In an earlier blog I talked about becoming aware of your thoughts and feelings and learning to separate them. Over years of therapy I came to realize that my thoughts and feelings were not what I thought they were because they were being colored by what was going on in my unconscious mind. Eventually I found out that a simple false assumption I'd made in early childhood had affected my whole life negatively, leading to years of depression. Worse yet, because I'd made that assumption at such an young age, the memory of that incident was soon lost to early childhood amnesia, and that assumption became unconscious. I painfully learned how much unconscious thoughts and feelings color our lives.
To illustrate how such things can happen, let me give you a theoretical example: Tom is angry this morning. He has just learned that the promotion he was sure he was going to get was going to someone else instead--a person with less experience. When he questioned his boss, he was told, "You're doing a good job, Tom. I have no complaints. I simply felt that Joe was a better fit." Tom is fuming. He's sure that something is going on behind his back. The situation seems completely unfair. His boss couldn't even give him a solid reason why he was passed over.
What's going on here? In reality, Tom has an unconscious habit of failing to look people in the eye when he speaks to them. Instead he looks off to the side or focuses on a point just beyond them. Why does he do this? It may be that he's basically a shy person, or it could be a habit he's has since childhood. The reason doesn't matter. The point is, that when he speaks to someone who doesn't know him well, that person's going to feel that something's a little off--that they can't quite trust what he's saying. Even though he's a very honest, sincere, man, Tom doesn't come across that way.
Why didn't his boss just tell him that? It's possible his boss isn't consciously aware of what Tom's doing wrong. He simply knows that he feels that Tom isn't right for the job.
Who's at fault here? Nobody. What is going on is at an unconscious level on both sides. Tom is stuck being angry, and he feels justified. He's likely to stay angry unless he takes a purely rational approach and tries to discover what's holding him back. How does he do this? First of all, he's got to put his feelings aside and realize that there's something he's not aware of that is hurting his career chances. He must be persistent. If he asks people who know him well, chances are they no longer notice his indirect gaze and won't be able to help. Until he asks someone attuned to body language, Tom will suffer. It may take a professional to help him. Unfortunately, most of us are reluctant to seek professional help until our lives are falling apart.
It may seem that I'm saying you shouldn't pay attention to your feelings. NOT TRUE! Feelings are an important part of who you are. You just need to know that your feelings can sabotage you sometimes when you're not aware of where they come from.
I WANT TO LET YOU KNOW: My book, Exit the Labyrinth: a memoir of early childhood depression, its onset and aftermath, will be available on Kindle at the low price of $2.99 for one day only, Sunday, September 24th.
Earlier I talked about unrealistic expectations and how they bring about unhappiness and even depression. Today I want to present some assumptions many of us make and show how they lead to those expectations. Here are a few examples:
Nothing should ever go wrong--if it does, someone must be to blame. If you grew up in a blaming culture, it’ll probably be hard to wrap your mind around this idea, but it’s true. Sometimes things happen, and no one is to blame. Even in those cases where someone is at fault, it’s far more productive to figure out what needs to be done to correct the situation than to be angry about it. Blaming gets you nowhere and is generally destructive to relationships.
He or she will change. That bad habit is just a temporary thing. Actually, people seldom change much. There’s a saying that only two things cause a real personality change: a religious conversion or brain surgery. In general, what you see is what you get. Someone may promise to change, but the worth of that promise can only be demonstrated over time, and permanent change usually takes a fairly long time. Be careful when you commit to anything on a promise to change. Many a marriage has failed because the promised change never comes.
It is possible to be perfect. If you believe this, are trying to be perfect or are asking someone else to be perfect, you are going to drive yourself and everyone around you crazy. We humans have to learn to live with a reasonable amount of imperfection.
If I do everything just right, everyone will like me. Probably not. People who appear to be perfect often arouse envy and inferiority in others. Moreover, some personalities just clash, so you’re never going to get everyone to like you.
I have a right to be happy. I’ve seen this assumption cause more unhappiness than any other I can think of. I hear people complain about how difficult their lives are, and how everything is so awful. The first problem becomes evident when you ask people what would make them happy. Some give answers that are unrealistic and, frankly immature: “Not having any responsibilities.” “Getting to do whatever I want.” “Having lots of money.” “Being a celebrity or a rock star.” “Meeting someone who’ll make me happy.”
The second problem shows up when you ask them why they think they have a right to be happy. Some will answer, “It’s in the Declaration of Independence.” But if you examine that document, you’ll see that it says you have the right to pursue happiness, and it implies that you have to do something to achieve what you want, and you must do so without violating anyone else’s rights. There is no guarantee that your pursuit will be successful. A small child deserves to be cared for and loved, but even a small child must learn that we don’t get everything we want. As we mature, we need to learn that we create our lives by the choices we make, and we are responsible for our own happiness.
