going meta: depression recovery

Going Meta: Breakups, Depression, and Befriending Sadness

I am a feeling-driven person. My moods can drive ecstatic highs of creativity and pull me into lows of lethargy and inertia.

There’s no amount of lamenting that’s going to remove the sadness I have about my divorce. No amount of time that’s going to heal the ache of loss I felt walking out the door of my house for the last time, knowing my kids were going to live 70% of their lives without my presence. Okay, so where do you go with that sadness? What can be learned from the loss of a divorce?

Put your kids first, yes, but not at the expense of yourself.

I got depressed at the onset of the divorce. Really depressed. It’s not uncommon for men, who are asked to drop everything they’ve created and start over, to get depressed. It appears the household carries on as normal, just without you. I’m sure that’s not the experience from my kids’ side, but when you are thrust into aloneness that’s how it feels.

I learned to befriend my sadness. I put my feelings in a box when I would have my kids over, every other weekend. I’d find a way to perk up, pick things up, and look alive. They knew I was hurting. I couldn’t shield them 100% from my sadness. And I could do nothing about the loss of joy that was a result of my exit from the rest of their lives.

When I was in the crisis of marriage I had no time or energy to stop and take measures of what was happening in my life. Why was my stress level so high? Why was my wife rejecting all offers for intimacy? Why was the money I was putting in the bank never enough to bring her anxiety level down a notch? Answers I’ll never get. But, as a divorced dad, I no longer had to figure her issues out. I’m learning more about that now as I’m dating again. I have choices. If someone is too irrational and passive-aggressive, I can leave. When I was married, it was not possible. Or… I thought it was not possible.

I do give my ex-wife credit for pulling the trigger on the divorce. She was so unhappy for the final year that living together had become like a game of survivor. Under that stress, I was not thriving. No one was thriving. We did our best to keep the angst out of the kids’ lives, but it was all over all of us. It was a stressful home.

So we got divorced, I broke into little pieces, and the Earth continued to spin on its axis and my kids continued to grow up. In some ways, I suppose, I grew up as well. I learned a powerful lesson about my feelings. As bad as things got, my feelings were just feelings. I did not have to act on suicidal thoughts. I did not have to wallow in my mire when my kids were around. I began to learn how to separate myself from my feelings.

How this idea has grown into a larger process of healing for me.

I am a feeling-driven person. My moods can drive ecstatic highs of creativity and pull me into lows of lethargy and inertia. But… I don’t have to pay attention to my feelings all the time. I call it, going meta. I begin to see myself from a viewpoint about 15 feet in the air above my body, looking down on the situation. I am looking down on my life and experiences from a meta-view.

I notice, in this meta state, that I’m having some strong emotions. I identify my feelings and name them. “Wow, I’m really sad about losing my girlfriend last month. I miss her. I miss her laugh and beautiful smile. I miss cuddling. I miss having a best friend to talk to every night.”

Then I can make the meta move. I am aware, from my elevated view, that these are just feelings I’m having. I recognize them. (Naming.) Honor them. (Wow, I’m really sad about being alone again.) And then I do next right action for what I am working on in my real life. I could choose to spend some time in that sadness. Feel the feelings. Maybe write a poem or a song. Tap into the feelings that are flooding me. And, I can also choose to recognize them and move on to something else.

You see, my feelings are just feelings. They are not all of me. And my meta-mind is able (when I’m healthy) to see all the options I have. Feel the feelings by sitting in them or creating something out of them. Or, feel the feeling, identify and honor it, and move on.

Sometimes my meta-view conversation goes like this.

“Oh Hi, sadness. I feel your ache in my chest this morning. The coffee doesn’t taste very good. I’m not excited about anything. I’m sad.”

Meta-view: “Okay, I’m feeling sad about losing my girlfriend. I’m missing the joy our relationship provided. I can say thank you to her and our friendship. And then I can let it go. What’s next on the agenda? Time to work on that business project for a few hours. Let’s get another cup of mediocre coffee and get with it.”

I am learning to see my emotions, my feelings, as something that are a part of me, but are not all of me.

There’s a Japanese psychology philosophy called Morita. I learned about it years ago from a book called Playing Ball on Running Water. And the basic idea is to recognize your feelings and then do what needs to be done. The most common example, that’s made its way into memes and slogans of support, is “chop wood, carry water.” This means, no matter how you feel the wood needs to be set for everyone to eat and water needs to be brought up for everyone to drink.

My favorite awareness, is one that I ignore routinely, but it puts me in the right frame of mind. “If the dishes need washing, wash the dishes.” In my house, the dishes need washing, the laundry needs to be moved from the washer to the dryer. All the time there are tasks that need to be done, but I ignore them and follow my creative drive and ideas of the moment.

I’m not perfect. I don’t have the answer to the question of how to be happy all the time. But I am learning to see my emotions, my feelings, as something that are a part of me, but are not all of me. That’s my meta-view.

“Oh hello, depression. I see you’re making an appearance today.”

I smile and wave. Then I go on with what I need to get done.


John McElhenney – life coach austin texas
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