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Depression During the Holidays

Gripped by the Archetype of the Outsider

Depression During the Holidays

The shadow side of this period of light and hope is darkness and despair, and many people fall into darkness at this time of year. They feel left out.

Deep depression, the kind that goes on day after day or leads to suicidal thoughts, is complex and needs to be treated carefully and from every angle. Do everything you can to get the right professional help, today. But the standard treatments usually leave out the deeper elements, which I will try to balance. One such element is the problem of becoming identified with the archetype of the Outsider.

There is nothing bleaker, or more dangerous to survival, than being alone in the cold, physically or emotionally hungry, left out, while others are gathered around the fire, sharing food and gifts and above all, love. Remember the story of The Little Match Girl? (If you do not, or want a cathartic experience to balance the sweet stuff, you might want to listen to David Lang's The Little Match Girl Passion.) That cold, starving little girl alone in the dark and snow on the Big Night is a true archetypal symbol, in that we all instantly, instinctually, understand her unbearable fate. We know about dying of cold and lighting those last matches in which to glimpse the warmth, food, and glorious Christmas tree that fate has denied her. If we really are feeling the Outsider, our mind and body fall into despair. We freeze to death during this season of warmth.

Many depressions—not all of course—begin in early childhood. Something goes wrong in those early bonds, leaving a yearning for closeness of the deepest kind, hopelessness about getting it, and the stubborn core sense of worthlessness that comes from not having been adored. Now, at this time of year, you face images of adoring mother and child, the first "in group." You were not in that archetypal twosome. That is how you came to envision yourself in relation to others. From this first group, there were other groups where you felt left out. Now, during the holidays, everyone else seems enveloped in love, but not you. Even at a holiday party or in the "warmth" of your family you can feel the Outsider, full of the dark thoughts that, if spoken, would cause everyone to turn away in horror.

Failing to receive normal love early in life does not always leave a conscious yearning. It can be such a defeat and humiliation that you have solved it by repressing your desire and deciding not to need anyone. Being the Outsider is fine in your opinion at other times of the year, but that buried yearning is harder to ignore during the holidays. You feel depressed, but perhaps without knowing why.

Defeats of other kinds, such losing your job, also lead to these feelings of being the Outsider. It is easy to assume that you cannot be really included, except as someone to be pitied, but that is not belonging to the group of the joyful and loved.

Carl Jung, who spoke so much about archetypes and complexes, warned against identifying for long with any archetype—whether Victim or Hero, Martyr or Rescuer, even Mother or Father. But we all have complexes. At the heart of every complex there is a trauma, and also the archetype of that situation, providing the instinctual response and symbols. When something triggers a complex, we are automatically identified with its underlying archetype. They are a trio—trauma, complex, and archetype—and the particular trio leading to the Outsider is perhaps the most dangerous. Humans very often simply despair and give up when they feel permanently left out in the cold. Please do not do that.

What to do instead? Of course you will identify less with the archetype if you do something friendly— volunteer, call a friend, or do whatever will link you with another. But I hate giving that advice to those who are too depressed right now to follow it.

To you, I can only beg that you believe me that in a fundamental way you are not an outsider. I was stunned by the poignant responses to my blog post on The Wound with No Name. Read them. You have such brave and dear company. You belong to a great assembly of the courageous, even if you have never met them. How I wish I could get even some of you together for the holidays. Can you imagine with me such a gathering? The lonely no longer lonely? The outsiders all brought in from the cold? Let's light a match to that.