Depressed by happiness: emotional shutdown in the family and society


Let us take a man who wakes up at night from one of those nightmares in which one loses all sense of identity and location. Even in the moment of waking, the reality of one’s own being and of one’s world appears as a dream-like phantasmagorion that could vanish or be metamorphosed in the twinkling of an eye. One lies in bed in a sort of metaphysical paralysis, feeling oneself but one step removed from that annihilation that had loomed over one in the nightmare just passed. For a few moments of painfully clear consciousness one is at the point of almost smelling the slow approach of death and, with it, of nothingness. And then one gropes for a cigarette and, as the saying goes, ‘comes back to reality’. One reminds oneself of one’s name, address and occupation, of one’s plans for the next day.     – Peter Berger

Emotional Shutdown in the Family
My experience of the family has not been a good one. Whilst on the surface things appear relatively happy, in private there is an emotional void where there should be a meaningful family bond. This void has given me a chronic feeling of depression and loneliness that has turned my whole life into a harrowing ordeal. I don’t want to go into too much biographical detail here because my aim is not to identify individuals and publicly retaliate against my family – or plead for a special victim status for myself. On the contrary, I want to explore what I think is a very common, but unrecognised source of mental distress – emotional abandonment by the family.

Emotional abandonment has left me with a sense of loneliness that I would describe as ‘absolute’ or ‘existential’ in nature. I call it absolute because it doesn’t change relative to circumstances and it is existential because it involves alienation from reality as such. I suspect that a lot of people troubled by psychological problems have experienced some version of emotional neglect and alienation growing up in their families and have then been sent out into a wider society that is itself neglectful and alienating. I think that the various symptoms and types of diagnosed mental illness that are recognised today are in fact different responses to this core experience of existential distress.

For me, the experience of growing up was overshadowed by the sense of an emotional void in the family home. This was accompanied by weird, inexplicable feelings of sadness, loneliness and meaninglessness. The philosopher Peter Sloterdijk says that when people gather together to form families, communities and societies they create warm bubble realities against the cold indifference of the outside world (Sloterdijk, 2011, 21). The older I got, the more the family ceased feeling like a warm bubble of protection and I became more and more aware that my home was an emotional dead-zone – a grey limbo reality rather than a place of real vitality. My sense of the family as a sheltering zone of familiarity was constantly being invaded by feelings of coldness, weirdness and the uncanny, coinciding with my own emotional detachment from them, from society, and from reality as a whole.

As a teenager living at home, I could temporarily suppress the growing depression with the usual adolescent preoccupations, but I always knew I would never survive in adult society. The sense of alienation was far too powerful for me to ever be able to sign up for a normal suburban existence of a job, house, car, wife and kids. Since leaving home my life, predictably enough, has been a complete disaster – ten years of severe depression living as a recluse, followed by a re-entry into education and years of study that have done nothing to make me any more employable. Now I live back at home as a carer for my elderly mother, doing independent research in my spare time.

In recent years I have developed the strong suspicion that my parents and older sisters experienced a bereavement before I was born – probably a miscarriage or a cot death – and instead of going through a grieving process the whole family went into denial and emotional shutdown. While I instinctively want to sympathise with people who have experienced a terrible tragedy, those who go into shutdown make this hard because they kill all the emotion that surrounds the event. The death of a child is an absolute tragedy but the blank refusal to respond emotionally has effectively killed the whole family, which no longer really exists as such. In spite of its destructive consequences, emotional shutdown makes people ‘happy’ because it relieves them of the burden of having to feel difficult and painful emotions. This superficial and fragile form of happiness comes at a huge cost, because it means the denial and suppression of one’s own inner humanity and the loss of a genuine bond with others. It means the destruction of all sensitivity and emotional intelligence, which in turn means losing all real compassion for, and understanding of, other people. The refusal to feel turns people into cowards who are scrupulously concerned with maintaining the appearance of happiness in order to avoid the reality of genuine emotions. For them, the appearance of happiness makes them happy because it’s an easy way to escape from the hard work of dealing with painful realities. Efforts to maintain the appearance of happiness thus ensure that psychological problems and emotional difficulties remain heavily disguised.

