How to stop depressing yourself

Some schools of therapy like to describe depression as a process rather than as a static condition. According to these therapists, a person isn’t so much depressed as depressing themselves. What this distinction entails is that your low mood isn’t something that you have like the possession of green eyes, for example, but a consequence of what you do. Viewed in this way, your depressed moods are amenable to change, providing you know what constitutes your ‘depressing’ actions.

One school of thought in line with this kind of explanation is the attribution theory of depression. This theory contends that 1) depression is caused by a pessimistic style of thinking (thinking is here defined as a form of action) and 2) this style of thinking has three prominent features:

a) The negative event (X) is construed as permanent (i.e. the adverse effects won’t go away).

b) The person concerned believes s/he is entirely responsible for X happening (‘It’s all my fault’).

c) X is interpreted as a sign that everything is wrong (‘My life is all wrong’).

These three features imply that depressing oneself involves thinking in an overly generalizing and defeatist fashion. The antidote is to think in a pragmatic and realistic way. Here are some ways of tackling the different aspects of the depressive style of thinking:

a) Regarding ‘permanence’ it might be useful to recognize that research suggests that over time we tend to cope better with adverse events, even tragic ones, better than what we originally think (that doesn’t mean, of course, that we necessarily completely get over what happens to us). When something bad happens, it can be useful to think about other adverse events and how we are now coping better with them than before; this challenges the assumption that the bad feelings concerning this latest event will be permanent. Also, another proactive way to tackle intimations of permanence is to answer the following question: how can I make my life better, even by a little? This question focuses on moving forward and changing things and thus counteracts feelings of futility.

b) Taking some responsibility for one’s actions is an essential part of living an ethical life. However, it is very rarely (if ever) the case that when something bad happens we are completely responsible for it; in other words, it is decidedly implausible that some adverse event completely originated from you. I don’t want to get particularly philosophical about this, but strictly speaking, if you were entirely to blame for something, you would have to be the first cause of what happened and not be subject to any prior influences. So, when you succumb to blaming yourself and only yourself about what has happened, step back and take a longer and more expansive view of the situation. This involves considering as much as possible the different factors that contributed to the situation and what you will realize is that responsibility for an adverse event cannot rest solely on your shoulders (e.g. you might realize that perhaps you should have told your boss about your difficulties with the recent computer system, as that might have prevented making the mistake that cost the company a lot of money; but when you consider the matter more deeply, you also realize that a reason for your reluctance was that your boss has been condescending and unapproachable as of late). If this reflecting is done earnestly and thoroughly, you should find that you feel less burdened by punitive guilt.  

c) Regarding tackling ‘pervasiveness’, it is important to challenge the global evaluations that you are making e.g. ‘My life is all wrong’. Instead of dismissing your life in one abrupt and sweeping statement, challenge the contention by asking, ‘What is going well or at least OK for me just now?’ Asking and answering this question acts as an antidote towards demoralization and it therefore also makes addressing the problem more likely (i.e. since you don’t feel that everything is wrong, you can focus on rectifying this specific area. You don’t succumb to ‘no pointism’).

Now it may, unfortunately, be the case that many areas of your life aren’t good at the moment and so the ‘everything is crap’ sentiment seems particularly compelling. Still, I would argue that this belief is an unhelpful fiction for several reasons. Firstly, even if much is not working in your life at present, taking the stance of addressing these problems constitutes something that is right in your life, and thus it puts the lie to the notion that everything is wrong. Secondly, even if there are many problems in your life, the sentiment that ‘everything is wrong’ prevents you from discovering the deeper causes of these difficulties and attempting to rectify them as much as possible. This is because when we conclude that ‘everything is wrong’ we are concluding that there is no point in understanding our predicament, as it is ‘all a mess’. Instead, uncovering why the various problems have come into being and tackling them one by one is the antidote to a sweeping dismissal of our predicament.

If you find challenging these thought processes too difficult a task to undertake on your own, seek out a counsellor who can help you complete the process.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Counselling Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

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Dundee DD1 & St. Andrews KY16
Written by Dr Alexander Fox, (MBACP, Masters in Counselling, PhD (Eng Lit.))
Dundee DD1 & St. Andrews KY16

I am a pluralistic counsellor with three private practices across the country (Harley street, London; Dundee; St. Andrews).
I am trained to help clients with a wide variety of problems and I am able to employ a number of different therapeutic approaches so that the therapy process is always tailored to the individual needs of each of my clients.

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