Getting well depends in part on changing core beliefs of depression that often begin to develop early in life.
According to recent neuroscience findings, putting together a narrative about who you are is one of the most important parts of mental life. The narrative integrates many dimensions of mind: memory, emotion, thinking, sense perception, awareness, every signal that flows from the farthest reaches of the nervous system into the brain.
I call it a story, but that word isn’t meant to suggest that it’s artificial or even a conscious creation. The autobiographical narrative is central to the way you make a coherent person out of the multitude of activities and impressions that your mind is taking in and interpreting.
It makes sense of your life and, hopefully, balances all the faculties of mind in a healthy way. Sometimes, notably in depression, the story isn’t balanced at all and can put you on autopilot toward disaster.
A Good Story
A healthy story about yourself draws on the feelings that give meaning to events, the nonverbal signals that shape all our encounters with people, the multiple relationships that tie us into a larger world, the words that name the unfamiliar and the problem-solving abilities that help us figure out where we are.
We fit together an ensemble portrait of ourselves, a fairly balanced idea of a person with certain talents and abilities, a family history that is remembered with understanding and good feeling.
An unhealthy story relies, for depressives at least, on the verbal rules, the cause-and-effect thinking, the rigid top-down patterns of classifying experience. The present is always part of the same story.
A Depression Story
The core beliefs of my depression story are bleak: things don’t work out, I stumble and fail, I don’t have much energy or motivation, I’m no good at getting along with people, in groups I’m invisible, and on it goes.
Even though I’ve gotten so much better at dealing with depression, it is still easy to fall back into accepting the old core beliefs that drive the story.
There have been many variations of the central narrative, but they all revolve around depression in some degree – the grand cycle of falling into it and coming out of it through all the ordinary and exceptional changes in life.
I keep thinking of an anecdote told by one therapist of a woman who always explained how bad she was at talking to people and forming good relationships. One day she engaged her therapist in a richly responsive discussion in which both were fully present to each other.
The hour was great for the woman, but she went away still believing that she could never relate to people very well. Despite the fact that she had just shown how good she could be at making a deep connection, she ignored that evidence or dismissed it as the exception to the rule.
It makes me think of all the times in my life when someone responded to me with warmth or respect or admiration for a job well done. I might have had a wonderful time with that person and could share the feeling of really making contact.
Yet many fine experiences could never outweigh the basic storyline I kept telling myself that really, except for a few good moments, I didn’t do well as a friend, a husband, a father, a professional or anything else.
Trying to Change the Idea of Who You Are
Why is it so hard to change the stories we tell ourselves about what we can and cannot do?
There is something about the story of who we are that is essential to how we’ve been functioning, even though it’s all about why we can’t do or feel or be the way we want.
In a depression story, life isn’t a process of adapting to change. It’s about the end results, the products that never come out quite right. The changes in life bring more of the same inadequacy, though the details may differ. It’s hard to be surprised or to learn anything really new.
There was an archeologist a hundred years ago who explored the ruins of earlier civilizations in the American Southwest. He went to one site with a theory in mind about its purpose and failed to notice all the physical evidence that pointed to a different explanation. Top-down assumptions and rigidity had crowded out the bottom-up evidence plainly available to his eyes and touch.
Reasons to Hold On
So it is with clinging to a story that explains you as a person with more disability than capability. You know what you know, and contrary evidence is assumed to be wrong or irrelevant. People tend to maintain mistaken beliefs because they touch some basic sense of value or self. So contrary evidence is tossed aside, refuted, ignored – usually angrily because you feel it shouldn’t be right.
When I am believing my story of depression and disability, I always feel a tension, an anxiousness, an explosive irritability or some other inner sense of being off balance. When I stop believing it, I feel relaxed and more open to what is happening. I do not feel compelled to explain what I’m doing in the familiar way that depression defines my life.
The reasons for accepting the story as true usually go deep into the past. You developed the story early on to explain what was happening even before you had the words or experience to put it into a bigger picture of how the world works.
In my case, believing the story somehow made me part of my family and ensured that I would have a place in my home. In a way, holding on to the beliefs and the story tied into the instinct for survival. No wonder it’s so hard to give up.
Editing the Story through Psychotherapy
Psychotherapy is all about getting enough distance from this narrative of who you are so that you can edit it. Even saying I’m not myself today indicates the beginning of a separation of yourself from the story, but it takes a lot more awareness than that.
Most of the time, the running monologue in my head is an automatic flow of commentary that I take for granted. If I don’t stop and think about what I’m telling myself, I accept it as an accurate description of what I’m about rather than a slanted interpretation based in depression.
Stopping to listen to what I tell myself is the first step in thinking more critically about what I’m saying. I can get into a more reflective state of mind and realize that this narrative voice is using the same words and tone over and over again no matter how much the circumstances change.
Psychotherapy has been the primary means for learning how to break out of the automatic inner narrative and become more aware and reflective. I think the key is to be able to compare what the auto-voice offers as explanation with the full range of impressions and perceptions coming into you from the outside world.
Then you can test the verbal explanations against the felt and perceived experience, the tone and color and space of what is happening. It’s hard to sustain this self-reflective stance because the habitual droning of automatic reactions and interpretations has been dominant for so many years and readily returns. It’s taken me years to break the pattern.
Depression is more complicated than a life story you tell yourself, but the chances for getting your life back improve a lot if you can stop the self-condemning narrative about what you can’t and shouldn’t do.