This is Part 6 of a series. You can read Part 5 here, where we learned about the differences between depressive reactions, depressive disorders, and depressive diseases.
Today, we focus on a key process that drives many depressive disorders—a process I call “neurotic loops.” Neurotic loops develop when people have negative feelings about their negative feelings. Yes, you read that correctly. You have feelings about your feelings.
In this post, we want to get clear about why this is so, and why it drives many people into depressive caves. (Note that they are called "neurotic" because although the person is trying to cope and control in an effort to make things better, the strategies often backfire and make things worse. (For more on the concept of "neurotic," see here and here).
Step Six: Understand and Identify Neurotic Loops
To begin, let me ask you a few questions about how you think about your feelings. Do you ever fear your depressed moods and fight against them (i.e., do you play tug of war with the beast, as was mentioned in Part 2)?; Do you ask yourself questions like “Why can’t I just be happy?” or “What is wrong with me?” Do you fear or feel uncomfortable with certain feelings, like being vulnerable or sad, or angry? Do you criticize yourself for the feelings you have? Do you try to suppress, avoid, deny or control your feelings? Are you sometimes overwhelmed by your feelings and feel flooded by them, even as you try to escape them? If you answered “yes” to these questions, then you may well be struggling with neurotic loops.
What exactly is a neurotic loop? It is when folks get into a battle with their feelings that leaves them depleted, stressed, and feeling even more critical about themselves. Such loops usually involve three things. The first is a “neurotic temperament.” As was described in Part 4, this refers to the “set point” of the negative emotion system. It relates to how sensitive you feel, how strongly you react to negative events, and how long it takes you after a stressor to return to baseline.
The second primary ingredient is the stressors you face relative to your felt sense of security. This refers to the real-life problems in living that threaten your core needs and leave you feeling insecure and psychologically “malnourished” (see here). Key psychological needs include the need for safety (which is violated when folks are traumatized), the need to be connected to and valued by important others, the need for achievement and competence, the need for crucial resources (i.e., money and shelter), and the need for play, growth, and exploration.
The third ingredient relates to how folks cope and react to their feelings in these stressful and psychologically difficult circumstances. When those secondary reactions are negative and controlling in regards to the primary feeling, then folks can find themselves in a neurotic loop. To see what I mean, let us imagine Julie as someone who deals with depression and social anxiety and who was invited to a social gathering and gets up the courage to go (see here for a post on social anxiety). Ten minutes into the party, she has what she feels to be an awkward conversation. Moving to an isolated part of the room and trying to look casual on the outside, she internally launches in on herself: “What is wrong with you? Why are you so sensitive? This is so easy for everyone else. You can’t even come to a gathering for 10 minutes without screwing things up.”
To help understand what is going on, we can divide Julie’s mental experience into three separate but related domains. One domain is her “emotional-experiential self.” This is her nonverbal “feeling mind” that automatically tracks what is going on and directly connects her to her body. I often call this the “heart.” Julie has a “sensitive” heart relative to other people, which is the sensitive way of saying she has a neurotic temperament.
The second domain of mind is her “narrator.” This is the inner talking part of her consciousness that explains what is happening and why, and how she should be. This is the part that privately criticized her for her weakness. Finally, there is Julie’s “public self.” This is the public presentation she offers to others (the part that tries to look casual, even as she is boiling inside). The relationship between these three domains of the human mind is key to understanding much about mental health.
Internal neurotic loops involve the relationship between the domains of “the heart” and “the narrator.” To understand why these domains of mind are often in conflict, we need to recognize that they operate in very different ways. The feeling mind, or heart, is quite automatic, fast, and reactive. It feels things based on what it perceives relative to its goals in the immediate situation. If it perceives potential threats, it will send out alarms and result in general a feeling of worry or concern and will orient toward possible bad things happening.
The narrative mind is more complicated. It not only thinks about what is happening, but it also can narrate thoughts about what ought to be. This means that when the narrator is oriented toward the heart, it can decide whether the heart is feeling the “right thing” or not. This means that if the narrator decides the heart is not feeling what it should or if it decides the feelings are dangerous, then it will become critical and controlling and try to avoid or deny the feelings. (For more on these two minds, see here).
Where does the narrator get the ideas for what an individual ought to feel? Originally, these notions come from other people, either directly or indirectly. We learn rules and roles and what we should do and feel from our families and friends growing up. For example, it is likely that you received messages about whether or not it was “okay” to be shy, angry, or vulnerable. Because people generally want to be liked and accepted, they turn those judgments onto themselves. That is, the narrator internalizes (or takes over) the real or imagined judgments of others and then tries to control the heart, often by being critical or punitive.
So what does this mean for your mental health? To understand why this inner conflict can be such a big deal, I have folks engage in what I call the “restaurant exercise.”
Here is how it works. Imagine yourself at one of those big-city crowded restaurants where folks have tables very close to each other. Now imagine yourself at one table and next to you is an adult talking to a child. The adult represents the critical narrator that is having negative reactions to the heart, which is represented by the child.
Now imagine that you overhear what the adult says to the child. To see this, we can use what Julie said to herself as an example. That is, imagine an angry, critical adult harshly saying the following to a vulnerable child: "What is wrong with you? Why are you so sensitive? This is so easy for everyone else. You can’t even come to a gathering for 10 minutes without screwing things up."
What do you think happens to the child? We can be sure of one thing. The child will not respond by "snapping out of it" and thanking her mother and being more secure. Instead, the child will either shrink and submit or throw a temper tantrum.
Neurotic loops stem from this kind of "inner family conflict" playing out in your head (see here for information on an "inner family system" model). It is a battle between the judgmental narrator and the vulnerable heart. It is a vicious cycle because it feeds back on itself. Even if the child says “Ok, I will be quiet," the heart is still hurting and likely is hurting even more after being criticized. Not uncommonly, there is tension and buildup and eventually, the child/heart will “lose it.”
When that happens, negative emotions flood the system, and the person becomes filled with depressive despair, rage, or panic in a very painful and dysregulated and maladaptive way. Of course, if this happens it only proves to the narrator that the heart/inner child needs to be controlled. This means that the cycle gets more and more entrenched.
Here is a diagram I use to illustrate neurotic loops. It represents the fact that primary emotions are blocked and the narrator has a critical and controlling attitude. Sometimes, however, the emotional heart spins out of control and the person is flooded in a painful and powerful way.
Today, in Part 6, we covered the idea of neurotic loops (see here for a similar article in Psychology Today magazine). It involves the fact that we have three domains of mind: the heart (or feeling mind), the head (or inner narrator), and the public self. Neurotic loops are states of inner conflict between the heart and the head (which often occur in order to manage the real or imagined judgments from others).
The task for today is to wonder whether or not you have negative reactions to negative feelings. If you answer yes, and that you often feel very differently than you wish you felt, then that is a crucial piece of information for understanding your depression. For now, just allow yourself to become aware of the fact that you have feelings and then secondary thoughts and feelings about those primary feelings.
Later, in the back half of this series, we will be exploring different ways for you to relate to your primary feelings and examine how to be aware and attuned to your feelings on the one hand and learn to adaptively regulate them on the other. Here is a diagram to give you a sense of where we are headed.
Our journey of awareness and acceptance continues tomorrow. Our focus will shift a bit and we will broaden the picture. Specifically, we will start to get a better understanding of your overall psychological well-being, your self-concept, and your strengths. These pieces are key contexts in which to place your depressive feelings.