The Delusions of Depression

I’ve had several moments in recovery when I realized that things I assumed to be true were really delusions of depression. Some were long-held beliefs about myself, others were briefly held convictions that were too far from reality to maintain for long. I know that psychiatrists wouldn’t call these delusions of the sort linked to psychosis, but when I recall how often they dominated my mind, I need a strong word to capture their chilling effect on my life.

Real Fantasies

From childhood on, I believed I was being watched and judged. I didn’t bother to think about that much since it seemed so self-evident. The stress of being under someone’s eye never left me, and their judgment was always negative. Long after I realized that this wasn’t true, I kept having to remind myself that there was no one looking my way. Sometimes I had to scan the nearby houses just to be sure.

I also believed, as do most people with depression, that I wasn’t worth much, couldn’t do anything of value and didn’t deserve to succeed. This felt like fact, not open to questioning. Anyone who tried to convince me otherwise was either naive or trying to be polite.

At times, I was convinced that I was being betrayed by close friends who were planning to take things from me. One time this belief was so strong that I confronted a group of colleagues at work with my accusations. Their puzzled reactions made it instantly clear that I had imagined the whole thing, but for four days I had been obsessed with every detail of their plot.

For an extended period, I believed that people close to me were the cause of the inner pain I felt. I was angry, often raging, in response (as I saw it) to their actions. Only after months of feeling tortured and acting destructively did it become apparent that I was deeply depressed and needed treatment and that no one else was doing me any harm.

What ties these beliefs together for me was my certainty that they were true. I didn’t think of them as distortions caused by depression, and I often based my actions on these delusions and others like them.

True Believer

Believing yourself, knowing that what you feel is true when you’re in depression is like seeing an image that’s been through Photoshop. One believable layer is superimposed on another, each one part of a real scene, but the composite is something utterly fantastic.

How can you tell when the combination of simple truths and self-evident perceptions merge into distortion and unreality?

It’s hard because we start with the assumption that what we think and feel about things is accurate. We tend to believe ourselves and have many ways of dismissing any evidence that might contradict what we think.

When your beliefs about yourself are driven by depression, you’re convinced that you are making conscious choices based on accurate perceptions when you really aren’t. As long as you believe the delusions, you can’t imagine that you might have it wrong and won’t seek the help you need to challenge your beliefs.

Looking for Causes

One thing that held me back for a long time was cause-and-effect thinking. We have a deeply embedded habit of trying to explain things by finding a unique cause so that we see the linear sequence that gives rise to a problem. If you start by assuming that you can’t be the cause, then you need to look elsewhere.

Looking for causes can become the central concern when you are afraid of what is happening to you and trying to block out the fear with the control of rational thinking. A cause is something you can isolate and point to. It wraps up the hurt in an explanation that is outside you at a safe distance. I can point and put the blame on that without having to look within. Everything is simplified.

Getting better is simplified because you only have to separate yourself from the cause and try to get rid of it. But if you give up the cause-effect model, you have to look instead at the fullness of what you feel and the connections you have to others. You live in an ecosystem of relationships, influences and shared needs, but it’s hard to see that when you’re depressed. Your field of vision narrows.

Learning to Doubt

I think there is always an element of doubt mixed into the delusive beliefs. The doubt comes from fear, however hidden, that there is something missing from your seemingly airtight explanations. Things don’t quite add up.

You can’t see what it is, but you remain disturbed deep down, uncertain, anxious. What is happening to me? Depression likes to keep things simple. Limiting your search to simple causes helps you screen out a lot of your life.

You know intuitively that there is more to it, but fear drives you to look for a simple cause. It is either out there – someone else – or it’s in here – me.

If I’m the cause, then everything is my fault. I’m the wrong thing in the picture and need to be erased. It’s the trend of delusive thinking that follows a logic of self-destruction.

The paradox of the explanation is that you imagine you are using your rational mind to reassert control over your life, but in fact you have lost control to the illness.

