When women are faced with a difficult situation, they turn inward to control or change themselves rather than focusing outward on the environment and individuals that need to change. Whereas men tend to externalize stress — blaming other people for their negative feelings and difficult circumstances — women tend to internalize it, holding it in their bodies and minds. When something bad happens to women, they analyze everything about the problem — how they feel about it, why it came about, and all its meanings and ramifications for themselves and their loved ones.
– Susan Nolen-Hoeksema, Eating, Drinking, Overthinking: The Toxic Triangle of Food, Alcohol, and Depression — And How Women Can Break Free
The self-help stacks are my first stop. Over in biography and history, the finds are nourishing but bland in comparison. Substance rarely wins. On any given week, some bestseller on living the full life accompanies me home. I gulp down the first chapter for a fix of the hottest therapy-couch trend. When I get up to run the dishwasher or my fidgety legs, I plop the earnest analysis on the coffee table as a reminder of all that needs to be explored. It’s three days overdue when I dig it out from under the board games and magazines. I’m still the same stumbling, unpolished creature I was five years ago and undoubtedly will be in another twenty.
Sometimes these finds are good, a few are great, and most hover somewhere below mediocre. I paw through them, hopeful and willing. The self, after all, is a mine. A precious vein cuts a find thread through acres of the most primitive matter. It’s hard to resist skimming to see if any can offer up a new kind of pickaxe.
Nolen-Hoeksema is a diamond drill bit.
First, the qualifiers: her writing falls short of art and her research is miles from the cutting edge. Much of what she’s exploring has already turned itself inside-out in every issue of Psychology Today. That said, she strikes oil in her depiction of this one woman’s experience: mine. I doubt the insight ends here — this work must speak to others or it wouldn’t have made it to the shelf.
If you are out there experiencing what I experience. . . well, you have my deepest sympathy.
Also, go find this book.
Nolen-Hoeksema layers description of the emotional experience of depression with the behavioral coping strategies that are common among women. The dynamic interplay of thoughts, feelings, and actions is not a new concept, yet the insight here strikes a bright chord. I have tried to pick each of these predilections apart as its own unique concern. In my disordered world, here are the areas of most pressing need: Food issues, compulsive/addictive issues, depression issues. Also, motivation issues, anxiety issues, perfectionism issues. Daddy issues are as loyal and true as gum stuck to my shoe. Oh, then there are the communication issues along with trust issues which contribute to sleep issues… You get the idea.
Culture, biology, and family paint the backdrop upon which these actions and reactions play out. While my sleepless internal critic insists otherwise, it is not all just chaos in here, and none of us is a hopeless mess. Indeed, giving up is another form of indulgence. It’s no small gift that Nolen-Hoeksema writes for popular consumption. Those of us who are working on something-or-other all the time would wilt at the idea of another task, even while reaching for it. The analysis here requires little more than a shot of receptiveness and a few quiet hours.
The book begins at a point central to the ways women cope. At that place, a kind of behavioral and cognitive Bermuda triangle — depression, drinking, and compulsive eating — draws other aspects of the self into it. With the same insidious force, it infiltrates what seem to be unrelated spheres of our lives. Careers suffer, bodies weaken, marriages falter, children pay.
Rooting out sources, subsequent chapters explore the patterns of over-identifying with other folks’ feedback and perceptions, the role physiology plays in stress and emotional responses, and the tendency even among successful women to swallow anger but wallow in sadness. These lines of inquiry will be familiar from feminist theory, neurobiology, clinical psychology, and human development theory. Nolen-Hoeksema tugs loose the component parts and assembles them into a new mechanism for self reflection.
After digging up the thickets and landmines, it’s time to lay new ground. The final section dedicates several chapters to concrete strategies for designing an alternative to the triangle. Practical guidance complements theory, providing tips for replacing avoidance and remorse with “approach goals,” and walking through simple problem-solving skills. The book finally urges the reader to think forward and beyond herself. The closing chapter guides offers readers tools for supporting girls and teens — particularly daughters — in developing practices and vocabulary for a healthy adulthood.
As I write this, I notice a force that seems to want to pull me away from focusing and finishing. Giving in to it would lead me to the refrigerator, or bed, or wandering through an electric smog of doubts and plans and urgencies about the unfinished business of my life. The force, of course, is less than an “it” and exactly as strong as the breath I waste fighting it.
Mine, this mind. I’m grateful Nolen-Hoeksema pieced this tool together and handed me the map. With them, I might be able to reconfigure the landscape to invite the bold step and a lifted gaze.