Emotional shutdown in the family is extremely difficult to detect because those affected appear to be perfectly normal. Its symptoms primarily manifest in the form of voids – things not said and not done that create an atmosphere of neglect hidden behind a façade of domestic normality. This is a problem that, in principle, could be perceived over a long-enough period of time by an observer close to or inside the family. In practice, most family members are in denial and the youngest, the one who feels most cut off and isolated, can’t communicate what he feels or complain about how he is being treated. This is because, to all appearances, he has nothing to complain about, being well looked-after and given every opportunity in life. Silence is guaranteed by the family secret – an ‘elephant in the room’ that profoundly influences the attitudes and behaviour of the people around him and yet is never spoken of by anyone. Such a person has absolutely no idea why they feel abandoned and depressed and so cannot even begin to speak meaningfully about these feelings. Without access to the family secret this person feels constantly lost and abandoned with absolutely no understanding of how or why – a situation likely to make them feel utterly bewildered, if not completely mad. This is not a situation of physical abuse but it is an insidious and covert form of mental cruelty that has devastating effects, in my case leading to chronic depression and multiple suicide attempts.

Although I was looked after physically, the shutdown means that I have been cut off and abandoned emotionally. Because of this I’ve had a lifetime of feeling set adrift like the survivor of some shipwreck – lost, alone and always far from home. A loved child will carry a sense of belonging with them for the rest of their life. Conversely, an unloved child will always be homeless and alone, regardless of how many friends or how much ‘company’ they actually have at any given time. In this condition, the mind lacks an inherent sense of belonging that would stabilise the sense of identity and help create a strong sense of existential confidence. Emotional abandonment opens up a feeling of existential abandonment that can potentially manifest in any number of different ways. Panic attacks, for instance, can be seen as an acute attack of ‘aloneness’ or existential ‘stage-fright’ that seem to appear suddenly out of nowhere. These events can in fact be triggered in adults by situations that evoke childhood experiences of “bitter isolation” (Smail, 1993, 26) that have haunted them their whole lives.

David Smail describes the panic attack as a “dreadful experience of ‘abandonedness’” in which “the person feels suddenly drained of supporting power – deserted by power – with no ally and no haven, alone in the middle of a completely alien world” (Smail, 1993, 27). He goes on:

The sense of exposure is indeed central to the experience of someone in this situation: isolated, cut off, surrounded by hostile space, you are suddenly without connections, without stability, with nothing to hold you upright or in place; a dizzying, sickening unreality takes possession of you; you are threatened by a complete loss of identity, a sense of utter fraudulence; you have no right to be here, now, inhabiting this body, dressed in this way; you are a nothing, and ‘nothing’ is quite literally what you feel you are about to become. The overwhelming reaction to finding yourself in this situation is the need to flee, to find refuge in some ‘safe haven’ like your home or your car, anywhere protected from the unremitting hostility of public space (Smail, 1993, 46).

While I have never experienced panic attacks of this intensity, I nevertheless identify with this experience in the more drawn-out and chronic version that I would define as depression. My whole life has been, in effect, one long ‘panic attack’ gnawing away at me in the pit of my stomach – my mind haunted by a sense of certain doom that constantly nauseates me, rising up from a deep-rooted, visceral sense of existential aloneness. Loneliness is close to death. I imagine this is why some people mistake their panic attack for a heart attack – the shock of being absolutely alone inextricable from feeling the vulnerability and precariousness of one’s own mortal existence. When the mind can’t absorb itself in the tight bonds of family solidarity and the daily dramas of social activity it starts to feel the proximity of death. Excluded from the safety of the tribe the mind is alone and vulnerable, exposed to any number of potential threats coming from the outside world.

Emotional Shutdown in Society
The denial of death (Becker, 1973) in my family has isolated me and given me an intensified awareness of death – an awareness of the precariousness of my own existence as well as that of all other living things. It has also given me a heightened awareness of the denial of death in society at large, so much so that I often feel like the only one in the world who can see it. The emotional shutdown in my family is continuous with the emotional shutdown in modern life as a whole. Everywhere I go the void is there – out in the fields, in the streets, in the indifference of the crowd and the passers-by – everywhere the same absence of community, the same blankness, the same grey limbo. This emptiness isn’t a peaceful Nirvana imposed by the orderliness and rationality of modern existence. Neither is it the sinister void of death itself coming back as a return of the repressed. I recognise it simply as an emotional deadness caused by a widespread culture of the denial of death.

