When Words of Depression Block My Mind

Detail of Mixed Media Painting by Choichun Leung

The words I hear when I’m depressed are limited, negative and decidedly lacking in color, but they can all too easily block my mind and feelings. I’m stuck on “I can’t” when I want to do something important to me. I’m either in a trance of inaction or caught in fear. Either way, I can’t think around the words of depression to get in touch with the inner energy I need to move.

Of course, the words alone are not powerful, but I have come over many years to use them as symbols that tap into depths of feeling and belief. When depressed, I accept them without question as the factual truth of who I am and what I can and cannot do.

Taking Words Apart

There are some forms of psychotherapy that have helped me take aim at the words themselves. The idea is to break their hold by kicking them around, rearranging or repeating them out loud until they lose their coherence or start to appear like empty syllables. They lose their connection with my beliefs about myself.

I stop accepting them as true statements and factual descriptions of my life. Mind and feelings loosen up and can reorganize. Suddenly, the command of “I can’t” is no longer a barrier. Something shifts, and I can look at myself and the things I want to do with a sense of greater possibility.

This is different from simply feeling better because depression is lifting, and I can do things again. After all, that wouldn’t be much of an advance if I had to wait for depression to go away before I could start moving. I would still be at the mercy of the comings and goings of an illness.

This feeling is more about breaking out of a rigid and limiting state of mind to become more responsive to immediate experience. I”m not thinking about getting rid of depression. I’m just trying to break the hold of the belief that: “I can’t do it.”

Changing the Relationship to Words

Breaking into the power of the words seems to change my relationship to them and everything they’ve come to represent in my life. In talking about words, I mean more than their printed versions. Their meanings depend on tempo, tone of voice and even the way I visualize them.

When it comes to “I can’t do it,” the tone is often sharp, clamp-like, snap shut. Sometimes, it has a tactile feel like pumice or sandpaper on my skin, or like a swelling in my throat. Speaking the sentence at a different pace, whether I slow it down so the individual words lose connection with each other, or I shoot them out rapid-fire, repeating them over and over again, the effect is the same. They lose their meaning, and I can feel that like a physical change, a lightening of a burden or a loosening of stiff muscles.

Sometimes, I can visualize the words on a giant banner and spread them wide apart. Or I think of them on a theater marquee with letters broken off, turning them into nonsense. Or I rearrange the letters to form as many different words as I can and focus on those instead of the original sentence.

I don’t know why, but I can start to feel differently as I use these methods. The change doesn’t come from a conscious decision. It’s a shift in the felt sense, the body’s pre-verbal awareness.

I only came to believe in the effectiveness of this approach by using it successfully one day. I had been feeling especially incapacitated by a spell of depression and frustrated that I couldn’t complete a piece of writing. I decided to try the approach of focusing on the words to see what effect this could have.

An Inner Shift Away from Depression

The first step was becoming aware of how often I was telling myself, in one form or another, I can’t do it. I heard this every time I tried to do what I wanted to do. That day it happened to be completing a piece of writing.

I kept saying the words, I can’t do it. Then I repeated I can’t for a while. Then I changed it to I won’t. Then I spoke the words, “I can not,” “I will not,” “I am not.” I listened to each word to get the sound and meaning of it.

I started to feel more relaxed, and then thought, why the “not”? So I went a step farther and said to myself: “I am …” I am sitting here, just sitting.

Dropping the whole idea of “not” had an unexpected effect. Something started to shift in the way I felt.

I could relax into feeling what I was experiencing in that moment. I stopped thinking about not writing. Focusing on what I was not doing took me out of the present and buried my mind in self-condemnation for what I had failed to do in the past or was sure I would fail at in the future.

It’s so easy to turn the here-and-now into the negative of a future that you never quite achieve. In that state of mind, my awareness is fixed on what I have not yet done, and so I feel anxious or hopeless. Anxiety and hope are about some other time, or other place, or other condition, the expectation of what is to come.

There was something quite powerful in simply saying “I am,” so I said it several times. I repeated the words slowly, giving them time to sink in. They kept resonating, and suddenly I realized that I wasn’t concerned about words but was more alive to what was going on around me. My senses felt sharpened. My mind was more alert.

There was no effort involved in this, no straining to get it right or worry about following the steps of a prescribed exercise. I felt relaxed, alert, curious and calmly energized.

Reclaiming the Present

Then I could start writing and quickly became absorbed in the task. The question of “can” or “can’t” disappeared. I was simply doing what I wanted to do.

I had not tried to analyze my thoughts, as I might when using cognitive therapy techniques. I had not spotted a pattern of universalizing a problem or tried to reframe the idea of what I could do in a realistic way.

I had managed to detach myself from the belief that I couldn’t do anything by focusing on the words that I had been accepting as true. I hadn’t approached this in terms of mindfulness by observing the flow of thoughts with the help of meditation, but the result was similar.

The words of depression were no longer spoken in my voice as the truth of who I was. They had become tools that I could work with to help evoke a different state of mind and feeling.

Small breakthrough moments like this one make me wonder all the more at how people, so rich in possibilities, can come to believe, when they are depressed, that they can’t do a thing.

Have you found a way to break the hold of such depressive beliefs and of the words that seem to confirm their truth?