Inner Beliefs and Outer Action

Young man acting on stage

A few months ago, I found a picture of myself from college years that gave no hint of the turmoil of inner beliefs I held at the time. There I was, a lean young guy, sporting a cigarette for a role I was acting. The strange thing about this is that at the time I was telling myself I was stupid and fat.

I believed I was ugly, awkward and dumb. I cringed at the sight of a camera. I thought I was fat because I had gained ten pounds since high school and had a little flab around my midsection.

I wasn’t talented or likable or smart enough. I wasn’t enough of anything. I could stand tall and look imposing on the outside, but on the inside I was small and breakable. I guess that’s common enough when you’re 19, but the contrast between inner and outer was just beginning. Depression was still covert. What I thought of myself I accepted as truth, not symptom.

Self-Belief

I had many ways of measuring myself and setting goals for getting better. Yet there was something strange about those goals. They were so vague that I could never meet them.

I had a goal of being leaner than I was and keeping my weight down. I didn’t have much of a reason for having that goal. I never took any steps to achieve it, yet I beat myself up every time I was reminded that I was “overweight.”

I had goals for being a better looking, more talented person that I could never fulfill. I believed I was the wrong person, whatever the context. Fortunately, there were many times I could forget that, focus on any activity I loved and just do it.

There was a part of me that did things quite publicly and did them well. But sooner or later the obsession that I was wrong and could never do anything as well as I needed to got the upper hand.

Setting Goals

My goals for becoming “better” weren’t goals at all. They were criteria for demonstrating that I was wrong the way I was. Too fat, too ugly, too slow, too awkward.

I kept myself tensely busy trying to meet them, but they were self-defeating from the start. To have to meet goals in order to feel that you’re an acceptable person is to live in a perpetual state of loss and emptiness.

The goals had nothing to do with improving specific talents or accomplishments. They were about making the grade of being a “real” person.

Trying to follow them meant I was usually not present in my own life since I was always living in a future when I might be OK. My reasons for doing things were usually about gaining approval so that I could feel better about myself.

Setting goals based in depressive beliefs is a good way to remain stuck in loss and misery. But setting goals based in the values and purposes you want to guide your life can be one of the big steps for getting out of depression.

Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) has been my most recent method for re-centering myself in this basic way. One of its key principles is learning how to act from values rather than for reasons.

Reasons and Values

I used to do my work – whether it was acting, teaching, mediating or writing – for a reason. I did it for the applause.

When the performance was over, or my assignment finished, I needed to hear someone affirm my value as a person. I needed the recognition.

As long as I did my work for that sort of reason, I was putting my sense of self-worth at risk every day. Whenever a performance misfired, and I was panned, then I was living my worst nightmare. They hated me. I was a horrible person after all!

Doing anything important for a reason like this keeps the focus on a response or measure of value outside myself. If I work to become famous or earn a lot of money, I’ll lose interest in the work itself and focus on the reason (the fame or money) for doing it.

If I get married because of strong feelings of love, my reason for staying in the relationship depends on maintaining a certain level of intensity of feeling. But feelings come and go.

The reasons are never enough. Doing anything depends on acting from what you value most deeply. I value my partner as a person and sustaining a life with her is the value that has guided me through every feeling two people could possibly have for each other.

The work I value is creating something that communicates with people and moves them in some way. Working with that fundamental value in mind keeps me going whether or not a particular “performance” hits the mark or misses. The outcome is a matter of execution, not a challenge to the value that drives me to stay with the work.

A Life Story

I can look back on my life as a series of successes and failures, efforts to do things for money or to feel good about myself or enjoy something about life, and judge how well or poorly I did in terms of those reasons.

Or I can look at my life as a continuous effort to work creatively, fashion something to express to people and hopefully move myself and them to some new realization.

That is living and working according to my values rather than for reasons of building self-esteem or becoming powerful or being recognized as talented by others.

The goals that help me live well, whatever depression might be doing to me, are the ones that stick to the basic values and purposes I have. I start to lose the thread of living when I do things for reasons, but I see it clearly if I’m staying with the most important values.

Getting through depression can mean relearning life from the ground up, and ACT has been giving me a fresh approach for getting back to the basic values and setting goals that help me live by them.

How often do you feel your life being guided by negative beliefs of depression and external reasons and measurements rather than positive inner values?

This is a slightly modified post from the archives.

7 Responses to “Inner Beliefs and Outer Action”

Read below or add a comment...

