, M.D., writes: “Experience shapes brain structure. Experience is biology. How we treat our children changes who they are and how they will develop” (2003 p. 34). Louis Cozolino (2006) who wrote, The Neuroscience of Human Relationships adds,
“Our experience of the world is constructed around the notion of the isolated self, and it is from this perspective that Western science has explored the brain. Yet, even though we cherish the idea of individuality, we live with the paradox that we constantly regulate each others’ internal biological states (De Vries et al., 2003; Hofer, 1984, 1987).
While most obvious in childhood and intense states of love and bereavement, our interdependence is a constant reality of our existence… We have evolved as social creatures… all of our biologies are interwoven” (p.3).
Concretely, the brain develops normally as the child experiences an empathically responsive world. Infant and child cues that are typically well met by primary caregivers assure the child that the world is a safe and nurturing place. These positive experiences trigger chemical processes that enable healthy brain development.
Conversely, failure to respond to a baby’s and young child’s needs effectively produces poor neurological development, leaving the baby/child less able to cope with normal life stressors.
Literally, the chemical processes in the brain, in the context of poor relational interactions, lead to poorer functioning in the world.
In other words, we need responsive, relational connection in order for normal brain development to occur.
What is the relevance to you as an adult? Louis Cozolino tells us, “The brain is an organ of adaptation that builds its structures through interactions with others” (2006, p.6).
He’s saying that your brain is continually changing in response to the relational environments you find yourself in. Have you ever noticed that in some company, you’re able to express yourself clearly, directly and spontaneously while among other people, it’s much harder (Jordan, remarks, Jean Baker Miller Training Institutes)?
You might feel less inclined to talk, less clear about what you have to say – you might feel positively stupid among some people while among others you feel smart. The difference lies in the biochemical processes elicited by the quality of connection emerging in each relational context.
Here’s another example of the centrality of human relations to brain activity. Researchers N.I. Eisenberger and Leiberman, M.D. found that the pain of social exclusion lights up the same neural pathways as physical pain (as cited in Banks, 2010).
“The human body and mind do not differentiate between physical pain and social rejection or isolation in terms of the amount of stress placed on the body” (Banks, 2010, p.3).
Feelings of not fitting in, not being up to snuff – feelings that cause a sense of shame and/or humiliation – often undergird feelings of depression and anxiety. These feelings register just the same as if the pain were physical.
So, getting back to the question of getting professional help: if your leg is broken, do you ignore it, tell yourself you’re making it up or that you can fix it yourself?
Emotional pain is just as legitimate. But you can’t put a cast around your brain. Instead you need the kind of relational environment that stimulates the development of healthier neural pathways, so that you can change and grow.
Growth Fostering Relationship & Five Good Things
Even before neuro-scientists identified the essential role that healthy relationships play in normal brain development, Relational-Cultural Therapists had found that relational connection is central to mental health. By listening intently to their clients’ actual experience (Miller 1976, Miller & Stiver 1997, Robb 2006, Jordan 2010), and by “meeting regularly to study women’s psychological development with an emphasis on our own experiences working with women” (Surrey, 1990) the RCT scholars observed that, “Movement through and toward connection” (Jordan, 2010, p.1) is the “ongoing organizer and source of motivation in peoples’ lives” (Jordan, 2010, p.1).
Further, they found that “growth-fostering relationships” (Miller & Stiver, 1997, p.16) are distinguished from other kinds of relationship by the “five good things” (Miller & Stiver, 1997, p. 30; Jordan, 2010, p. 25) that result: “1) A sense of zest or well-being that comes from connecting with another person(s); 2) An increased ability and motivation to take action in the relationship as well as in other situations; 3) Increased [clarity about] oneself and the other person(s) and the relationship; 4) An increased sense of self-worth; 5) A desire for more connection beyond the particular one” (Miller & Stiver, 1997).
A relationship that gives rise to the five good things is the kind that can help you move through the unhappy or troubled place you might find yourself in now, toward a more satisfying and connected daily experience.
If you think about it, the “five good things” are the direct opposites of those things that we experience when we feel depressed: 1) Lack of energy; not feeling motivated to do the things we normally like to do; 2) No sense that there is anything we can do to make a positive change; a sense of helplessness; 3) Confusion about why we are so down; lack of clarity about our own experience and that of those who are important to us, 4) A poor sense of our own worth, (which arises in the absence of validation and is reinforced by negative self talk like, “I shouldn’t feel this way…”) , 5) And self-isolation – no desire to connect with others (Miller & Stiver, 1997). We might feel alienated, that others don’t care or even that they are hurtful.
This is a dangerous state to be in. People kill themselves over this. Neurologically, humans are not meant to go through life with this intensity of isolation. We’re meant to go through things together. If this is you, please get help right away.
If you are not thinking about suicide, but you’ve been feeling down too much or are too anxious, please get into psychotherapy.
The blues are your brain’s way of telling you that you need more connection. The crux of the whole thing is if you are trying to recover from depression and or anxiety, you can’t neurologically achieve that goal in isolation – your brain needs the experience of bonding (Amen, 1998). In other words, it – or better said, you – need relationship; but not just any relationship. You need the type that fosters growth.
Growth Fostering Relationships are Key
If you are struggling with the decision to go into therapy because you see yourself as weak, please judge no more. The “lone ranger” (Jordan, 1986) strategy can’t work to resolve your depression because it works against your neurological and psychological need for connection.
Your body informs that little voice in the back of your head suggesting you need help. Listen to it. New perspectives arising both in psychological research and more recently, in the field of neuro-science are showing us that growth-fostering relationships are key.
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Carlson, J. (2012). In e-Connections Newsletter. Spring, 2012.
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Jordan, J.V. (1984). Empathy and self boundaries. Work in Progress 16. Wellesley
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Jordan, J.V. (1986). The Meaning of mutuality. Work in Progress 23. Wellesley College:
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Jordan, J.V. (1989). Relational development; Therapeutic implications of empathy and shame. Work in Progress 39.
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Jordan, J.V. (2010). Relational-Cultural Therapy. Washington, DC: American
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Miller, J.B. & Stiver, I.P. (1997). The Healing Connection. Boston: Beacon Press.
Miller, J.B. (2003). Telling the truth about power. Work in Progress 100. Wellesley College: Stone Center Working Paper Series.
Robb, C. (2006). This Changes Everything. New York: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux.
Siegel, D. J. & Hartzell, M. (2003). Parenting from the Inside Out. New York: Jeremy P.
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Wellesley College: Stone Center Talking Paper Series.Stated by Jon Carlson, Psy.D. Ed.D., co-editor of the APA’s Theories of Psychotherapy Series – e-connections newsletter Spring 2012 RCT scholars began developing their insights starting with the work of JBM, which she published in 1976. She had been developing her ideas “over the [previous] ten years” (Miller, 1976). Relational neuro-science publications arrived on the scene in the 2000’s; starting with Siegel’s book, Parenting from the Inside Out, published in 2003.