When I was teaching, I often instructed my class to write a persuasive essay--that is, each student was to select something he or she would like to change and present arguments why the change should take place. I remember one young woman who was upset that her home town was giving some land to a university. Her reason for objecting? "They shouldn't do that!"
"Why not?" I asked.
"They just shouldn't!"
We discussed the matter for several minutes, and she couldn't tell me why the town decided to give the land away, nor could she tell me why the town shouldn't do so. Nonetheless, she was very angry about it.
Over the years I've witnessed several occasions in which someone got angry over the behavior of another--(But we always have Thanksgiving at my house! How dare she decide to go to Florida with a friend?") (How can Dad sell the house I grew up in?")--failing to recognize that the other person has every right to his or her decision. These individuals are acting on the premise, "Other people are supposed to do what I want!" If you think about it, this is how babies and young children think; it's why they have tantrums when they don't get their way. People who think this way are often very unhappy because their reasoning has remained immature.
Another source of distorted or unclear thinking comes from not recognizing misinformation, particularly when it comes from someone in authority. If a parent tells a child that all people who belong to a certain race or religion or political persuasion are evil or dangerous or somehow inferior, the child may grow up firmly believing that to be so. Unless the child questions that information, he or she will never think differently. But it's scary to question a parent or a teacher or anyone we see as an authority, so misinformation often continues to color our lives, causing us needless grief.
Distorted and unclear thinking also result from automatically making negative assumptions. I've discussed this subject in earlier blogs.
Depression is a disorder of feelings. As I've mentioned before, we often don't distinguish between our feelings and our thoughts. To make things even more complicated, our feelings can distort our thoughts and distorted thoughts can affect our feelings.
If you say (or think), "I'm worthless," that's a thought, but is it a distorted thought, based on feeling worthless? There's a difference between the statements, "I feel worthless," and "I am worthless." One is a feeling, the other a thought that may or may not be true. If your thoughts are distorted by a flood of negative feelings, you're facing a tremendous challenge--learning to distinguish your feelings from your thoughts, and determining which thoughts are factual and which are distorted by either unclear thinking or negative feelings.
Unclear thinking often occurs when you assume something that isn't necessarily true. For example, if my friend forgets my birthday, and I assume that she's angry with me, I'm overlooking other possibilities. She may have been unusually busy, or preoccupied with urgent matters, she may have been ill and lost track of the date, etc. To check for unclear thinking, ask yourself what you know for a fact and what you are assuming. We humans often assume when we shouldn't, and frequently our assumptions lead us to negative conclusions.
You may ask, "What about antidepressants?" It's true that the proper antidepressant can make you feel better, and if your feelings are of recent origin, and you can point to an event that triggered them--say, a death in the family, the loss of a relationship or a job, for example, medication may help you if you appear to be going to a longer than normal period of grief. If, however, your negative feelings are long-standing and are caused by distorted thinking, medication may not help.
So what do you do when your feelings are creating havoc in your life? If your state of mind is long-standing, I believe the best thing you can do is to get professional help. And I know from experience that not every therapist will be particularly helpful. I had to try several different ones before I found one who understood what I needed.
On the other hand, if you've been down for a shorter period of time, and particularly if you know what triggered the downturn, you might find it helpful to remind yourself often that part of life is facing disappointments and losses, and it's normal to feel bad at such times. Keep busy, help others, take time to enjoy little things, like the sun on your face, a beautiful piece of music, flowers, birds and animals--any activity that lifts your spirit, even if temporarily. Reword your negative thoughts. "I am," becomes, "I feel," and tell yourself repeatedly, FEELINGS ARE NOT FACTS.
Stephanie Kay Bendel is the author of EXIT THE LABYRINTH: A Memoir of Early Childhood Depression – Its Onset and Aftermath, MAKING CRIME PAY: A Practical Guide to Mystery Writing, and A SCREAM AWAY, a romantic thriller published under the house name, Andrea Harris. She has also written numerous short stories and articles on writing.