Through a Glass Darkly: A Way to Understand Depression


The phrase ‘through a glass darkly’ is from the Bible, “12 For now we see through a glass, darkly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; but then shall I know, even as also I am known.

This is a wonderful way to describe depression and also it’s recovery.
However, when I googled it I found references to movies, novels and even a poem by General Patton (!), but no specific references to mental health.

As a psychotherapist I understand that psychology wants to be separate from religion because it is a science and also because it wants to be of service to all, regardless of belief system. Still, when reading purely academic writing, I often long for the rich helpfulness of metaphor and parable that I find in more creative and religious writing.

Luckily, there are some psychological theories that also use metaphor as a tool to help us understand ourselves more deeply. And I am happy to pull from any and all sources if it helps people find solace and develop insight.

For-example, if you take this quote for its poetry alone, you can imagine, if you have ever suffered from depression that it could well be described as looking into a darkly shrouded mirror. The reflection of ourselves becomes murky, cloudy, distorted. This is true of low-self-esteem and body-image disorder as well.

In this ‘mirror’, anxiety tends to reveal our worst fears, and depression our worst beliefs about ourselves and the world.

No amount of trying to wipe the lens clean seems to help. In fact trying to wipe the lens clean is probably quite a good metaphor for Obsessive-Compulsive disorder, or for the ‘bargaining’ phase of grief. “If I can just clean this up well enough, maybe I’ll get rid of whatever it is that feels ‘bad’ or ‘wrong’.

It can be such a heavy feeling, no wonder we just want to get rid of it.

Maybe the ‘dark glass’ is ubiquitous and we all feel some depression from time to time. It could be situational, clinical, environmental and for some it is much worse than others. But one thing’s for sure, stigma about depression, or mental health issues in general, just makes the glass even darker. Stigma can be defined as believing that the shroud of depression (or ‘fill in the blank’ mental health diagnosis) is just an ‘excuse’ for the lazy or weak person you see in the mirror.

However, this quote reminds us that the opposite is true: the darkness we see really is in the mirror itself, and does not reflect the truest part of ourselves. The depression (or its neighbors, anxiety, OCD, body-image dysmorphia, PTSD, etc)) are part of us, but do not define us. By the way, discovering this, and coming to believe it, are true ‘Ah hah’ moments!

We are often afraid to be curious about knowing or allowing others to know us for fear that our ‘shadow side’ will be discovered, and that it will be the thing that defines us. Yesterday a client described her depression as a ‘dark sludge’ inside that she is afraid will drown her. She is desperate for others not to see this about her so she frequently withdraws and isolates from those around her.

I would love to help her believe that this ‘darkness’ is in the way she sees herself, but is not her truest self. The quote implies that learning about her truest self and being known will ultimately be a light-filled experience.

The bridge between psychology and religion has to do with connection. The idea in both world views is that connection is a ‘lifeguard’ that will stop us from drowning, whether that is knowing and being known by ourselves, by another or by something greater than ourselves. Your own belief system can be that guide.

By the end of the session with her I say something mischievous and we are both laughing. I say that I think she brings out the mischievous part of me because I see it in her. I can almost imagine what an adorable child she was before all the trauma she went through. This part of her is truly a delight and I am so glad that my job helps me ‘know and be known’ at this level, beyond the glass, beyond the sludge.

The thing that stands most in our way is the fear that if we are known we won’t be liked. This quote suggests that when we are truly known we will all be loved. So if a therapist, friend, medication doesn’t help you feel truly known or loved, remember that it’s more about them than you. Try to adjust, work it through, let go, but trust that recovery lies in patiently and steadfastly working towards finding ways to know and being known. And that, ultimately, this will only lead to good.

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About Natasha Horsley Weston

Natasha Weston, MS, LPC is the owner of Weston Psychotherapy Services LLC & was a founding partner of the Temenos Center for 17 years. She has been an individual, family and couple’s therapist for twenty-two years. She is a specialist in the treatment of eating disorders and women’s issues, spending eight years as a therapist and supervisor at The Renfrew Center of Philadelphia. She has also received training in addictions counseling, Imago couple’s therapy, Men's issues, LGBTQ issues, DBT, and EMDR (a technique that helps people recover from trauma).

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