Changing Core Beliefs of Depression

Forest fire lighting sky

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.

10 Responses to “Changing Core Beliefs of Depression”

Read below or add a comment...

  1. Alfredo says:

    Hi John,

    I am a mature student, Italian migrant, and I currently study psychology at university, here in Australia. I find what you write, about the mind and humans being storied beings, very interesting and it is in line with my thinking: however, the problem is that the biomedical model is very strong and this represents a problem for psychology and for our perspective. I think that we do need to pay more attention to the mind and the fact that we create stories for ourselves, to make sense of the world. These stories are very important and by changing our story we can learn to better cope with depression.

    Howard Gardner (2005), in his chapter titled “Scientific Psychology: should we bury it or praise it” writes about the importance of the mind and storytelling and that psychology should focus much more on literature in order to understand the psyche, rather than focus on the mechanical aspects of the brain. There are many psychologists who would like to eradicate any notion of an abstract mind from the psychology dictionary. Little do they know that we make sense of our lives by using stories so that we can make sense of our existence. It is vital to understand these stories and learn how to deconstruct them so that we can modify our stories to achieve a better existence. That is what C.B.T is all about to help us change or modify our story.

  2. Dear John,

    Just wanting you to know that I’m catching up on Storied Mind as, for whatever reason, despite ‘following’ you, my blog does not update me when you write a new post.
    So glad to see your writing is still as edgy, wise and beautifully expressive as ever, and that you receive such regular recognition for this.

    Hope you are well in yourself.

    WS

  3. Judy says:

    While I’ve been working on this for many, many years, the thing that has helped me change my core beliefs the most is the EMDR work I’ve been doing. It seems to help me track present-day issues to beliefs I had about myself and other people when I was a kid who didn’t know that the inner life I lived wasn’t normal. I always had a vague feeling that life was calmer in other people’s families, based on how I felt when I was in their homes, but I think I believed that the reason there was so much rage and humiliation was my own fault. And even though I’m understanding the origins more clearly, it’s still hard to let go of that idea. I do have more hope now, though, that it might be possible to change this idea – yet, somehow it’s frightening. I think the shame and fear have become so ingrained that they’ve become part of my identity. Without them, who am I? I hope to find out.

    • John Folk-Williams says:

      Hi, Judy -

      I know how hard it is to let go of the idea that you’re the cause of whatever is wrong. In my case, I often feel wrong or guilty even when there is no problem in sight. I guess I can think of it as part of the way I live and my personality but shy away from linking it to my “identity.” I guess that word has a feeling of permanence about it, and I want to keep shame and fear in the realm of problems and delusions – things that are not quite “real.” I hope you keep making progress with EMDR. The reprocessing of memory is the sort of basic change that recollection of the past alone can’t quite bring off.

      John

  4. Donna-1 says:

    For years, I have been keeping journals that document my day to day perspective on life, but I very rarely go back and see what I have written. In fact, about twice a year I throw out the whole batch of observations and start fresh again. My impression was that this writing was a calculated measure leading to growth and personal progress. It usually consists of poetry, quotes, imaginary conversations, goals, and often simply how that particular day has gone. I always go back and tear out the poetry and save it because poetry has always felt like the real heart of me, the truth. Yesterday, I was getting ready to trash the pile of writing accumulated over the last few months, and as I culled the poetry, I stopped to read passages of non-poetry expecting to find a record of change resulting from my scintillating insight. Change in how I did things. Change in attitude. Possibly change in beliefs. Change leading to my becoming a better person, more the person that I want to be. Instead, I was more than a little surprised to find the same stuff over and over — the same basic relationship problems, the same self-battering phrases, the same determination to “do better tomorrow.” But no real change at all. I read a lot of lofty ideals and a lot of pushing myself to do things calculated to gain approval from my family and friends. A lot of hidden anxiety about how worthless my life was. Repeated declarations of forgiveness of self and others. Maybe I was aware of this already, unconsciously, that perhaps all my writing was reinforcing a negative way of thinking. Or perhaps a personally useless way of thinking. And in typical fashion, I thought, “How awful — I’ve got to change the way I’m writing, in order to draw out my true potential.” Then I was struck by the absurdity of the whole phenomenon. Writing is not what’s going to make a difference, especially if I’m just writing the same things down again and again. But I lack the courage to act. Writing has become a substitute for action. Yes, writing and thinking and planning are good tools, but at some point the work has to be done.

    • John Folk-Williams says:

      Hi, Donna -

      I’ve often mentioned James Pennebaker’s book about writing and healing. He talks about the types of writing that don’t help, and using it as a substitute for action is at the top of his list. But that’s not the whole story with you – given all the resilience you’ve shown and many changes you’ve made in your life to deal with depression and sz. I wouldn’t say you lack courage or that you haven’t done the work. Let’s be fair, hey!

      John

      • Donna-1 says:

        I want to live my life out in the world instead of just on paper, but I’m afraid of failure. Maybe I’m afraid that living my imagined life will be just as dull and incomprehensible as living my depressed life, or more to the point, my reclusive life.

Trackbacks

  1. [...] quick added note to share an insightful post from Storied Mind, John Folk-Williams excellent blog on depression, which so many of us with [...]

  2. [...] recent article by one of my favourite depression writers John Folk-Williams titled ‘Changing Core Beliefs about Depression’ got me thinking…. You may want to read it yourself along with other great stuff on his blog [...]

  3. Storied Mind says:

    Changing Core Beliefs of Depression…

    Changing Core Beliefs of Depression Getting well depends in part on changing core beliefs of depression…



By clicking

*