The denial of death makes it possible for people to be relatively ‘happy’ in a state of emotional shutdown – to hide their anxieties and function perfectly well within the routines of a normal existence. They can do this because the routines themselves demand the suppression of emotion in the name of efficiency and the maintenance of day-to-day normality. What I’ve experienced in my family I see around me in the wider society – superficial niceties being used to suppress negative emotional states. The modern obsession with efficiency, systems, structures and institutions generates a mass surrender to the normalising effects of modern life, giving rise to an expressive minimalism that reminds me of my own family – eminently civil and cordial but completely lacking in tangible emotional authenticity. Relationships in my family are more like that between acquaintances or work colleagues rather than close relatives – a certain amount of informal friendliness and familiarity taking place on the surface but with no real underlying feeling of intimacy, loyalty, or deep emotional bond.

I would describe these kinds of cordial interactions as ‘kitsch relations’ – pleasant enough in a purely superficial sense, but only lasting insofar as circumstances themselves remain pleasant and superficial. Kitsch relations are mostly a matter of ‘going through the motions’ without any real emotional engagement. Sally Weintrobe calls this “experience-lite” – as exemplified in the American habit of saying ‘have a nice day’. While this phrase on its own is harmless enough, it nevertheless helps to impose a “coercive cultural framing” (Weintrobe, 2021, 123) and an “idealizing view” that “eclipses and invalidates genuine experience” (ibid). Kitsch relations are ‘experience-lite’ in wanting everyone and everything to be ‘nice’ everywhere and all the time – an ambient emotional monotony that gently manipulates us into joining “a more superficial register in which we can be (apparently) without discomfort, inner conflict and troubling experience” (ibid).

‘Have a nice day’ provides the mood music for being more ‘experience lite’. It strips us of a richer register of inner moods to call upon, moods that reflect our hugely varied experience. For instance, we cannot grieve while having a nice day, nor can we face conflict, nor can we so easily be responsible citizens in today’s world. The experience-lite world is a comfortable convenient world in which to live as an un-conflicted consumer (Weintrobe, 2021, 123).

When a culture actively attacks our reality sense, when it strips away the words that we need to keep our experience near, when it drowns out our varied moods with a bright artificial mood, when it repeatedly suggests to us there is no other way, our contact with reality may be steadily undermined
(Weintrobe, 2021, 124).

Kitsch relations are fundamentally designed to eliminate all difficult emotions, intimidating realities and psychological complexities that arise from the fragility and vulnerability of the human condition. They do this by creating the impression of a safe ‘bubble’ reality that excludes all danger and disturbance coming from the outside world. Kitsch relations are purely external relations that are only really operative within ‘kitschified’ or ‘gentrified’ environments (the home, the office, the shopping centre etc). Lacking any real inner emotional substance, they only exist insofar as external circumstances remain favourable and all evidence of trauma is suppressed.

Kitsch relations are psychophobic and i in nature (Bollas, 2018). They are psychophobic in that they deny the inner experience of the mind as such, and are normopathic in that they are overly emotionally invested in maintaining the appearance of normality. Kitsch relations deny inner emotional depths, creating the impression that everything is purely external and on the surface and that reality simply is what it appears to be. Kitsch relations are ‘social appearances’ – the gentrified realm of functional cordiality, where behaviour and emotion are constantly adjusted to facilitate the smooth functioning of everyday life. Normality is a socially constructed world of regularity and routine, of ritual and repetition, of everything conforming to expectation at all times. Kitsch relations help with the gentrifying work of normalisation – suppressing inner conflict and complexity by operating in conformity with simplified, manageable environments. In this way the uncertain and the unknown are denied, making it seem as if all existence were safely contained within the official parameters of professional competency and control. Hannah Arendt says that normality is a denial of the real, that “adherence to conventional, standardized codes of expression and conduct have the socially recognized function of protecting us against reality, that is, against the claim on our thinking attention that all events and facts make by virtue of their existence” (Arendt in Weintrobe, 2021, 124). Normality helps us to deny death, making us feel that there is nothing wrong with the world and that everything is working as it should. Kitsch relations help us surrender to this feeling, soothing and relaxing the mind by creating the appearance of a finite world of predictable repetitions – a safe bubble reality that always appears simply and purely self-evident. Here, the mind takes flight into the shallows. By focusing exclusively on the world of surface appearances it can escape from itself and disappear into the safe spaces of routinised, kitschified existence. In the light of these ideas we can begin to appreciate how the ongoing work of stabilising the environment is performed as a constant, ongoing effort to stabilise the mind – remaking the external world in order to suppress a deep-rooted sense of existential insecurity. Repressed emotions and hidden motivations are thus rendered completely anomalous and incomprehensible in the context of this one-dimensional, artificial world.

