Constipated: Control and depression

(If you’re new to Monkeytraps, Steve is a therapist who specializes in control issues, and Bert is his control-addicted inner monkey.

That’s Bert at left, looking depressed.

Bert speaking:)

Steve says depression is called the “common cold” of mental illness.

Interesting way to view it. 

I’ve had my cold for almost sixty years.

It started when I was in grade school.  Nobody called it depression, of course.  This was the fifties.  I’m not sure if back then anyone even knew kids got depressed.   

All I knew was I felt crappy: sad, shy, nervous, worried.  Different.  Flawed. Preferred being alone.  Preferred books to people.  Preferred tv to real life. 

“Moody,” mom called it.  “Difficult” was dad’s diagnosis.

I also remember feeling guilty about feeling crappy.  Must be my fault, I thought.  Teachers were always writing on my report cards could do better if he’d try.   So I decided feeling crappy meant I was somehow doing Life wrong, that I’d feel better if I just tried harder.   Only I didn’t know how.

Steve wants to add something.

Self-blame is pretty common.  The depressed people I know tend to see their mood disorder not as illness but some sort of personal weakness or failure.  I’ve always thought this is the worst part of depression.  It’s hard enough to feel bad all the time.  Blaming yourself for feeling bad just adds insult to injury.

I felt lousy through adolescence and into adulthood.   I got some therapy and some medication along the way.  (And read lots of books.  I mean, lots of books.)  But it was only in middle age, after Steve began to work as a therapist, that I came to understand why I felt like this.  

It was Steve’s work with clients that taught me I didn’t get depressed because dad drank, or mom was unhappy, or they divorced when I was in second grade.  Or because of anything, really, that happened to me.  

I got depressed because of how I reacted to what happened.

Or rather, how I didn’t react.

Steve, you explain.

The best book I know on the subject is Depression and the Body by Alexander Lowen.  It taught me to see depression as a physical symptom — a form of  exhaustion that comes from fighting oneself, by holding in feelings that want and need to come out. 

Put differently: depression is caused by emotional constipation. 

Ever been physically constipated?  Did you notice how, the longer it lasted, the more uncomfortable you felt?  How it came to occupy all your energy and attention?    

Held-in feelings affect us the same way.

It’s no accident that people in recovery use excretory metaphors  (“my shit’s coming up,” “get my shit together,”  “acts like his shit doesn’t stink”) to describe emotional processes.  For feelings are a kind of waste material, the emotional byproducts of experience, just as feces are the physical byproducts of what we eat.  And just as physical waste must be expelled from the body, feelings are meant to be expressed — not hidden or stored up.

And when they aren’t, we get sick: emotionally, physically and spiritually. 

“The self is experienced through self-expression,” Lowen writes, “and the self fades when the avenues of self-expression are closed…. 

“The depressed person is imprisoned by unconscious barriers of ‘shoulds’ and ‘shouldn’ts,’ which isolate him, limit him, and eventually crush his spirit.”

In my family self-expression wasn’t an option.  Dad’s drinking and mom’s depression made that impossible.   Neither of them knew how to deal with their own feelings; how could I expect them to cope with mine? 

So like all kids, I adapted to my parents.  I learned to control their reactions to me — avoid rejection, conflict, disappointment — by hiding or burying what I felt.  I moved out of my body, took up residence in my head, and developed a personality organized around this way of coping.

I’m a sixty-one-year-old monkey now, and still organized that way. 

Yes, despite all that Steve and I learned together, Plan A isn’t easy to leave behind.  So stuffing feelings is still my first impulse, especially under stress.  I still find it scary to surrender to feelings, to give up overcontrolling myself and others.  I probably always will.     

But I rarely feel lousy in the old way anymore. 

Why?  Because now I know I have a choice. 

I can express myself, or I can depress myself.

Or, put another way: 

I can fight against feelings and keep losing.   Or I can practice surrender and, at least some of the time, rise above the common cold.


Want more?

“You are your body.  And your head doesn’t control it.”

Check out this interview with Alexander Lowen (subtitled in Spanish) in which he outlines his ideas about the body, feeling, movement, basic principles of Bioenergetic therapy, culture, insanity, health, breathing and connection.  Compiled from fragments posted on the Lowen Foundation web site.


Read “What is depression (and what is it not)?” at the interesting Wing of Madness web site . 


Finally, an article by Deborah Gray about  “Identifying non-traditional depressive symptoms”  at


17 responses to “Constipated: Control and depression

  • Khursheed

    Great insight Bert ! so true about feelings/emotions being held in the body…
    Steve have u done any workshops or training in Bioenergy?

    • fritzfreud

      Thanks, Khursheed. No, I haven’t done any trainings, just read a slew of Lowen’s books. Some contain exercises, and I’ve played around with those. But in the end it’s his theoretical view of human beings that I’ve found most helpful.

