I don’t watch much TV. In order to get me to watch any show, it would have to be so good that I’d be compelled to take the DVDs of each season with me to a deserted island (should such a thing be required). If you think that’s strict, you should see how stringent I am with reality shows. The point is, I remember watching a really good reality show that was on air years ago. It was on late Friday nights, and focused on helping women feel happy about their bodies, regardless of its shape and size. In order to emphasize just how distorted a woman’s view of her body can be, the host would conduct a little test: The woman would strip down to her bra and undies and would then be escorted into a room with other women similarly clad. The ladies stood in a line, starting from thinnest to curviest. The woman was then asked to place herself in the line where she felt her body would fit (based on her perception of her body size). Without fail, every woman on the show would overestimate her size in comparison to the other women. Just like looking in a fun-house mirror, their negative, often harsh view of their body colored their perception of themselves. Every thought they had about their body was filtered through this cruel, unforgiving lens.
The same tends to happen when a person is depressed. A friend who is a counselor refers to depression as a “monster.” The only way you can defeat this monster is to learn to differentiate between your thoughts and perceptions and the monster’s thoughts and perceptions. When a person is depressed, every thought they think is filtered through the lens of depression. For example, when I looked at the responses of depressed people who took our mental health test, the difference between their thoughts and attitudes and the perceptions of those who are not depressed was significant. These are the types of thoughts you are more likely to tell yourself when you’re depressed:
- “I have nothing to look forward to” or “I have nothing to live for.”
Thoughts like this strike me as a desire for purpose and meaning. This is why we’re more likely to feel sad and hopeless when we’re in an unproductive rut. If there’s anything my mind abhors, it’s a moratorium. Having a sense of purpose – a goal to strive for, a hobby – can potentially offer protection against depression. Whether it’s volunteering, gardening, fostering animals, cleaning up your neighborhood, baking, or carpentry, find a project into which you can invest your energies.
- “I am never going to get over this.”
Whether it’s the end of a relationship, a loss, or a failure, when we’re depressed we tend to view setbacks as permanent and insurmountable obstacles. After a break-up, I used to hate when people would tell me that I’d get over it – it sounded overly simplistic and patronizing. The truth is, time really does heal all wounds. Even in the case of losing a loved one, with the passing of time we focus less on the reality of the pain and more on the joy of the memories we shared with the person. I hate quoting TV shows, but this quote from The Blacklist sums it up best:
“There is nothing that can take the pain away, but eventually you will find a way to live with it. [It] will be the first thing you think of, until one day, it will be the second thing.”
- “I am not ________ enough.”
Sadly, there are a myriad of options that can fill this blank when we’re depressed: Smart, successful, rich, thin, good-looking, tall, etc. The only thing that really ever holds us back from success, however, is our own perceived limitations. There are those who defy great odds to achieve greatness. And then there are those who allow their perceived inadequacies and/or other people’s view of them to define who they are. It’s all a matter of perception. Don’t intimidate yourself into believing that you are incapable of achieving something, because every time you take action in spite of your doubts or fears, you are defying the seemingly impossible.
- “I am a failure,” “I mess up everything,” or “My best isn’t good enough.”
When we’re depressed, we develop a black-or-white way of thinking. An outcome is either a success or a failure; a decision is either good or bad; a person is either with or against us. What we fail to realize is that every mistake we make or goal we fail to achieve or decision we regret offers us the opportunity to learn and try again. Life offers us abundant opportunities to fall and pick ourselves up again. Some lessons take time for us to learn, but they always tend to be the best ones. Embrace your mistakes and your failures, because resilience can only be developed through hardship.
- “I am unlovable or unattractive,” “I am worthless,” “I don’t deserve to be loved,” or “I’ll never meet someone who will make me happy.”
I always find that when an insult or criticism irks me, it’s not because I am offended by it: It’s because deep down, I truly believe it of myself. The way people treat you is only ever a reflection of the way you treat yourself. If you think you’re worthless – which is often the case when you’re depressed – others will be more likely to treat you poorly. Or rather, you’ll allow them to, because it’s what you feel you deserve. If you want love and respect, treat yourself with love and respect, and others will follow suit.
- “I can’t change my life.”
“Locus of control” is an attitude that dictates your perception of events in your life. Those with an internal locus of control believe that they are in complete control over the direction their life takes; they trust that through their effort and skills, they can change their fate. Individuals who are depressed are more likely to adopt an external locus of control: They believe that they are a victim of destiny or other external factors that are not within their ability to change (e.g. bad luck, chance, lack of intelligence, other people).
There are few things in our life that we cannot change for the better, be it our physical health, relationships, or finances. Even if you are forced to deal with something that is long-term (e.g. an illness, the loss of a loved one), there are steps you can take to make the experience manageable. Read up on the life stories of Maya Angelou, Louise Hay, Oprah Winfrey, Steve James, and other people who used tragic events in their life as an impetus to help others. They defied seemingly impossible odds and built a legacy that will last for ages.
- “I would be better off dead.”
Depression never speaks so strongly as it does when it deceives us into believing that life is not worth living. No matter how insignificant your life may seem, I can guarantee that there is someone out there who can benefit from the knowledge, skills, insight, or companionship you have to offer. Look into sponsoring a child or joining an organization that helps people in some way. You can even be a foster owner for pets that have been severely abused and need rehabilitation.
Twelve years ago, I took in a stray cat that had been on the streets for some time. The first night she slept in my bed, she wrapped her two front paws around my arm and slept like that the entire night, almost like she was worried I would leave her. While others praise me for rescuing her, I think it’s the opposite: She saved me in many ways. She gave me purpose, a desire to live, and unconditional love, and I am thankful every day that I have her.