Spirit and Soul
In contrast to the ‘happy’ primary-coloured surfaces of kitschification, the soul is the inner experience of the individual, the hidden depths, the darker  emotions, the unconscious mind. The soul’s movement is introverted and introspective – downward and inward, into the earth, into the underworld, examining the roots of things – descending into the murky twilight world of melancholia, uncertainty, and ambivalence. Where the soul registers the messy organic reality of earthly experience, spirit is the extroverted, aspirational impulse to move upwards and outwards, towards the air, the sky, towards flight over and above the body and material existence. Spirit is obsessed with the pursuit of happiness. It strives for an uplifting trajectory – towards purity, perfection and transcendence. Spirit wants to fly away from body and soul, from the depths, from gravity and seriousness – towards simplicity, lightness, and clearness:

Not only purity but order, clarity, enlightenment are spirit’s watchwords. Let’s get things straight, let’s be clear, let’s be rational, wipe the slate clean, make a fresh start, says spirit. But soul is always at its side, obscuring, muddying and muddling. For soul favours the labyrinthine way of slow reflection, not rapid thought. Things cannot be made straight because they are intrinsically crooked and ambiguous; cannot be spotlit because they are intrinsically twilit; cannot be wiped away because they are harnessed to a long history whose traces cannot be kicked over. Soul holds spirit back, and down, making it mull things over and attend to the details here and now, rather than flying off into some grand future plan (Harpur, 2002, 227).

Melancholic, ambivalent, diverse, the soul is complex and eclectic, full of mixed emotions and clashing impulses. Soul hates the puritanism and homogeneity of spirit, its impulse to dominate everything, imposing its monologue on the world, controlling the narrative for everyone and everything. Soul is organic, spontaneous, changeable and because of this spirit wants stasis, consistency and control. Where spirit imposes itself on the world, soul is receptive, open, and thoughtful – it listens, speculates and reflects. In its frantic pursuit of control, spirit is out of control – incessantly restless, excessively verbal, it is always talking, planning, engineering and organising. Where spirit wants to be closed, finished, defined and utterly sure of itself, soul doubts, questions and lives in uncertainty – seeing life as an uncontrollable process of constant change. Soul is small and powerless – it’s the inner child, the inner vulnerability, the inner sensitivity. For spirit, the pursuit of happiness is the pursuit of power – hence the obsessive interest in expanding, accumulating, and strengthening itself, in solidifying power and making it permanent. Spirit has a “permanence complex” (Eisendrath, 2003) -completely refusing to countenance time, transience and death.

Spirit refuses to accept the reality of suffering and death (Webster, 2012, 7) and it expresses this refusal in the kitsch aesthetic – seeking to gentrify the whole of reality according to its own ideal. Kitsch is the aesthetic of happiness – a fake, engineered happiness of contrived feelgood sensations – a drug that intoxicates, a palliative, an anaesthetic. Kitsch is an aesthetic of pure positivity that denies and excludes the negative – forthrightly rejecting all that is “unacceptable in human existence” (Kundera, 1984, 167). Kitsch shares with spirit an absolute determination to “escape from death” (Broch, 1970, 76) and in this polarising impulse they are both opposed to the ambivalent, twilight world of the soul. The soul is open to both life and death and is therefore closer to the reality of the human condition than spirit. Spirit hates the human condition, wanting nothing more than to escape the mortal flesh, go beyond it, push it into the past and forget about it. Where the soul is existentially aware, the cowardly ‘spiritual’ aspect of the soul denies death, wanting to transcend the human condition once and for all.

