We are making decisions all the time. Each day numerous moments call upon us to decide on some matter however small. Should we buy the piece of furniture we want or the one we can afford; should we return a friend’s phone call on the answering machine now or wait until we feel like talking to that friend; should we drop a few coins in the busker’s hat or just walk on by; should we mention on the job application form that we were once dismissed from a previous job because we sincerely believed and brought to the manager’s attention our perception that he was undermining the morale of the employees or should we dismiss that episode as no longer relevant? Some decisions are experienced as more significant than others. Some seem so small, we might not even know that we have actually made a decision on the matter. For example, when you get dressed in the morning, do you first put the sock on the left or right foot, and do you put your socks on before or after your shirt? Very likely, that’s a matter of habit for you, but once upon a time it wasn’t: at some point in your life, the first time, the habit was established upon a decision, yours or someone else’s.
Recently I’ve been devoting some time and energy to something I’ve never done, never even heard of before–SEO, Search Engine Optimization, part of which entails making sure that certain words, keywords, are contained as frequently as possible on my website, and other virtual texts referring to myself, so that I and not my competitors come up first on the Google or other search engine page when a potential customer makes an inquiry. As one company, offering help in this endeavour, advertises “…make your competitors disappear.” As I read the ad, for a brief uncomfortable moment, I imagine other counsellors in the area, some of whom I know and count as close friends, being whisked away in the dead of night at gunpoint by tall men masked in balaclavas. Am I really prepared to be an accomplice to this?
Of course, I know I am over dramatizing, and so I persevere in my pursuit of the far-off dream of Search Engine Optimization. I go to bed dreaming of how I can cram as many keywords, like anger management, anxiety and depression (which headline this very text), schizophrenia, bi-polar, sociopath and search-engine-optimization disorder onto my website and its links. I don’t feel a shred of guilt because, as I tell myself, everybody does it. My competitors do it. They are trying to “disappear” me. I ask myself how had I ever considered them friends, decent folk and capable professionals trying, as I am, to do their work? My instinct for survival is roused and my enthusiasm for attaining SEO soars above all other considerations.
Luckily, or by some grace beyond my understanding, I’m eventually able to free myself from the allure of SEO and later decide, in order to clarify my thoughts and feelings on the issue, to write about it, using it as a personal illustration of those kind of occurrences in which seemingly small, hardly noticeable decisions, if repeated, can build over time until they reach a point where we find, to our surprise, that something in us feels uneasy, not right. In the scenario I noticed unfolding in my own mind, were it to continue to be reinforced through my life, I might one day start to experience acute anxiety about getting ahead or maintaining my position in my chosen profession. Or, on the other hand, I might fall into a state of depression because ever reaching my professional goal seems hopeless. This type of serial judgements that many of us make, based upon values that we may have culturally absorbed from family or community and not thoroughly thought through to their inevitable consequences, can leave us feeling that something with the world or ourselves is amiss. We will probably not know what it is or where it’s come from because it’s been developing below our awareness for a long time. Our first recognition of it is formless, nameless, a vague sense. It’s often described as an empty feeling, not really bad, but… a bit empty. Well, never mind, maybe it was something we ate last night or one of those “bugs” going round.
My sense, based on my experience of myself, clients and others, is that those little decisions, which may recur gradually over years and very possibly over generations, to step away from our sense of being comfortably in ourselves, to step away from our gut feeling of what is right and true, are steps that eventually lead to emptiness, meaninglessness and unease. It is an open and complex discussion, with much disagreement, as to what are the causes of depression and anxiety. Personally, I view all positions on the matter as having some value, but none to the complete exclusion of any of the others. At the moment, despite the lack of clarity around their causes, what calls to my attention, is that both anxiety and depression are states in which that experience of sitting easily within oneself, even in the face of challenging outer events, is lost. I am suggesting that loss is often the result of a slow eroding away by tiny decisions repeated over decades until one day we wake up to the fact that something we once had is no longer there. Our possible reactions to that discovery are many. Two of the most common reactions are an anxious vigilance to keep anyone, including ourselves, from knowing that we are not the whole, solid adults we’re supposed to be, or, alternatively, a despairing collapse into that empty space we feel to be our centre, a giving up on the possibility of ever finding what we once had (at this stage, we may likely doubt ever having it). Anxiety and depression are different but both ineffective ways of dealing with a sense of loss, a loss of oneself. It is why, whether working to help a client’s absent self or my own to emerge, I know that sooner or later a serious look is required at how you or I have come to be here, to be who we are; and to ask the question, “Are we really who we have for a long time thought we are or is that only who we have been told we are or believed we should be?” Such questions are the conscious start of an exploration to reclaim for ourselves some of the power and control held by those entities we call anxiety and depression.