But if you can accept the fear, it can become a force for change, a signal for survival. It was one of many turning points for me that helped me get back into treatment. But delusions die hard, and the need to explain what you feel and what you are in terms of isolated causes keeps returning.

Have you had delusive beliefs about yourself in depression, as well as those moments of doubt? Have you felt the fear that your explanation of who you were didn’t quite add up?

21 Responses to “The Delusions of Depression”

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  1. David says:

    And what if the person is really wrong and rotten? You are here talking about delusion, but can it not be that the person is really worthless and unlovable? That all these thoughts the person has are right? That this person is just impossible to be loved, completely messed up? That every decision, every word, everything that person makes is wrong, and therefore, no one wants to be with this person? When you see that since you were born no one wants to be with you, everybody leaves you once they know you, there must be a reason for everyone avoiding you, there has to be something wrong with you when you always get the same from everyone. I can just behave strangely and cannot do other way because my brain is just like that, I cannot control the way I act, the way I think. I have tried but my “rotten me” is just so strong that cannot be beaten or stopped and I have to let it out. I have act in so many strange, stupid and wrong ways, even I don’t understand why I act like that. I’ve said so many wrong things in the past, that I have destroyed every relation I’ve ever made. I’d like to go back, undo everything I’ve done, I’ve said, erase how strange I am from everyone’s mind, to be able to have a new chance but past stays, cannot be undone, and everything adds up, and the snowball is everyday bigger and it’s going to swallow me. Everyone that knows me have just left me apart. But that’s completely understandable, I’m so weird and incomprehensible, not interesting at all but also so rotten. Everything I touch, I destroy. And this feeling of sadness, lonelyness is always there, every day. And my need for love, for being loved is so strong but cannot be fulfilled, of course. I need love, but I can’t have that. How am I supposed to live with this continuous and growing pain? And I feel guilty for feeling sad, there are so many people out there with true problems, with no food, in wars, with diseases, and they are stronger than me, they could be sad, they have the right to be sad, but they are strong and go on living.
    I’m just despicable, weak and coward.

    • Shel says:

      David…my heart goes out to you, because I can recognize some truth in what you are saying. And I can recognize myself, some, too. It is true that there will be people that we come across in our lives who will form judgements of us based on something we say (stupid, strange, wrong or not), something we do, the way we look, what we wear, or how we choose to spend our time. And sometimes these people will hold onto these perceptions long after we change our own thinking. Let go of these people. You can not control how they respond to you. Don’t waste your precious breath trying to convince them otherwise…and don’t waste a single minute of your precious life in regret that you can not make them “like” or “love” you. There are people out there who feel otherwise, and the hardest thing you have to do is allow yourself to be vulnerable and keep looking to surround yourself with the right people. A couple of things that I don’t know about…based on your post…are what you’ve done to address this in the past and what are you doing now and for the future. If you are not in a counseling relationship…do that. Find a therapist that you can connect with and let them help you. If you don’t know what to say, print out your post and give it to them to read. If you have been diagnosed with a mental illness, deal with it. Take your medications and do the treatment necessary to feel better. I do not in any way believe that there is a soul on this earth that deserves to feel so badly about themselves as you do. There is not a single person who is inherently evil, or bad, or has no redeeming qualities or virtues. If you are spiritual or a person with religious faith you know this, too. Talk to a priest or pastor. If you truly have done some bad things there is forgiveness and grace and you need help to learn how to accept these gifts and move forward. And like you said…there are so many people out there with problems…and one way proven way to nurture yourself is to GIVE of yourself to others. Volunteer to help feed the homeless. Train to be a caring first responder (like with Red Cross) to go help those people touched by disasters. There are hurting people all around us. Deliver Meals on Wheels and talk to a lonely older person. Treat people with the kindness and caring that you wish others would show to you. I say these things in no way to tell you that you are wrong for feeling like you do. I would never say that because I have felt that way myself and have to guard against those kinds of thoughts nearly every day. I just want you to have hope and know that there is help for you. People do care. I don’t even know you and I care. One last thing: go to the library and read some books by Henri Nouwen. There is one book in particular that resonates with me when I am feeling the way you describe and it’s called “The Inner Voice of Love: A Journey Through Anguish to Freedom”. Be in Peace, David.

