The saddest thing about depression is that it eventually invades our capacity to see and evaluate what is happening around and within ourself. Like gasoline that poisons our ability to smell, discouragement warps our perception and judgment. The danger is that we will make too much of our disappointments and too little of our strengths and achievements. Unless we recognize this distortion and correct it, we may go down the path of continually depressing ourselves as well as suffering from legitimate hardships and losses.
Many of us fail to recognize how much we depress ourselves and how much the role of our pervasive despair contributes to our dark moods. Too often we assume that our outer situation and relationships are the only factors that irritate us, and that this is where our problems must be fixed. The reality is that our perceptions, judgments, and reactions to what happens to us play a vital role in constructing our overall mood and how we view our life. If we are excessively blinded by our gloom, we will miss many important opportunities to achieve healing and turn our life around.
The first phase of this spiral into despair and defeat begins when discouraging events occur—something that occasionally happens to everyone. At this point, we feel bad about what has happened or what failed to happen. The disappointment is often confined to the memory of this event. So far, no major damage to our self-confidence and zest for life has occurred.
However, when disappointments recur, the damage begins to invade deeper levels. This border is crossed as we change the language we use to describe our mood and state of mind. When we shift from saying, “I feel bad about this event,” to “I have let myself down,” we have begun to contaminate our beliefs about what we can do or become. When we add comments such as, “I just can’t succeed,” then we are identifying with failure and inadequacy. We have wounded our beliefs and self-concept—and accepted that a personal defect is causing our discouragement. This conclusion will lead to recurring defeat and disappointment.
The final step in this cascade of defeat comes when we begin to tell ourself, “There’s no use in trying, I cannot be the person I want to be.” Now we are thinking in terms of who we are rather than a few habits or qualities we have. We do not merely lack some specific ability or strength, we are a failure, and there are many things we probably can never be or achieve. Thus, we descend into identifying with defeat and personal weakness as a permanent condition that will follow us wherever we go and whatever we try to do.
The experience of major disappointments or a series of less severe misfortunes readily becomes a tipping point that can lead to a new resolve to work creatively to overcome these problems. Or it can lead to the conviction that we must give top priority to preserving what we have and avoid further risk. This fear of more failure will lead to a permanent tendency to reject any great challenge or opportunity for achievement. The first choice leads to growth of our coping skills and other essential strengths. The other choice leads to permanent depression.
The key difference in these pathways is the choice of paradigm—the way we view our experiences and process them. We can focus on threats or the opportunities in our situation. We can concentrate on what we have in the way of talents, resources, and friends, or we can dwell on what we lack. We can remember our successes and achievements as a reminder of our competence, or we can remember our failures and mistakes as a reminder of our inadequacies. One choice will foster optimism and enthusiasm for current activities; the other will generate wave after wave of gloom and despair.
The mature person knows that caution is an important quality. There is virtue in being thoughtful and able to consider the risks of our future choices and behavior. Proceeding through life using vigilant attitudes and standards is reasonable and practical. The difficulty comes when we make too much of our need for safety, security, and perfect choices of action. A life that is devoid of risk and failure is a life where the standards have been set too low. The best that can come from this frame of mind is mere survival. As intelligent and mature people, we deserve to honor our humanity and spirit with greater courage and creativity.
A strong motivation compels us to fully engage our opportunities and creative strengths vigorously. When we are enthusiastic about our life, we begin our day looking forward to what we can accomplish and experience. We are excited to get going. But when we place too high of a value on protecting ourself from additional disappointment, we will be motivated largely to avoid failure, mistakes, and assorted disasters. We begin each day dreading all the bad things that might happen. We will tend to pursue only those activities that will be “safe” and free of undue risk of disappointment. By our effort to avoid new failures, we are retreating into a “safe” lifestyle where we do less, achieve less, and are much less fulfilled.
This is how we depress ourself and add to our sadness and pessimism.
Those who are chronically disappointed often protest that they just cannot do more than they have. They are eager to inform you about how overwhelming circumstances have beaten down and exhausted them. They will scoff at new opportunities or ideas. If they are pushed into trying new ways, they will do so fully expecting to fail. They anticipate difficulty and disappointment. They mentally rehearse defeat.
This is how the bodyguards of depression go to work to prevent healing change—how the discouraged person recreates defeat in new circumstances. No longer merely depressed, they are now vigorously working hard to stay depressed.
The major factors that sustain the activity of depressing ourself consist of the habits outlined in previous chapters. First, we set our psychic radar to give extra attention to our failures, risks, mistakes, and losses. This step enables us to accumulate large amounts of disappointment and discouragement.
Then we unleash a cascade of negative beliefs. We take our reactions of disappointment and internalize them as a belief that we are weak or inadequate—for example, “I can’t compete with others.” Later, we accept defeat and inadequacy as the core of our character and believe we are not only defective in key activities, but are actually an incompetent person and undeserving of success. Once we see ourself as defective and weak, we will guarantee a permanent retreat into mediocrity and discouragement, as we now will add gloom and low expectations to virtually everything we plan or do.
If we can recognize the many ways that we poison our beliefs and habits to preserve and repeat our disappointment, we can also begin to nullify these attitudes and behaviors. We can disconnect the chain of negative beliefs, thereby correcting the direction of our psychic radar to search for our strengths, opportunities, and successes. We can learn to celebrate our achievements instead of mourning our losses and defeats.
These are choices only we can make and apply.