Removing Despair from Depression

One of the best ways to get a grip on depression is to separate it into its many layers. In my experience as a clinical psychologist, I have found that the problems that contribute to disappointment, paralysis and hopelessness are often clearly separable.

For most people, the topmost layer of malaise is a blanket of depression about being depressed—despair, hopelessness. This layer consists of an emotional and behavioral response to symptoms of depression. It is supported by negative thoughts people have about themselves when they're depressed: "Nobody loves me as I need them to." "I'm not a real man if I'm depressed." "I'm an unattractive woman if I'm depressed."

Some people assume that the negative experiences they have—the adversities, rejections or difficulties—cause their depression directly. That makes it difficult for them to approach their problems; they get overwhelmed and demoralized. It's more useful to distinguish the emotional crust from the practical primary issue underneath.

I have found that when people get less depressed about being depressed, often they get less depressed at the primary level.

  • To begin resolving the depression, first you have to tune in to how you feel: you're depressed, whatever that means to you. It could mean lethargy, passivity, hurt, self-pity.

    And then you ask yourself, about what? "I'm rejected." Or "I have a hard time." That's the practical problem. You have to look squarely at your life. You can start small: "My report got rejected." "I've gotten rejected by 25 people on Match.com."

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When you assume that you can't carry on because you're down, that's a clue that you're getting depressed about being depressed. You may feel ashamed that you're depressed, upset and anxious.

Getting depressed about being depressed creates a cycle of hopelessness, passivity, hibernation, avoidance. It creates a positive feedback loop by which you keep getting more depressed. Separating the layers of depression cuts the self-downing loop.

The topmost layer of despair is emotional but such emotions have behavioral consequences. They lead to avoidance, passivity, perhaps aggression. But they also suggest that depression evolved for a reason—to make you retrench. Used the right way, it prompts you to approach a troublesome situation differently.

That's why it's good to get rid of the depression about being depressed. It allows you to act on the primary problem.

  • Once you've separated the emotional problem from the primary practical problem, you can identify the beliefs you have about yourself. " I must be loved." "I must do well." These are classic rational emotive philosophies, or mind styles, that foster depression. There may be beliefs about the world: "The world should recognize me." Or "I need a guarantee of success, otherwise it's too hard to live with my dreams and hopes." A belief that things must go your way can lead to very destructive rage: "The world must see me fairly and favorably, otherwise the world is contemptible."
  • Because depression often has adaptive value, it can be helpful in identifying beliefs to ask yourself whether being depressed has a payoff for you.

    When we're depressed we retrench. We also unconsciously, but desperately seek affection and attention from those who might give us love. Depression may have evolved to allow us to discern who loves us; it's hard to fake caring for someone who is depressed; the depressed are irritable, negative. The payoffs may be clues to beliefs we hold.

  • The next step is to question these beliefs. "What are the functional effects of my believing that I must do well?" Why must someone love you? Why must you succeed? Why do you deserve an easier time of it? It's necessary to breach the absoluteness of those beliefs.

    Then you can see the practical problem for what it is. Adversity. Frustration. A pain in the neck.

  • It is helpful to find humor in the beliefs you hold about yourself. Humor provides a way of seeing things differently. It reframes our beliefs.

    If a client says "I can't stand to fail and I must not be disapproved," we can laugh about the horrors that never occur when they're disapproved. We come to see that rejection doesn't imply that one person is speaking for all of mankind; it just means there's a lack of fit in that case.

  • After examining the self-defeating beliefs that keep you depressed, you're still left with frustration and disappointment over the practical problem. That's the point at which you assess the skills you need for coping with the primary problem. Less morose and depressed, you're better able to learn any skills.
  • Often it is a matter of interpersonal skills. One way to learn the skills of life and social life is by trial and error. Depression, however, subverts trial and error and thus the acquisition of practical skills. So it pays to beat back depression not just because it feels bad but because it deters learning what works for you.

    Here's the payoff. Learning the skills of life not only makes you less depressed, it makes you less depressible. It makes you more confident, better able to achieve and reproduce success.

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