Being Depressed
Chapter 3

Empowering People

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So far, I have tried to shed some light on the meaning of feeling and of pain, and on how the way we deal with our pain is related to our esteem, confidence, hope and pleasure. Now, I want to focus on being depressed—a condition that afflicts so many of us—and on its relationship to how we deal with feeling, particularly distress.
Those of us who become depressed seem particularly to have been raised in an environment of fear, guilt and shame, which has bred a sense of self as deficient, as flawed and therefore as undeserving and unworthy of love. We fear a recurrence of the crushing pain of our original experiences of harming abandonment. Since we see ourselves as deserving of such treatment, we continue to believe that others are ready to judge and condemn us, and we are afraid to risk believing otherwise.
In order to keep ourselves safe from such disapproving judgment, we are compelled at-all-costs to hide our supposed deficiencies from others (and, in so doing, to hide a great deal more of ourselves) and to turn tail—not protest—when others criticize us. Because we also believe that any hint that we are distressed is, itself, an impermissible sign of our inadequacy (after all, we reason, if we really had it together, we wouldn't get angry, frustrated, disappointed, sad, scared, hurt, or...), we also struggle to conceal our distresses or to rationalize them as due to circumstances for which we can't really be held responsible (such as a painful menstrual period).
As if these efforts weren't burdensome enough, we are also compelled to try to hold ourselves free from judgment once-and-for-all by attempting an heroic undertaking (such as becoming rich or "the best," or winning an especially prized person's love). However, these heroic undertakings inevitably fail. At some point, rather than finding ourselves forever safe from judgment, we become distressed (e.g., frustrated, disappointed, sad, anxious, frightened) to discover that these very efforts to eliminate our unworthiness are threatening to expose it (e.g., through imminent bankruptcy, failure to win, or rejection). Now we are compelled not only to try to hide from the meaning of our distress, but also to attempt to control how we feel (quite literally, by choking it down, by distracting ourselves from our distresses through work, alcohol, etc.).
But such efforts must also continue to meet with failure. Yet so compelling are both our imagining that others are about to take away love and our needing to avoid this at all costs, that we keep trying to conceal and control, even though we know we can't succeed. As a result, we vacillate, get stuck: We try, we give up, we try, we give up... When we are no longer able to ignore this struggle, we become conscious that we are depressed: We feel depressed.
When depressed, we have three options: We can live as though we have already been found lacking in others' eyes ("Women are never interested in me and never will be!"), we can live as though we could never be found lacking in others' eyes ("My wife will love me no matter what I do or say!"), or we can genuinely confront the implicit meanings of our being depressed (Tearfully: "I'm sad about Jane's decision not to marry me and afraid that I may never find someone with whom to share love, but I know that her decision does not mean that I am inadequate or unlovable.") If we choose either of the first two options, we will remain depressed until we no longer see ourselves confronted with the threat of being exposed as unworthy (e.g., when a new love or a better job seems to be at hand, or the person who finished ahead of me gets disqualified); but we will not have resolved the issue of our worthiness.
Genuine confronting is a more radical solution. It involves recognizing and accepting that, although I want to please those other people who I value, and want them to find me worthy, the possibility of both pleasing and displeasing them exists, and my worth does not depend on any one person's approval or on the success of any single act.
In other words, we become depressed because we don't accept that we will sometimes succeed and sometimes fail and that such successes and failures do not determine our worth; and we become depressed because, as a result, we attempt to choke down, to stifle, how we are affected.
An old psychiatric maxim holds that depression is "anger turned inward" and that it can be resolved by "getting" the patient angry. Although this strategy can be effective, it is too narrow. All feeling is logical, valuable, unchoosable and inescapable. Acknowledging this truth of our situations is healthy and healing and, conversely, attempting to evade pain is destructive and impedes healing. Every genuine expression (of choked-back frustration, disappointment, sadness, hurt, etc., as well as anger) will facilitate relief and healing.
So far, I have suggested that depression is rooted in a sense of being flawed, which is the result of growing up in an environment characterized by efforts to control through shaming, "guilting" and/or scaring. I have also proposed that depression is the consequence of inevitably futile efforts to conceal this presumed flawedness. Now, I want to present some concrete, "nuts-and-bolts" ways to help avoid being depressed or to help deal with once it is at-hand.
Engage in the Dialogue. Reach out to others! More than anything else, genuinely avoiding depression requires dialogue ("real-talk"), particularly with important others. Rather than hide it, I need to tell them how things are for me. I do this for myself, not to help them (although it might). This inevitably involves revealing how I feel: my hopes, dreams and desires, shames, guilts, fears, disappointments, sadnesses, angers, etc.
Create and Maintain a Support Network. I can assist myself in carrying out this dialogue by making the cultivation of a support network a high priority. A support network is a handful of caring others with whom I feel safe, who I trust to face me honestly even when they chance my becoming sad, hurt or angry.
Get Rid of Toxic People. I can also facilitate the dialogue by eliminating the toxic (pretending, attacking, concealing) people from my life. This may seem cruel, but it is very difficult to avoid becoming toxic in an ongoing relationship with a toxic person. If I, too, become toxic, I harm both of us; we both will drown. To remedy this: First, through dialogue (that is, by my being non-toxic, straight, authentic), I invite the other person to be non-toxic (investing as much time and energy as I'm willing to invest in that possibility). Then, if I have succeeded to my satisfaction, I use the dialoguing skills to express my pleasure; If I haven't, I use the same skills to terminate the relationship and to grieve its ending.
