Have you noticed how many people use the words "think" and "feel" interchangeably? One of the things I had to learn in therapy is that the two aren't the same, but your thoughts affect your feelings, and your feelings affect your thoughts. If you're depressed, you need to know how to deal with both.
As an example, suppose Joan has just learned that she's not going to get the promotion she expected. How does she feel? Disappointed, certainly--perhaps even devastated. Maybe she's even angry. These are her feelings.
Now suppose her husband, Keith, promised to call her at noon to find out about her promotion, and he doesn't call. What will Joan think? Because she's in a negative state of mind, she may very well think, "He doesn't really care. He doesn't appreciate how important that promotion was to me. He probably didn't even remember that I was going to hear about it this morning!" These are her thoughts. But are they valid, factual thoughts--or are they being distorted by her feelings?
If Joan stops at this point and reminds herself that as a rule, Keith is a thoughtful, caring man, and it would be unlike him simply to forget what is important to her, she would still feel disappointed, but she'd have a more realistic view of the situation and wouldn't be angry at her husband.
On the other hand, what if she doesn't stop and analyze her thoughts? When Keith finally does reach her and tries to explain that a client called just before noon with an emergency, and Keith had to spend a half hour on the phone working the problem out, Joan might not even listen to him. She might even snap at him, displacing her angry feelings about the lost promotion onto poor Keith, who doesn't understand what's going on.
Not only can feelings be distorted by thoughts, but unclear thoughts can lead to invalid feelings. For example, let's suppose Jim is trying to repair a piece of machinery, and he believe he knows how to do so. But after a couple of hours, the machine still doesn't work, and Jim doesn't understand why. Jim experiences feelings of disappointment and frustration. He thinks, "I failed." That thought leads him to feel bad about himself. If Jim has a habit of thinking this way, the thought "I failed" soon becomes "I'm a failure."
Now let's look at Jim's twin brother, Tim, who is faced with the same situation. When, after working on it for a couple of hours, the machine still isn't working, Tim also feels disappointed and frustrated. He thinks, "Well, that didn't work! I'll have to try something else." He doesn't feel bad about himself, and he'll keep trying different methods until he finds one that works. Why the different responses from the two brothers? Notice that Jim interpreted the situation personally.
Over the years, I've met quite a few people who suffer from depression, and one thing I noticed is that they often blamed themselves when things went bad, even though they'd done nothing wrong. In particular, I remember a conversation with a woman who suffered from depression and had witnessed her father being injured in a bicycle accident. "It was awful," she said. "I felt so guilty!"
I was surprised and pointed out that while I understood that it was distressing to see her father injured, she hadn't caused the accident, and there was nothing she could have done to prevent it, so guilt was inappropriate.
"I know," she replied, "but I was there. I felt I should have done something!" Her feeling was not uncommon--in fact, it was a version of survivor guilt, often a factor in Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. It was still an invalid feeling, and she needed to see it as such. It can take a lot of work to unlearn the pattern of unfairly blaming yourself--sometimes therapy is necessary. But if it results in a happier you, it's worth it!
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.