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.
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.
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.