Keep a Journal. When I am overwrought and the appropriate person isn't available to participate in the dialogue, I can gain perspective and reduce panic by engaging in a different sort of dialogue: by keeping a journal (either written or on tape). In the journal, I can speak to myself, my journal or that other person. This helps me discover what I am feeling and what I need to say and do, and to whom. Later on, reading my journal can be further illuminating.
Do a Reality Check. I have often discovered that my "I'd bet on it" assumptions about another person were incorrect. It is particularly when I believe I am flawed that I am most likely to assume about you what supports my view of myself as deficient, and to act accordingly. (For example, I might assume that you didn't talk to me today because you find me boring and are trying to avoid me. As a result, I might try to impress you.) You'll be put off by that and push me away. This will most likely elicit my attempt to escape which, in turn, is likely to result in depression. Rather than jumping to conclusions about why you didn't talk to me, I can "reality check." ("When you didn't talk to me all day, I began to wonder whether I've done something that bothered you. I want to check that out, because our relationship is important to me.) This is a powerful tool for avoiding such self-fulfilling prophesies.
Acknowledge the Crisis. When I attempt to stave off being depressed by trying to deny, ignore or rationalize the crisis that I am experiencing, I increase the likelihood of becoming depressed; or, if I am already depressed, I interfere with the process of truly surpassing being depressed. Acknowledging the crisis helps me to resolve it. For example, when my lover leaves me, admitting that I am afraid people will think I can't hold onto a lover, because there is something wrong with me, reduces the likelihood that I will become or remain depressed.
Admit That You Feel Sorry For Yourself. The nearly universal injunction not to feel sorry for myself, if obeyed, leads down the path toward depression. In fact, most of us have lots of reasons to feel sorry for ourselves. Truly acknowledging this truth can help alleviate depression.
Nurture Your Scared Self. Those of us who have been raised in discounting environments tends to be hard on ourselves. This fosters being depressed. On the other hand, self-kindness (e.g., patting myself on the back for a job well done, taking a bubble-bath, buying myself a favorite food or a new shirt) can enhance self-esteem and make becoming depressed less likely.
Take Very Good Care of Yourself. Those of us who tend to become depressed don't do very well when it comes to basic self-care. (This stance towards one's self is revealed in a statement that I've heard often: "I only cook when I have company. It's too much trouble to cook for myself.") Taking very good care of myself requires that I value how I feel, and that I act on the basis of it. This means that I consistently take the time to provide myself with: 
  • sufficient sleep (eight hours for practically all of us)
  • a healthful and tasty diet
  • adequate and appropriate exercise
  • play and entertainment (taking time to "smell the roses")
  • private time (time by myself, giving to myself—especially important for single parents)
  • intimate time (time being close to another human being whose presence I value)
Taking good care of myself also means that I make a high priority of discarding my addictions (alcohol, nicotine, caffeine, food, sex, etc.), perhaps with a suitable therapist.
Breathe. It may surprise you that we have all learned very early in life to hold our breath in order to lessen our awareness of pain (whether it be a stomach ache or the pain of being left out). However, this interferes with our ability to really grasp how we're affected and to deal effectively with it. If getting in touch with how you're affected is a frightening prospect, I recommend that you approach it with the help of a therapist who is skilled in dealing with such matters.
In addition to the above measures, there are a number of common strategies for distracting people from their depression. While these may distract you from recognizing that you are depressed, they cannot remedy, cannot resolve the depressing situation. At best, they will postpone the time when you will have to face what it means that you are depressed. At worst, they provide false hope and expectations; when you realize that the strategies you counted on to help you stop being depressed have failed, you may end up panicked, desperately sensing that there is no way for you to get beyond being depressed. Nevertheless, these strategies can sometimes be useful. Of course, when you are depressed, these activities seem undoable; but they are willable. You can choose to take the time to do them and doing so will alter your stance (temporarily). They include:

Get Into Your Body. This might include walking, jogging, tennis, swimming, aerobics, nautilus, etc.
Change the Depressing Situation. If you are depressed over the loss of a job, get another one. If you are depressed over losing your lover, find another, etc.
Distract Yourself. Read, watch television, go to the movies, theater, symphony, take a trip, etc.
Be With Others. Visit friends, go to parties, make plans with friends, contract to talk with them... (A word of caution; both this and distracting yourself might backfire: They could remind you of how depressingly alone you are. But they can also be distracting and ego-supporting.)
Structure Time. Make plans. People who become depressed are most vulnerable on weekends and holidays, when their time is not structured by work. So, make a schedule (just like you did in high school) for all of your time. Then work hard to follow it.
Remember, your first and most important obligation is to take the very best care of yourself.

©1998 Stephen E. Linn, Ph.D. • Empowering People

We become depressed because we don't accept that we will sometimes succeed and sometimes fail, and as a result, we attempt to choke down, to stifle, how we are affected.

Your most important obligation is to take the very best care of yourself.
Empowering People

Essays on Being Human

Chapter 1
On Feeling
Chapter 2
On Pain
Chapter 3
Being Depressed
Chapter 4
On Primal

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