By Nando Pelusi Ph.D., published on September 5, 2003 - last reviewed on November 8, 2007
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.
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."
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.
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.
Then you can see the practical problem for what it is. Adversity. Frustration. A pain in the neck.
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.
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.