Listen to Your Silent Self

The man sat in front of me in session, his face a wooden mask. His depression was– what words do we use for this? Strong? Profound? Agonizing? Many great writers have tried to describe it. Many have succeeded, yet their descriptions come out differently. But those who suffer from depression don’t need to refer to someone else’s description.

In this case, despite the strength of his depression, this particular client never missed sessions. He never reported any urges to self harm. To the best of my knowledge, he never engaged in any unreported self harming behavior. He never said he was suicidal. What struck me on a particular day was, no matter how depressed he was, he was always well groomed– clean shaven in this case, with a good haircut combed properly into place. His clothes were clean and appeared well cared for. He continued to report that he was eating right and getting exercise to the extent his health permitted. I had never asked him if he was brushing his teeth, but he never had the breath of someone who doesn’t attend to oral hygiene, and he never reported dental problems.

That was when I realized that he had a silent self. In this case, the silent self was taking good care of him.  Even with the various limits imposed by his depression, the attendant financial problems from not being able to work, and a variety of other issues, he was taking good care of himself. The silent self was on the job in a caring, loving, responsible way.

Since that day, I’ve tried to be on the alert for how the silent self helps people. We’ve heard so much over the years about “the inner child,” especially about how wounded and vulnerable the inner child can be. But somehow, we’ve managed to both create and ignore an elephant in the room– in this case, a friendly, helpful elephant. What is the elephant’s name? The Outer Adult.

This will not be the outer adult you might find with a few quick web searches (to say nothing of what having the word “adult” in a web search will turn up). In the stuff I saw, the outer adult gets a bad rap. This has been going on ever since Freud came up with the superego. Adult behavior gets characterized as being the reality-oriented downer, the stopper, the pessimist, etc. Well, I’d like to put in a good word for the outer adult. In the case of the man who woke me up to the outer adult’s good side, the outer adult is a loving parent. It doesn’t complain, it doesn’t set preconditions. In fact, it could be given another name; the Parent. Again, not the parent who puts the kid down. The parent who takes care of the kid– makes sure the teeth are brushed, the clothes are clean, that there’s healthy food in the house. The parent who can take the kid to the beach & buy the kid an ice cream cone, fly a kite, be silly together. The parent who is there for you. Who helps you feel safe when things are scary. Who often watches silently. That’s why the title of the post is actually a misnomer. You have to look, not listen, to connect with the silent self.

This is one reason why I frequently focus on self care for clients with depression. It’s easier to do something– even the smallest thing– to take care of yourself, because you can’t talk yourself out of depression. The silent self– the outer adult/parent, accepts that the child feels bad. It doesn’t try to talk the child out of feeling bad, it just takes care of it. If the negative outer adult won’t buy the inner child an ice cream cone, then the treat can be a dish of fresh raspberries. There are ways to negotiate among our various selves. Let your silent self engage in those acts of love.

Parents and Children Together T-Shirts

(Mask image: Eskimo mask, from; family image from

Slight afterword–

When we talk about the outer adult, it’s tempting to think of the nurturing one who takes care of you as the mother and the one who is stern and disciplining as the father.  But those who had some positive experiences in childhood (no matter what mistakes parents made) can think of nurturing such as riding on daddy’s shoulders or being scooped to safety in strong arms, as well as times of feeling mom is the stopper of all stoppers, making life  horrible. And some have had the experience of the father as the one who knows you feel bad and will just sit with you, saying nothing, while the mother gets on your last nerve because she wants to talk about it. So when you let your outer adult nurture your inner child, let it be a mom or a dad– or both.


About jamesmatter

Marriage and Family Therapist (MFT) in private practice in San Francisco. I work with adults, adolescents, and couples, with focus on substance use and abuse and co-occurring disorders (having both a mental illness and an addiction).
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2 Responses to Listen to Your Silent Self

  1. Thank you for writing this James. I needed to read this today. Coming off of a gloomy weekend, suffering with allergies and realizing that some of my health issues are symbols that I need to take better care of myself emotionally and nurture myself with the proper foods, and allow for myself to exercise as a way to alleviate depression. Thanks again.


  2. jamesmatter says:

    You’re welcome. And one of the huge benefits of this point of view is you can take care of the real, up front problem– without worrying or asking if it’s a symbol– and you get a real, up front benefit. If it’s a symbol, you also took care of the symbol. If it’s not, you still took care of yourself. It’s a full-on no lose situation. And when we’re depressed, that’s a blessing.

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