Where did my depression come from?
This question has two answers. One is simple and the other is way more complex. In terms of heredity, chemical depression runs in my mom’s family, and possibly my dad’s as well. Simple enough.
But the chemical imbalance does not explain everything. I still have a depressed worldview – an obsession with death, as well as the difficulty I have in seeing life as worthwhile – and that’s a product of my upbringing.
Not that my parents made the conscious choice to teach me what they believed to be the facts of life. Not that they taught me those “facts” at all. However, I learned how to live from observing them, watching them treat life with an attitude that was fundamentally distorted.
These are the beliefs that led me to see the world in all the worst ways.
1. Nothing will ever go right for me
My dad did not believe in himself. I know that’s a clichéd thing to say. But he truly had no self-belief. He saw himself as a loser, as someone who would never “make it”, and unfortunately the people around him did not do enough to change that belief. Some even reinforced it.
He lost his job in 2001, and for the next 10 years, it seemed like nothing went his way. Every small job came to an end, leaving him unemployed for another tension fraught period of time.
The way I framed that last sentence is exactly the way he framed his life. When he was working, he did not view himself as successful. Rather, he believed that it was just a respite from his failure of a life.
For much of my life, I believed that I’d never be a success, and that the best I could hope for was to not be a failure. This led me to constantly judge the good things in my life as flukes, and assume that they’d all come tumbling down eventually.
This is a belief that fundamentally fosters depression. It makes it difficult to feel joy without the dampening effect of a context of hopelessness. It invites in despair, and I still have to fight it every day.
2. It’s all my fault
This belief is in almost direct contradiction to the previous one. Whereas that distortion grants me no control, this belief puts me in charge. My father believed that every good thing in his life was fluke, and every bad thing was due to his own failings.
He projected this onto his children, always blaming us when things went wrong in our lives, teaching us not to take responsibility, but to take the blame. You can’t take responsibility when you have no chance of getting it right, but you can be down on yourself for being a pathetic loser.
This belief further props up that despair, that “knowledge” that life is just not worth it. It’s just a matter of time before you mess up again, and face the humiliating reality of your own failure.
3. The world is out to get you
This belief was propagated as much (or more) by my mom as by my dad. She is constantly waiting on the next terrible thing that is going to happen. Because the world is dangerous, and it’s coming for us.
My mom’s anxiety informed the way we were raised. We were constantly told that the worst would happen – it’s how she tried to protect us from it.
But this belief protects you from nothing. It does the exact opposite. Since anxiety makes it incredibly difficult to live in the present, it becomes nearly impossible to be adequately prepared for what might really happen. You get so caught up in the imagined threats, that you fail to prepare for the real ones.
And, of course, the bad things become a lot worse than they really are. Instead of failure being something that you get over and learn from, it becomes the worst thing that could possibly happen. When it does happen, you don’t see the real consequences, but live in the light of your perceived humiliation and disappointment.
4. There are bad feelings
This is one of the most prevalent beliefs propagated by people everywhere. Sadness is bad. Shame is bad. Anger is bad. Anxiety is bad.
We therefore do everything to try and avoid these feelings. We live life ineffectually, going after not what we want, but what will prevent those bad feelings from happening. We avoid these feelings like the plague, and we ultimately hurt much worse when they inevitably hit us in the gut.
I learned this belief from both my parents, who spent all their lives controlled by what they were too scared to feel. For my dad, it was shame. For my mom, it was grief and disappointment.
Emotions that every single person is fated to feel no matter how hard they try.
Getting over the distortions
In order to recover from depression, you need to rewire the way you think. After all, if you still live in the distorted beliefs that led to that despairing worldview, you’re only going to reinforce the disease.
As the quote goes: “You can’t solve a problem with the same thinking that created it in the first place.”
This is why mindfulness is considered one of the most effective treatments of depression and anxiety. It gives you an entirely new way of looking at life, rather than trying to fix what’s “wrong” with it. Instead of trying to do what you believe is impossible and be a complete success, you change your conception of success entirely. Instead of trying to stop things from going wrong, you reconsider how bad the inevitable downs really are.
Another approach, that can work in conjunction with mindfulness, is to challenge those distortions head on using CBT. You take every thought that usually leads you to self-sabotage, and you interrogate it. Once you expose it to the clear light of day, and show how unfair or unrealistic it truly is, you’re a step closer to changing that belief. It takes a tremendous amount of time and effort, but the payoff is worth it.
Ultimately, depression is based on a distorted view of the world. You only see certain aspects of reality, and judge those aspects as “bad”. By challenging those distortions, using CBT and mindfulness, along with a host of other techniques, you can begin to see life as it is, and accept even the “worst” parts.