Depression and Anxiety: The Horse and The Rider

Reacting negatively to negative emotions creates a vicious loop where you feel bad about feeling bad, leaving you stuck in a cycle of negativity. You’ve probably been trapped by it many times. But, it’s possible to break it by cultivating a different attitude. First, though, a story involving negative feelings.

One of my more painful memories was from my senior year in college. I was about to graduate. As is the custom at my Alma Mater, the sophomore class puts on a skit where the students portray the seniors. The skit’s supposed to poke fun at the soon-to-be graduates. It’s all in good spirit. But then the person playing me-one of my best friends-said, “My name is Tim and I’m fat.” I was mortified. The entire school was there in the cafeteria. I remember feeling as if time froze when he said that, like every single person turned their heads to look at me and laugh. In reality, the skit continued on without pause. But my internal reaction to what happened was much different from reality.


Sigmund Freud coined the “horse and the rider” analogy when he wrote about the id, ego, and super ego many years ago. These days, we refer to the horse and the rider as the “primary” and “secondary” consciousnesses. You experience a negative emotion with your primary consciousness first. At that stage negative emotions are neither good nor bad. It’s just information. A sensation. But you then impose a secondary consciousness, one that assesses or qualifies the emotion, judging it as being either “good” or “bad.” Wanted or unwanted. By judging, a negative feedback loop starts that’s difficult to stop. When you’re having trouble managing negative emotions, you can blame your secondary consciousness. It’s you trying to “ride the horse.”

When you were young and experienced a negative emotion, you probably acted on it. If you felt pain, you cried. But at some point, when you were a bit older, you got feedback-likely from your parents-to stop crying. Whether they said so directly, stoically told you that “everything will be fine,” or by demanding that you stop, you learned that it’s bad to cry. But your secondary consciousness interpreted this as meaning that it’s bad to feel negative emotions, and that you are bad for having them. When they happen now, especially if you can’t stop them, then they’re bad AND you’re bad. The longer they last the stronger they grow. Here goes the negative feedback loop.


Needless to say, the skit experience was brutal. You can imagine I also had lots of negative reactions to my negative emotions. Here, my secondary consciousness, the “rider,” was steering my primary consciousness, the “horse.” There was a strong push to punish self (e.g., “I’m such a loser”), others (e.g., “They’re being so mean to me, I hate them”), and motives to get the feelings out of my mind (e.g., “I never want to think of this moment again”). But the more I tried to rid myself of these feelings the stronger and more negative they became.

The more I reacted to my negative feelings with my secondary consciousness, the greater the likelihood I was setting the stage for a negative feedback loop. Imagine, for example, if I hated the feelings so much that I hated myself for causing them. Or if I hated my friend with thoughts like, “All my friends are untrustworthy,” or “People love causing others pain.” Both of these lines of thought are understandable negative reactions to the negative feelings. However, they’re deeply problematic because they trap me in a negative view of the world. If I’d invested strongly in either line of thinking, I would’ve likely been trapped in a vicious cycle.


It’s important to be clear that it makes sense to have negative reactions to negative emotions. Negative emotions suck. It’s only natural to want to avoid them. But they can cause problems. Running out of the cafeteria and crying like a baby would not have been advisable. The good news is that it’s possible to find a more balanced and deliberative response. One that reins in secondary reactions.

The idea here is that you often react negatively to your negative feelings, but you can learn to cultivate a different attitude in the deliberative mind. This means adopting a more intentional, reflective, and observing stance. Take a minute and think about someone you know who went through a stressful event. As you recreate the scene, allow yourself to see in your mind’s eye what’s going through their mind. As you do, you’re getting a feel for this stance. Now, imagine turning that lens of understanding to yourself. When you think about yourself as the object of your understanding, you’re adopting a stance of a “meta-observer” that’s looking at your own self and everything that’s going on. Imagine yourself seeing the feelings you have and the rush of thoughts that follow. Imagine the situation you’re in, your history that led up to it, and other key people involved. This is a “participant/observer stance” that sees the situation from a bit of a distance. But without all the feelings that are flowing through the stream.


Learning to take this meta-cognitive stance takes practice. But you can learn to do it. And learn to do it better and better. The point is to make this capacity a part of your normal way of being. To do that, you need to practice so that it becomes easier and easier to achieve — because you’ll need to be able to activate it in the moment of distress. That is, when your secondary consciousness, or your self-critical mind is strongest.

As you advance in your capacity for acceptance, it moves over into the relational world. That is, not only do you learn to accept your own pain (and associated weaknesses and limitations you would normally judge as unacceptable), you’re also able to accept others for who and what they are. This cultivation of relational attitudes of acceptance recognizes the basic wisdom that people have dignity and are worthy of respect. It also means adopting the stance that you wish the best for others. And you feel compassion or sympathy for those who’re genuinely suffering. The attitude is cultivated because most people at their core are generally doing the best they can.

For me in that college cafeteria, the more valued state of being would’ve led me to accept the event with courage and to face what happened without collapse. If I can muster the strength to do this, it keeps me from running out of the room and crawling into a fetal position. The bottom line is that next time you find yourself bumped by life and experiencing distress, rather than negatively lashing out at yourself or others, take a deep breath and activate a new stance. See if you can move toward where you want to be.

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