Manifest loneliness is a manifestation of suffering and is therefore an intolerable contradiction within the spiritual realm of social appearances. Sadness and loneliness are taboo in a society where public demonstrations of enthusiasm (in the selfie, on T.V., at work, in the family) are mandatory and where being seen to be happy is more important than anything else. The spiritual culture of high technology creates a manufactured consensus of collective positivity, the primary goal of which is the banishment of loneliness, depression and awareness of death. On the face of it, this might seem to be a laudable aim, but we should never forget that this is also a banishment of the soul – a cruel act of violence that actually exacerbates loneliness and depression by privatising feelings as matters of purely individual concern. Social appearances banish the soul in appearances only – the soul persists in its banishment, cut off and isolated as something guilty and shameful, a secret weakness that cannot be shared with others. Bored, lonely and depressed in the midst of the ‘happy’ society, the soul must hide its feelings for fear of humiliation and excommunication. This now furtive and fugitive soul can thus only emerge in private, perhaps appearing in those moments of nocturnal solitude, of bleak “metaphysical paralysis” (Berger, 1963, 169) that sometimes grip the mind.

A Depressing Happiness
Modern society is dedicated to the kitsch spiritual values of aspirationalism, self-improvement and self-empowerment. Such a society regards with horror and disgust all manifestations of existential precariousness – such as we see today in the migrant boats, the homeless on the streets, in the lives of the disabled, the elderly, the addicted, and the mentally distressed. Fear of victims comes from the fact that they implicate us all as victims of existence, obscenely revealing in public the capacity for suffering and vulnerability common to all humanity. These ‘threats’ that apparently come from the outside are a product of an institutionalised kitschification that excludes and denies the reality of the human condition. Kitschification is a global process that has a number of different aspects and ways of being described (Augé, 2009; Bauman, 2008; Botz-Bornstein, 2019; Brand and Wissen, 2021; Bruckner, 2010; Bryman, 2004; Cederström, 2018; Cederström and Spicer, 2015; Davies, 2015; Fishman, 1987; Gabler, 1998; Han, 2021; Keil, 2018; Lees (et al), 2016; Lessenich, 2019; Martinson, 2000; Ritzer, 2013; Sardar and Davies, 2004; Schulman, 2012; Webster, 2012; White, 2005; Wilson, 2008; Zukin, 1991). Fundamentally, this process is a form of structural violence that is unconscious and unintentional, the side-effect of a cowardly determination to push all awareness of suffering and death over to the side of the other. Basing a society on a coercive emotional consensus of pure positivity is instantly polarising – it eliminates nuance, complexity and ambivalence, excluding and denigrating everything that doesn’t fit into the imposed ideal. The self-centred pursuit of happiness excludes and abandons others, demoralises them, demonises them and makes them depressed. In creating a haven of safety and security for the self, in obsessively working to empower the self and eliminate all evidence of negativity, other people are inevitably excluded, cut off, and abandoned to their fate. Kitsch happiness is therefore a callous happiness that blocks compassion and actively contributes to the suffering of others.

The soul is the uncensored vital spontaneity of emotions responding to the ever-changing world of external stimuli – what the body perceives and feels for itself – and what it thinks for itself based on these first-hand experiences. The soul only gets stuck in depression when it becomes a victim of the censoring, purifying impulse of spirit. Spirit is afraid of suffering and death and wants to exist in a state of eternal bliss. In pursuit of this ideal it creates an ideology of happiness that violently suppresses the emotional realism of the soul. Spirit patronises the soul, wanting to protect it from reality – yet the soul craves vital contact with the reality of the world, including the reality of death and bereavement. It is the experience of exclusion and abandonment in the name of happiness that disconnects the soul, making it feel depressed, empty, and meaningless. The denial of death actually exacerbates the fear of death, making it seem radically alien and other when in truth it is always intimately a part of what we are (Locke, 2016, 31). In fact, the soul is more traumatised by the denial of reality than it is by reality itself: “Children are made anxious by secretiveness, by their parents hushing things up, by whatever touches upon their parents’ feelings of shame, guilt, or fear” (Miller, 1987, 134). We’re not used to the idea of confronting suffering and death collectively but the soul is capable of digesting overwhelming experiences by sharing them and in mourning together. Reality feeds the soul – it can only live if it is allowed to grow, expand and connect with others via the incorporation of the real:

If […] children experience hunger, air raids, and the loss of their home, for instance, but in such a way that they feel they are being taken seriously and respected as individuals by their parents, then they will not become ill as a result of these actual traumata. There is even a chance for them to remember these experiences (because they have had the support of devoted attachment figures) and thus enrich their inner world (Miller, 1987, 14).