  2. Donna-1 says:

    Finding out the “why” means something makes sense. Ahhh — I see now. Is there a string theory of depression? The closer I look, the smaller the building blocks are. An endless journey inward until I get lost between those vibrating bits of this and that and decide nothing makes sense.

  3. The supportive friend says:

    I have a friend who is a lot like this. She is convinced people hate her and is often accusing people of doing things they aren’t.
    It seems to be a self-fulfilling prophecy; this behavior pushes people away and has hurt me many times. I love her when she is in a happier mood, she’s a fun, intelligent friend, but for the most part she’s just depressed. She knows she’s depressed but doesn’t realize she is completely delusional, even though she’s almost always wrong when she thinks someone’s ignoring her or mad at her.
    I’m just a high school girl and have no authority or way to really help her, what can I do?

  4. Alex Brennt says:

    From my personal experience there is no such thing as depression as we imagine it. We just make out something negative out of nothing and concentrate upon it. we think about it constantly and as a result we get negative thoughts, mood etc. for a long period of time. I assume that the best solution for so-called “depression” is to set a goal you want to achieve and concentrate mainly on this goal.

  5. When I had my emotional breakdown at age 38, I realized that I had been depressed my entire life. I was suddenly confronted with the blinding thought that as a young man I had murdered someone in a rage. I believed I was criminally insane. I also came to realize that I had been unconsciously harboring an enormous guilt that it was my fault that my mother almost died in childbirth. These delusions, I came to realize, were the products of dreams and things I overheard as a child. I had repressed all these thoughts. My two memors “Hiking Out: Surviving Depression with Humor and Insight along the Way” and “Inside and Outside: Messages of Hope from a Life Long Hiker and Depression Survivor” chronicle my battle with depression and many more adventures in life. At age 74 I consider myself a depression survivor. I give back by conducting a very successful discussion program for inmates in two medium security prisons in Connecticut. Both of my memoirs are available as e-books and soon as print on demand (POD) books. …

  6. Lindsey says:

    Hi, John, I’m so glad I found your website! My (on and off) boyfriend of three years just broke up with me for the third time and I’ve been struggling to stay strong and find support in others who have faced similar situations. We had a very loving and intimage relationship and often made plans for activities in the future.

    He has been seeing the same counselor for over five years, is an active member of a men’s group, a very conscious person-as am I, I also attend counseling and we briefly went to couples counseling together. Each time he has broken up with me the reasons vary (the spark is not there, i’m gay [but has only ever experienced heterosexual relationships and sex in his 31 years], i’m not attracted to you, i’m miserable but it’s not you it’s me) but it’s glaringly clear to me that he struggles with intimacy as a result of the anxiety and depression, which goes unmedicated and without attention from an OCD/GAD specialist.

    I try to understand and support him and also impart knowledge about relationships and how they are not perfect, they are hard work, but in my judgement, he believes that he is simply not with the right person to make him feel good. I feel lost and sad that there is so much evidence in personal stories and articles of what constitutes a good relationship and i feel like he is ignoring or choosing not to believe it.

    Thanks for listening:)

    Lindsey

    • John Folk-Williams says:

      Hi, Lindsey –

      I’m sorry you’re having to live with so much confusion and hurt involved in three breakups in three years. He sounds like his feelings are generally deadened, and it is surprising that he doesn’t recognize depression despite having been with a counselor for over five years. What does he see the counselor for? If you’re still talking to each other – and it sounds like you are – have you been able to talk with him about your concern about depression? He would need to deal with that before blaming what he feels or doesn’t feel on the relationship with you. Trying couples therapy again could be helpful if he does it out of his own motivation to explore problems with intimacy and with you. But it will likely not work if he does it just to go along with your wishes – he might not really give it a chance. If he refuses to do that or look into his possible depression, I would urge you to talk with a counselor yourself to help you sort through the issues and stress you’ve been under as a result of all this.

