Comedy and depression: the masks we wear

By August 13, 2014counselling, depression
Comedy and depression counselling Totnes, Paignton and Newton Abbott


Robin Williams’ suicide this week is sad news indeed, just as the 1000s of deaths by violence in Gaza and Iraq or those taken by the randomness of disease in Africa at the moment. These are all deeply painful occurrences, part of the human condition, but needing to be acknowledged and mourned too. Robin Williams’ death has got a lot of attention because of who he was. There is deep pathos in the tears of the clown. His apparent struggles with mental health, addiction and depression may seem at odds with the persona of someone, one of whose passions in life was to make people laugh.

I remember him not so just as the comedian but also as the inspirational enabler in The Dead Poets’ Society and Good Will Hunting. These roles were about helping others actualise and achieve their potential, even when they didn’t believe they had it themselves. There is something that resonates with Psychosynthesis in this guiding role. The characters Williams played saw that the people he engaged with were more than their pain and doubts; they had beautiful potential too, which he helped them connect with, even when they couldn’t see it themselves.

There’s a lot that can be said about acting and comedy in particular as ways of managing or giving expression to parts of ourselves that we might not otherwise be able to expose. Getting into a role to express anger, frustration, laugh at ourselves and others under the guise of comedy or acting provides, for some, a safer way to express that part of themselves that might otherwise stay hidden. I don’t claim to know anything about Robin Williams and what was going on for him, but I know depression can be a form of ‘pushing down’, in oneself, of feelings that can’t be expressed at the moment – anger, fear, shame, despair, sadness, for example. You can end up being depressed because those emotions feel too dangerous and overwhelming.

Comedy and acting are the more obvious expressions of the masks we all wear. Others may be so habitual and ingrained they just feel they are ‘us’. But if you think about the different aspects of your life, what roles do you find yourself playing? Mother, father, son, daughter? Co-worker? Sportsperson, organiser, carer, creative person, frightened child? The list can be endless, and we all play multiple roles in our life.

An interesting thing to observe is how we are different in different roles. The co-worker or manager in you might dress, talk, hold themselves differently from the mother or the father in you. The vulnerable scared part of you might express itself (or not) in very different ways from the confident achiever part of you. These are all parts of ourselves which we can learn to observe. When they are in conflict, we start to struggle. If for example, you have a workaholic part to you, it might be in conflict with the part of you that needs taking care of; or perhaps there is angry self-critical part of you that seems to attack all that you stand for at times?

Counselling can help you get to know these different parts and bring them into compassionate cooperation, so more of your true self emerges, observant of these different parts but not ruled by them.

If that’s something you’d like to explore, why not get in touch for a first counselling appointment?

By Matt Fox Counselling in Totnes, Paignton and Newton Abbott

Photo by Ricardo Liberato licensed under Creative Commons