As I have repeatedly stressed, it is not the trauma itself that is the source of illness but the unconscious, repressed, hopeless despair over not being allowed to give expression to what one has suffered and the fact that one is not allowed to show and is unable to experience feelings of rage, anger, humiliation, despair, helplessness, and sadness. This causes many people to commit suicide because life no longer seems worth living if they are totally unable to live out all these strong feelings that are part of their true self. Naturally, we cannot require parents to face something they are unable to face, but we can keep confronting them with the knowledge that it was not suffering per se that made their child ill but its repression, which was essential for the sake of the parents (Miller, 1987, 259).

Spirit kills with kindness, smothering the soul in a desperate effort to destroy all experience of suffering. It produces a permanent depression because it blocks the spontaneity of real emotions from responding to the dynamic movement of life. The soul isn’t inherently depressed, but if it is constantly oppressed by compulsory happiness it will express itself soulfully, living on and preserving itself in a state of depression. The soul is a realist – it’s the inner experience of the body, which means that its emotions immediately register the impact of reality on the flesh. If the body experiences a permanent repression then the soul responds with permanent suffering. Spiritual culture is a cowardly, bullying form of social coercion that forces the body to constantly display the signs of happiness, disrupting the soul’s own ability to connect with reality in a spontaneous and meaningful way. People in authority who deny their own souls create and maintain conditions that destroy the souls of others. They might be well-meaning and genuinely believe that they are acting responsibly, yet their addiction to kitsch blinds them to the fact that they are not ‘nice’ people at all so much as smotherers and destroyers of life. Kitsch is pure sugar – it tastes good in small doses but too much of it makes us sick. Sugary spirituality is really a nihilistic escapism that blocks the soul’s connection to life, sapping the emotional vitality of living beings for an impossible fantasy of perfect happiness. In suppressing reality, the culture of kitsch generates an emotional void, destroying the possibility of authentic happiness while severely hampering our capacity to find genuine meaning in life. In doing this, it not only depresses, it dumbs us down, diverting the mind into banality and trivia and away from matters of vital concern.

The only antidote to kitsch is the transformation of a spiritual society into a soulful one. Soul-enhancing relations would be ones that accept the full range of spontaneous feelings as legitimate experiences of the living being. Strengthening and developing the soul’s connection to reality could regenerate the sense of life’s meaning as something we newly create for ourselves. The soul is cut off from reality and sickened by the meaningless, dumbed-down happiness of modern spirituality. In order to bring the soul back to health society should abandon spirit and instead give more care and attention to the inner complexity of living beings.

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John has a BA in Cultural Studies from Norwich University of the Arts, an MA in Art and Film from the University of Essex and a PhD in Art History, also from Essex. He is a lifelong sufferer of depression but has always avoided contact with the mental health system. He is interested in the potential of art, literature and film to help develop new ideas about psychological distress. He is currently a live-in carer looking after his elderly mother, pursuing independent research.


  1. Hi Claire. Thanks for the nice words. The spirit / soul idea came from a book by Patrick Harpur. It’s one of those concepts that just leapt out at me as a simple and elegant way of saying something I’ve been thinking about for years in my own messy way. I’m glad it resonated with you also.

  2. Hello John. So much more to add, but the instant response I want to say is “Bravo” and wow!! Your explanations of soul and spirit have astounded this searcher. I feel my soul viscerally, in the centre..right now it’s an aching void, my friend who is currently high on the Spiritual koolaid keeps telling me I just need inner child. But I have felt the gravitational pull downwards, very literally. As an eternal pessimist, I perceived that feeling as being pulled down to the lower realms. With hindsight I now see that it was my soul attempting to restless spirit from its habitual flight of fancy , to and reality. It’s great to encounter someone who understands and can articulate it so well – thank you and look forward to longer convos. Claire.