  1. I have as long as I remember always wanted to be accepted. I wanted to have fun and feel like I was loved and cared for. I never got that, I have always been an outsider as long as I remember. I wasn’t necesarily a James Dean esque rebel but I didn’t try to be like the others. As high school started I began to isolate myself even more, I felt different compared to the other teens, they acted all cocky and confident, I was still a young kid who wanted to have fun, but that part of my life was gone. As my depression and anxiety kicked in and the pressure from my father started, I began to isolate myself even more. I did one last try to fit in but it failed so badly, it just wasn’t me.

    Nowadays I’m basically two dimensional. Either very happy or the opposite. I do not care if I’m accepted into society, I have pretty long hair and listen to the Beatles, I’m happy with that. I do not want to follow the trends and become a mindless sheep. I don’t try to set any goals either. I feel much more depressed and anxious than I did before, but you would never know that I was so broken inside. I may look like an attractive young man who is enjoying life but that’s very far from the truth.

    I’m so far attached from my colleagues, In still in high school, but I do not feel like a teenager. I feel like an adult, when I see people my age I think their silly.

    I can’t fit in anymore. The only ones who understand me are people who suffer from depression and anxiety but even they are different.

    This is a long reply and it’s not well written. I just wanted to share my feelings about this topic.

    Sincerely
    Yours truly

  2. Karen says:

    Hello John,

    I was really happy to see some Storied Mind updates on my inbox, so I paid another visit to your blog. I tried to find a “contact” email but I imagine you do not have that option for privacy matters, and I respect that. Nonetheless, I wanted to thank you for this blog, as it was like a lighthouse for me when I was first diagnosed with depression, and it helped me learn a lot about it. That was about 2.5 years ago. Earlier this year I finally summoned the courage to start my own blog, in hopes that the writing helps me with my journey and hopefully to help others who might also think they are alone. I don’t know if you will ever read this message, but if you do, thank you! And I hope you continue to write. If you ever are even a tiny bit curious I invite you to look at my blog:

    https://licensetofeel.wordpress.com/

    I look forward to more wisdom from you 🙂

    Best wishes,

    -Karen

  3. michele says:

    John,

    Thank you for steering me toward this entry. Unravelling all of this will be a long process for me. Where can I find more information about this kind of therapy? I am a teacher (I work as a teacher and I am a teacher with every fiber of my being), but working as a teacher abroad has its own set of challenges leading me to question my own value (in the profession and as a person) yet again, especially as I now have more challenging classes than validating ones.

  4. Donna-1 says:

    I am deep, deep into this kind of reward-thinking. Always have been. I think this is one reason religion has such a formidable hold on me — at least in my mind, religion offers rewards for doing good things, for acting righteously according to it’s own canons. Believe in God and you’ll get to heaven. Do good things and you will get your reward in heaven…even if things don’t go so well here on earth. So I am constantly and consistently setting goals that conform to Biblical teaching and judging myself by whether I meet these goals. Yet at the same time I’m aware of free will…but it’s not really free, is it? It’s a carrot on a stick approach.

    Btw, I had a similar photo experience. When I was anorexic many years ago, my mother took some photos of me, as mothers tend to do. She kept them for years and finally showed them to me the other day. It was so odd, so very odd, because at the time the photos were taken I thought I was grossly fat and ugly. In the photos, though, I can see an obviously starved waif who is beautiful…and tormented. Now that I qualify as obese (so say the experts and their BMI charts) I just can’t understand how I could have been so wrong and blind about my own body.

    Maybe a few years from now I will be amazed at how wrong and blind I was in 2012 regarding whether or not I qualified as a good person.

  5. Janet Singer says:

    Thank you for this helpful description of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, which is also used to help those with OCD (in conjunction with Exposure Response Prevention Therapy). It’s our deepest values and our true desires in life that need to guide us, not outside approval or doing things because we think that’s what we should do. Great post (and great picture…I hope you can see that now :)).

    • John Folk-Williams says:

      Thanks, Janet –

      It’s interesting to know of the many contexts in which ACT is being used. It has a strong behavioral component, and I believe that exposure is one of the many methods used with it. I’ll look into Exposure Response Prevention Therapy also.

      Thanks for letting us know.

      John

Trackbacks

  1. Storied Mind says:

    Inner Beliefs and Outer Action…

    Inner Beliefs and Outer Action A few months ago, I found a picture of myself from college years that…



By clicking the Submit button below you agree to follow the Commenting Guidelines