by Liz Covey
Counselors Roy Fisher and Liz Covey answer readers’ questions for South Seattle Emerald’s “Ask A Therapist.” Have a question about a relationship? Wondering about the struggles of being a parent? Others likely have the same questions and Covey and Fisher bring years of professional experience to provide their insights.
If you have a question, please click here and let us know. We will select two questions each month to answer. The form requires no email address or identification and is completely anonymous. If you are in crisis or in immediate need of care, please contact Crisis Connections at 1-866-427-4747.
Question: At work I feel pretty happy, and I go about my day like things are okay. But at home I feel like I’m a different person. I am lonely a lot and have struggled with depression on and off most of my life. Sometimes I don’t go out at all on the weekend. Am I being fake at work? I wonder if something is wrong with me, and which person is the real “me”.
There are many ways one can ask this question, that of the essence of the “true self”. But due to the nature of this column, let’s take a closer look at how we can interpret your work/home life imbalance from the point of view of psychological health. In the book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking, author Susan Cain laments how much pressure we put on everyone in our culture to constantly put ourselves out there and meet an “extrovert ideal”. This “ideal” is oppressive for many, since being socially engaged or externally-focused for long periods can be a real drain (or worse) if your temperament yearns for more introspection, solitude, or well, quiet.
Another perspective comes from Developmental Psychology researcher Thomas Boyce, who studies stress response in people. He and his team at UC San Francisco have found that children show widely varying degrees of stress response, measured in cortisol levels (a stress-reducing hormone) and the autonomic nervous system responses (like heart rate). His findings conclude that some people are much more sensitive to the effects of stress, meaning, more greatly affected by their environments, by how they are treated, and most especially by how they are reared as children. Their findings validate what therapists have known forever: that the more highly-sensitive one is, the more likely they are to experience all manner of reactivity and susceptibility, from the physical to the psychological to the social and the emotional.
It’s possible, Reader, that you are one of the more highly sensitive or introverted among us, what Boyce calls the “Orchid” personality (versus the “Dandelion” which is the type to have lower stress response and reactivity).
Now, counselors know a lot about temperament and sensitivity. But any of us, as cognizant citizens of the world today, know that not everyone is lucky enough to have optimal conditions for becoming the kind of person they are (or could be). Many people are walking around with parts of themselves that are convinced that there is something inherently wrong with them, as if they are deeply flawed beings.
These kinds of messages, or “parts” of us, are usually born of some hardship in childhood, and were needed in order to make sense of our situation, or to survive. These kinds of messages can persist and go on to be unquestioned within us through adulthood. We can even go so far as to agree with these parts, or to outright identify with them, making them core features of our personality. Like that friend who cannot stop criticizing herself, or that family member who is convinced that everyone is against them, despite evidence to the contrary.
But if we are to mature throughout our lives we need to grow up, not just grow old. For maturation to occur, we need to pay attention and learn, both on the inside as well as the outside. Sudoku isn’t the only way to stave off a softening of the skills- sometimes it is necessary to stop and listen- really listen– to what these messages are inside, and to evaluate how accurate they are to what is in our hearts, our minds, our souls, our true selves. This is known to us only on the level of intuition. Our felt truth.
Some would say that the whole point of psychological help is to clear a path for messages from the soul to reach the surface. So here is what psychology has to offer, as far as it seems apt to this one practitioner: Be it introversion, high sensitivity, or past parts of you that might need some updating to present conditions, you may need to listen. To listen and to feel, in order to hear what is calling to you from deep within. The truth is in there.