      My best to you — John

      • Lindsey says:

        Thanks for replying, John. I believe he is in counseling to identify the causes of ‘feeling bad’ on an everyday basis. We are communicating a little and I sent him the link to your website in the hopes that he will read your entries and something will click. I try to tread lightly with the topic of depression because I feel guilty bringing it up with the knowledge that I am not perfect (I have experienced depression and anxiety) and that I know better than him how he is feeling. My feelings on this relationship have been the major source of dialogue between my counselor and I. In our couples counseling sessions I often felt like it was actually a personal session for him to express all the doubts and fears he experienced being in a relationship with me and I was just there to listen. I realize that it is a choice he has to make to want to be in the relationship and to want it to work and that has been such a hard idea to digest emotionally. Thanks again, John. Your posts have breathed new life into my life’s hope.

  7. MJ says:

    This post is great – thank you. I grew up as a nervous, anxious, depressed child in a very depressive and negative family, have made major strides out of it and into a better life, and recently have been wrestling with the realization that in career matters I “believe” that I am destined to always fail. I thought about more and also realized that my belief was that I was born to fail, because anyone in my family MUST fail. Well, that’s a delusion and a half right there, and I can see why I must have absorbed it from certain depressive relatives at some point. I’m working on purging it, and awareness of the issue is a big help, but these delusions of lack of worth and desert, failure, inherent unworthiness are very powerful and continue to recur.

    • John Folk-Williams says:

      Hi, MJ –

      Yes, the delusions and limiting beliefs about yourself are very powerful and hard to change. It seems bizarre that a man like me in his 60s still grapples with beliefs formed before age 10, but the problem seems pretty common. Time to have a “must” and “should” and “can’t” burning party. That would be a good ritual for a blog meetup. Good luck with your purging. You deserve to be free of all the negativity!

      John

  8. Amy Karon says:

    Great post! Distorted negative thoughts are a hallmark of many mental disorders, including depression. I think the word ‘delusions’ is appropriate here. The fact that depression can have psychotic features makes me suspect that for people with depression, deluded thoughts fall on a spectrum ranging from mild distorted thoughts to a full-blown loss of contact with reality.

    I remember reviewing research that people’s thought distortions tend to persist even after they recover from an episode of depression. The beliefs may be weaker, but they’re still there and blow up again under the right conditions (which usually involved increased stress or illness). I think this is why mindfulness and meditation, as well as the right kinds of therapy, can be very helpful. Every time we can see a distorted thought for what it is, without judging it or beating ourselves up over it, we rob it of some of its power.

    • John Folk-Williams says:

      Hi, Amy –

      I’ve been reading similar research about how hard it is for people to change these deeply held beliefs, even after successful therapy. Mindfulness-based therapies are definitely a way to weaken their power, but some patterns and assumptions about ourselves go so deeply that it is very difficult to uproot or replace them. Actually, I’m working on a post about that.

      Thanks for your insights.

      John

  9. Hi John,

    Thanks for an excellent, provocative entry. To this day, I have the delusion that I am not good enough and will never be so. This delusion was fed by my parents. Even when I was at my sickest in my twenties, I remember people reassuring me how good I was, and I just didn’t believe them, despite the number of people presenting this evidence.

    The other more insidious delusion was also fed by my childhood. I had a very dependent relationship with my mother: always looking for her approval – perhaps as she was the disciplinarian of my parents. In one workplace in my twenties, for 7 years I fell under the spell of a person who took my mother’s role in manipulating my feelings. One moment she would be supportive and interested, and then she would feed me delusions that everyone was getting away with things and not doing their jobs, and ranted about the inequity of it. I would eventually voice her beliefs as my own, and of course, she would distance herself from me, just as the people around me would. Growing up, I really harvested this feeling of inequity – I think because I had to work so hard – physically, mentally, emotionally to appear “good” – while other people were getting away with being “lazy” – that is, normal. The biggest incident of this delusion – my “mentor” led me to confront my 3 bosses at the time about a conspiracy of how they were manipulating me to their own ends. I got a shocked, but kind response from one of them. I was totally wrong, and my accusations were out there in email. It was very humiliating.

