Depression, anxiety and the boggart

Do you know what depression and anxiety is?

Before you think about the things you’ve read or been told by professionals, my question isn’t about signs, symptoms, intervention options or medications. My question is to you directly. Do you know your depression and your anxiety? How do you experience it, and in what ways does it impact your relationship with the people around you and the wider world? Do you struggle with the way you feel sometimes, or maybe even all of the time? In therapy, together with your therapist, you seek to clarify what it’s like to be you, in the world that you are living in today. 

Distressed people often describe feeling ‘stuck’. You know that life doesn’t stand still but moves unavoidably forward, that is after all, the way the clock ticks. But the feelings of stuck-ness and unshakable ‘dis-ease’ seems to stay. It begins to feel like today is permanently dictated by past traumas or worries about tomorrow, and the stuck-ness just seems to move forward with you. Something needs to change and those changes begin with therapeutic exploration, clarification and understanding. You are existing and experiencing today, here and now with the never ending sweep of the second hand. If your life were likened to a piece of music, might you be more able to notice and engage with its multiple aspects? Life, like music, is constantly emerging, unfolding and being experienced. It is not a moment, but the moments that have been and those yet to come. Whilst the stuck-ness seems to be an unwanted and unchanging constant, you are certainly not. Maybe now, you might be ready to ‘wonder about it’, in a different way?

This is where the boggart may assist us.

Perhaps you don’t actually know what the boggart is, but are simply intrigued by its relationship to something that you do know. I was introduced to the idea of the boggart and the description resulted in a realisation for me that it might have a relevance to others suffering similar difficulties. She explained that the boggart is a ‘shape-shifting’ character from the Harry Potter novels that has no ‘being-ness’ of its own, but the capacity to take on the form of whatever its observer fears most. If you fear spiders then it becomes the most fearsome spider you can imagine. The boggart isn’t actually ‘a being’ though, but seems to become one when it is looked upon. When we look upon it, we empower it to be with us, even though it’s probably the last thing we want keeping us company.  Ordinarily, it seems that boggarts like to hide away in dark, confined spaces and if you have experienced its presence, then you may even have devised strategies to ensure it stays locked away as best you can. The trouble seems to be when those mechanisms stop working, or even become problematic in themselves.

The boggart isn’t you, but can become present from wherever it hides when you relate to yourself or have those inner conversations for example. When you are alone the boggart can appear as a mirror, filter, interpreter or distorter of reality, whilst you ponder and reflect on your life and emotional pain.  It may be that you can accept its presence as Churchill did with his ‘black dog’ of depression, but as many who struggle know, this is far easier to say than do. This isn’t to suggest that the boggart is an internally carried ‘monster’. It can also emerge from wherever it hides when you are with others in the ‘outside world’, or more cruelly perhaps, dissuade you from engaging in that world beyond your personal, safe space at all. Eventually, the world ‘outside’ can become too frightening, or maybe just too much effort.

So the boggart can be both inside you in the way you relate to yourself and outside you as you seek to relate to your world. We all have fears and so, we all have something upon which the boggart can act. Depression and anxiety can come to define you and be the things you fear most and that can be exhausting. No you’re not imagining your difficulties or ‘symptoms’. You’re not lacking in resilience, seeking attention in a dysfunctional way or being self-indulgent. The boggart seems to be skilled at bringing on self-questioning like this, especially when it is faced alone. Perhaps it is this that brings on your sleeplessness through rumination (the same thoughts and questions going round and round in your head without answers) or feelings of hopelessness as you increasingly believe its version of the truth.

Instead, in the therapy room you can look upon your experiences of fear, pain, confusion, and stuck-ness in the context of a continually changing now. As you begin to feel safer whilst the boggart is present, together with your therapist, you can explore what all of the dimensions of your difficulties mean for you. You will seek to clarify your sense of self, whilst in relationship with a self-compassion that you may not be able to bring to the front when you observe the boggart alone. I am told that the boggart becomes confused when looked upon by more than one person, as it becomes less sure of what or whose fear it should be presenting. In therapy we can strive to look upon the boggart with curiosity and compassion, rather than the fear that it seems to thrive upon when you are by yourself.  The more we wonder and bit by bit understand, the less frightening it can become.

Finally, I must admit to never having read the Harry Potter books, so if my metaphor regarding the vagaries of the boggart is inaccurate, I acknowledge the critique and my ignorance. It does seem to be a useful way of thinking about psychological difficulties and it is in the process of our therapeutic encounter with the boggart, rather than my misunderstanding of J K Rowling’s description that its utility should be considered. Most importantly though, don’t underestimate the power, reach and importance of a story. We engage in therapy to clarify our life story, in a way that nurtures a more complete and acceptable understanding of your being human. If a character in a work of fiction can help in the development of this narrative, then perhaps we can welcome the boggart together, even if it may represent our own worst fears.

Counselling Directory is not responsible for the articles published by members. The views expressed are those of the member who wrote the article.

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Gosport, Hants, PO12 4AN
Written by Peter Fallon, UKCP reg
Gosport, Hants, PO12 4AN

Having served as an engineer in the Royal Navy for fourteen years, I went on to train initially as a social worker, and then as a psychotherapist. This has resulted in extensive experience of working with distressed adults in both the statutory and private sectors. UKCP registered

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