  • john

    WOW,,,,,,, Burt your post s keep getting better each week, I wake up every sunday looking for it. Each week I really read into ur blog and try and figure it out to best help me in my life but this week you explained it so easy for me to understand. If I express my feelings I will feel better and if I dont express my feelings and push them down I will feel worse. ITS THAT FREEKIN EASY??? Wonder why I cant get it “my plan B” easier. Once again you have given me something to work on this week. Thanks again Burt!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    • fritzfreud

      Thanks, John. Happy to hear you find the blog helpful.

      I wouldn’t say feelings are easy, though. Being a feeling person does get easier when we stop fighting it, but having to live with other people makes it an ongoing challenge. We need to balance our need for expression with respectful consideration of how our expression affects other people. And the healthy alternative to emotional constipation is certainly not emotional diarrhea. What’s that old saying? “Your right to swing your arm ends at the tip of my nose.” (I won’t translate that into excretory terms. You’re welcome.) 🙂

  • Lisa Frederiksen -

    Wow — this is incredible — such a clear, gripping explanation of depression and what it’s like to experience it as a child and how we wire coping skills around it! Thank you!!

  • Marie

    Very good explanation of how suppressoin of feelings leads to depression. Fortunately in this day many more educators and child therapists recognize that children get depressed. Unfortunatley it wasn’t like that when I was a kid either. Thank you for sharing your personal experiences with us. I appreciate the courage it takes to share such private events.

  • Linda R.

    Hey Steve,
    I agree with John: ‘…your posts keep getting better each week’, and what I personally enjoy the most is your interactions with the people who leave comments. I not only gain incite from your original post, but then again from your responses (i.e. ‘We need to balance our need for expression with respectful consideration of how our expression affects other people’). I think that sentence to a large degree explains why some people become emotionally constipated to begin with. It’s often very difficult to find & walk that line.

  • fritzfreud

    Thanks, Linda. Yes, it’s a slippery slope. I think many of us set out to be appropriately respectful — and tell ourselves that’s what we’re doing — but then end up scared poopless. That’s because the social rewards for being constipated are so much greater than those we get for being emotionally honest. So committing to honesty requires courage. You have to become a sort of spiritual warrior. The poet e.e. cummings said it best: “To be nobody but yourself in a world which is doing its best, night and day, to make you everybody else means to fight the hardest battle which any human being can fight; and never stop fighting.”

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  • Susan P.

    Great post on depression but one could come away with the impression that if we express our feelings our depression will go away. How do you view the effect of genetics, as in chemical imbalance, as in low serotonin? I would love to throw my meds down the toilet, have wanted to do that for years. Would love to hear your take on this.

    • fritzfreud

      Thanks, Susan. Can’t speak intelligently about the role of genetics in depression. I can say that every case of depression I’ve ever treated could be explained in terms of learned behavior — i.e., as a symptom of not learning how to process feelings in a healthy way. As for “the impression that if we express our feelings our depression will go away,” here’s a question for you: Are you so sure that’s impossible?

      • Susan P.

        Nothing is impossible, right? I sure hope your theory is true. I’ve been expressing my feelings (or so I believe) verbally and in my writing (memoir), more than ever before. So I am better for that – no argument there. But there is a sadness that lingers, and the taskmaster (self blame) inside demands so much that oftentimes I wind up drained. I am working on this, first by trying to accept and love myself just as I am and putting aside the worries of how others feel or think about me (that includes the taskmaster). I guess the only way I will know for sure if depression is genetic is to slowly wean from the meds. But after 11 years I wonder: Who will you be without them??

        • fritzfreud

          Several thoughts:
          (1) I’m glad to hear that expressing yourself more has helped you feel better. But hey, let’s be realistic. A lifetime of suppression is not undone quickly. My guess (and there’s no way to prove this) is that, to fully recover, we probably need to spend as much time expressing feelings as we have depressing them. Don’t know about you, but I’m not there yet. So I just keep practicing and try to stay patient.

          (2) Re: your sadness and that internal taskmaster: Both suggest the presence of old emotional business (grief and anger) not yet fully processed. Again, it takes time to grieve losses, especially if they’re of long standing. And learning to externalize anger we’ve spent years turning against ourselves (the taskmaster’s job) is difficult and scary work, work whose progress often depends on the amount of safety and support available to us. Are you getting enough of both?

          (3) Finally, I don’t see what weaning off meds would prove, about genetics or anything. And asking “who you’d be” without them implies that you’re someone other than yourself while you take them. I see it differently. I think depression is what deforms the self, twists it out of all recognition, and that medication which restores even some of that self’s natural energy and hope is a good thing, not a crutch to despise or toss away as soon as possible.

          • Susan P.

            Thanks, Steve. A lot of good thoughts to ponder, especially “a lifetime of suppression is not undone quickly.” As usual, I am too hard on myself. Oh if only it was easier to love one’s self, how much love it would free to spread around our wounded world. But yes, wounded self first, then maybe a little corner of the world somewhere. . .

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