    A large part of my healing was leaving my family when I was about 24 in 1990, but I have carried the legacy ever since. Leaving my “surrogate” at that job in 1999, was another huge jump in my healing. I was no longer looking out for injustices in what others were doing. I came back to believing in a fundamental goodness in people – even if I still struggle with that about myself. I do, however, recognize now that I am a good person – in thought and action – I just still have trouble believing in my own worth.

    Blessings,
    Jane

    • Donna-1 says:

      I too had a work “mentor” (self-appointed mentor) who actually told me there was a conspiracy against me that she was privy to and I was not. I had to take her word for it. But it really got under my skin. So I believed the management was plotting against me to make my life hell and to promote others ahead of me and to ignore all the time and effort I put into my work. I eventually confronted a department manager and then the general manager orally and in writing. Not only did I embarrass myself and get myself in trouble, but I got my “mentor” in deep trouble. We both ended up leaving our jobs there…and it had been such a wonderful job in the beginning. Full of creative promise, exactly what I’d always wanted to do, but I was led astray and deluded not necessarily by the mentor but by my own pride and willingness to believe something that simply wasn’t true.

      • Looking back now, as I’m sure you do, it astounds me how I let myself be so controlled. Like you, I loved the job – it was a dream job in the beginning. The depression, however, shaded everything and the delusions in thinking that John talks about really undermined me.

        Now I work for myself, I am more insulated from that kind of control (which is probably a good thing), yet I find myself still struggling for approval from my fellow contractors and the client I contract to. It drives me crazy as I only need to approve of myself, but it many ways I’m still my 5 year-old self saying, “Love me, and recognize my worth!” It’s a journey!

        I don’t feel sorry for your “mentor” getting the axe, but that must have been a terrible lesson for you to learn. :(

        Blessings,
        Jane

      • John Folk-Williams says:

        Hi, Donna –

        I understand how those stories and ideas really get under your skin. They become part of your mind and your feelings, and you have to do something about them. What a sad story! I’m lucky that most of my delusions didn’t have quite such direct consequences.

        John

  10. Sal says:

    Thanks again, John, for voicing my thoughts so perfectly.

    My epiphany came while walking through the parking lot at the grocery store: I saw a bumper sticker that read,

    “Don’t believe everything you think”

    Suddenly, all of those things my therapist was trying to get me to understand all along made sense: I was the only person (save long ago parents) that believed that I was not good enough and never would be worth anything. That I don’t deserve good things and happiness.

    It’s a struggle, but more days than not I can remind myself that I’m OK. I don’t know if I’ll ever get to the point where I can believe in my heart what I know in my head…I’m OK.

  11. Donna-1 says:

    Hmmm…I’m going to have to think about this for a while. I know I am an avid devotee of the cause-and-effect theory. I search for the reasons why things are as they are and why I am as I am. After all, I tell myself, if I cannot find a reason, then everything is undone! Hypothesis becomes grounds for action. If I can find the rotten spot, I tell myself, I can cut it out and throw it away and the rest will be reduced, but nevertheless something acceptable. There is no way to prove my theories, however. Like a dog chasing its tail. Yes, I see the tail, I know somehow it is attached to me, I can try to catch it, but even if I do I can’t hold onto it indefinitely and it solves nothing. But for a moment the chase feels gratifying.

  12. Kimberly says:

    My journey led me to this site. What you have expressed here is a healing miracle for me. I am 3.5 years into my recovery, trusting and ‘working’ the process; which to me means sitting with nearly unbearable, intolerable grief. I now know that is has been my willingness to believe in a spiritual journey to healing-for me a journey back to God-that has allowed me to trust that goodness and beauty are real. I have been lost for so long and now I am present to continue to journey. Thank you for being here; i will stay tuned…

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