During my years of struggle with depression, I learned to pay close attention to my thoughts. Often I discovered that I wasn't really interested in anything. Someone would ask me if I wanted to go to a movie, and I'd reply, "I don't care."
"Would you like to go out to eat?"
"I don't care."
At such times nothing seemed important enough to care. I learned to spot this frame of mind as deepening depression, and I knew I had to fight it. But how do you fight apathy? These are some of the methods I found helpful.
DO SOMETHING! One of the hallmarks of depression can be extreme fatigue, and it can seem like the last thing you want to do is expend energy, but I found that if I accomplished something--anything--my mood lightened. I'd pick a task--it could be as small as organizing a desk drawer or loading the dishwasher--and tell myself, "I'm just going to get this one thing done." Usually by the time I'd done that little job, I'd find that I could do one other little thing--water a couple of plants, sweep the floor, or read an article in a magazine I'd been saving. The key was to concentrate on small tasks. The satisfaction in accomplishing them would diminish my apathy.
KEEP ON GOING! When my father was sixteen, the Great Depression was in full force, and jobs were hard to come by. He joined the Civil Conservation Corps and worked outdoors on various projects, even in winter. He developed pneumonia and was temporarily bedridden. As soon as he recovered, he went back to work, but shortly became ill again. He woke up one morning completely paralyzed on his left side. Eventually feeling began to return, but by this time his muscles were so weak that he had to learn to walk all over again. There were no physical therapists available, no equipment to rebuild muscles, but the beds in his barrack were so close together that he could pull himself from one to the next. He kept exercising until he could walk again, and then went back to work.
Whenever my depression deepened, my mantra became, "One foot in front of the other--even if you have to drag it there!"
BE NICE TO YOURSELF! This one can be tricky, because we often try to make ourselves feel better by doing things that are self-destructive in the end--spending too much money, eating too much of the wrong kind of foods, turning to alcohol or drugs, etc. There are plenty of things you can do that make you feel better without making your situation worse. Here are some that I found helpful:
Pay attention to your grooming and dress, even when you are alone.
Listen to music. Discover what kinds of music lift your mood. Beware of music that agitates you.
Go for a walk (even if you have to drag one leg!). Pay attention to what you see. There is beauty everywhere, if you look.
Remember what you enjoyed when you weren't depressed, and do that.
CONNECT WITH OTHERS! This can be as simple as smiling at everyone you meet, or complimenting someone. Be sure you don't say anything that could be misconstrued as harassment or a come on. No one is going to be offended if you say, "That's a cute dog, " or briefly comment on the weather. Don't forget to say, "Please" and "Thank you."
Remember that when you're depressed, the world can seem threatening and hostile. Know that helping someone else can change the way you are seeing things. A simple act like opening a door for someone can make the world seem friendlier.
In my long journey through depression, I had to learn to think differently. In order to do this, I had to pay attention to my thoughts and examine them to be sure I wasn't confusing them with my feelings. For example, thinking I am unattractive is different from realizing I feel unattractive.
If I make a stupid mistake, I may feel stupid afterward. But if I consequently believe I'm stupid, I'm allowing my feelings to become my reality, and that is where depression can sink its ugly roots into my life. It took me a long time to learn to make these distinctions habitual, and meanwhile I began to observe how people around me were behaving. I realized that a lot of unhappiness in this world is generated by mixing up thinking and feeling.
For example: once I was with a lady friend (I'll call her Wendy) when a mutual acquaintance walked up and greeted her, "My, you look nice today." As the acquaintance walked away, Wendy turned to me and asked, "What did she mean by that? Was she saying I don't usually look nice?"
Think about my lady friend's reaction. Ordinarily, people are pleased to receive a compliment. Why do you suppose she responded negatively? How do you think she was feeling at that time? Was she aware of her feelings?
I remember very clearly the two incidents that made me aware of how my feelings could deceive me. The first was when I was spending an enjoyable evening with a group of friends. I looked around the room and marveled at how attractive all of my friends were. Not long after that I boarded a bus after a long, difficult day. As I sat down and looked at the other passengers, I was struck by how angry and hostile they all appeared to be.
At that point in my therapy, I was just beginning to examine my thoughts and feelings, so I tried to put my emotions aside and look at the situation logically.
These people don't know me. They have no reason to be hostile to me. Most of them aren't even aware of my presence. What was I feeling when I got on the bus? I was tired, discouraged and feeling vulnerable. When do you feel vulnerable? When you feel threatened.
Suddenly my perceptions made sense. Because I felt vulnerable, I was seeing the other passengers as threatening.
That realization was an eye opener!
Since then I've learned that even though our feelings are a necessary part of being human, they aren't always an accurate reflection of reality. Does this mean we shouldn't pay attention to our feelings? NO! What it does mean is that we have to learn to figure out where our feelings are coming from. How do we learn to do this? The same way we learn to do anything: PRACTICE,PRACTICE, PRACTICE!
More on this subject later.
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.