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Turning Off the Inner Voice of Depression: Part 1

John Folk-Williams has lived with major depressive disorder since boyhood and finally achieved full recovery just a few years ago. As a survivor of ...Read More

Everyone with severe depression has heard it, I’m sure – a voice that keeps cataloging everything that’s wrong with you. It gives you a head-full of certainties about the emptiness of your life, your inability to do anything right and the pointlessness of trying.

You assume the voice is your own and that everything it says is true. It doesn’t matter how talented and successful you might be. The inner super-critic is the true guide to who you are. The world might be fooled, but you know the real you.

You can drop a dish on the floor and know it’s yet another sign of how inept you are, how impossible it is for you to do anything right, what a useless life you’re leading.

You can catch a glance from a co-worker, and know immediately that it’s full of scorn. You can’t forget a single mistake because you know each one reaffirms the truth about you. You can’t remember anything you do well because it was a fluke and doesn’t count.

The influence of this voice is so pervasive that shutting it off is essential to recovery. You can’t do it quickly because you’ve developed the negative beliefs over a long period of time. You’ve become very good at knocking yourself down and have to undo a lot of bad habits.

I can’t say what will work for you, but I can outline some of the skills I learned that helped me stop the critical voice and see myself as I really am.

1. Hearing the Voice as a Symptom.

Here’s a list of problems that seemed to confirm the worst that I heard from the inner voice. You probably know that these are common symptoms of depression, but for many years I had no idea that could be true.

  • I couldn’t concentrate.
  • I couldn’t finish anything.
  • I couldn’t function with groups because of anxiety.
  • I had no motivation.
  • I was paralyzed and unable to act.
  • I felt guilt and shame much of the time.

My idea of depression didn’t include any of this. I thought the illness was all about feeling down, hopeless, wanting to be alone, losing energy, sleeping – everything associated with depressed mood.

When I finally learned that these were also symptoms of depression, it was a huge relief. I could finally get some distance from the critic and realize there was more to me than the voice was saying.

But how could I go from this insight to changing what I believed about myself so deeply?

2. Spotting Negative Thought Patterns.

The dominant model for changing how you think about yourself is cognitive therapy. It’s often reduced to the formula that changing the way you think changes the way you feel. Negative thoughts cause depression. By learning to substitute more positive and realistic thinking you will feel better.

That doesn’t match what happens to me. Depression is far more complicated and involves many more aspects of life than this formulation suggests. But the tools of cognitive therapy have definitely helped turn down the volume of the depressive voice.

The therapy trains you to spot the distorted patterns of thinking and to reframe them in more realistic terms.

Instead of leaping to the general conclusion that you’re worthless because someone looks at you in a certain way, you learn to think about other possible interpretations. If you see a co-worker frown, it could mean that they’re upset for reasons that have nothing to do with you. You have to challenge your judgment by looking more deeply.

What were the specifics of that situation? Were you doing anything to prompt a response? Even if you were, does it necessarily mean that you must have done something wrong, and does it necessarily mean you can never do anything right?

I found this sort of exercise to be a big step forward simply because I could imagine that the inner voice might not be right all the time, that I didn’t have to believe what it said.

Changing the words in your head, though, isn’t likely to be enough to shake the belief that you aren’t worth much. Nor would it end depression completely. You may know that your thinking doesn’t made sense, but that still doesn’t prevent you from acting it out in your life.

Changing behavior as well as thoughts gets closer to a more fundamental shift. I’ll take that up in the second part of this series.

What have you experience with this inner voice or critic? Have you been able to keep it from dominating your life when you’re depressed?

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