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
Part I of this series can be found here.
Stopping my inner voice of depression meant changing both thought patterns and what I did everyday in response to those thoughts. Changing belief in myself was a lot harder. In this second of a three-part series, I’ll give an overview of how I began to block negative thinking from determining how I behaved.
1. Learning from What You Do
I had an experience at work one day that proved how wrong my interpretations could be. During a meeting, I got into a disagreement with a couple of my co-workers. When they opposed a recommendation I made, I had that panicked feeling of being exposed, found out as the incompetent, empty shell of a person I believe I was. I was devastated, the rest of the meeting felt like daggers stabbing me over and over again.
That night I obsessed about the meeting for hours and couldn’t sleep. I thought it was the end, that I’d have to quit – and then what would I do? I’d be completely discredited and have to start a new career. I decided I had to have it out with my colleagues.
The next day, I got them together and launched into my interpretation of the last meeting. I told them the whole thing had been a terrible ordeal, and I thought they had no confidence in me at all. Their reaction floored me.
They looked at each other, thinking back at what had happened, and then each of them said they hadn’t thought of the meeting that way at all. They couldn’t understand what I was talking about. While I had thought of it as a personal disaster, they had experienced it as a useful session and had agreed with most of what I had said.
I was stunned. How could I have been so wrong? The answer was clear – I had interpreted the meeting exactly as depressed thinking had taught me to do. That’s when the idea of changing thought patterns started to make sense. I had to learn from an event like this how senseless my thinking and interpretation could be.
The difference this time was that I brought my reactions and judgments into the open. I listened to what others thought about my interpretation. For the first time my belief that I was worthless was contradicted by what others were telling me. This was no intellectual exercise about patterns of thinking. It was real, it was part of daily life.
This was a big step, but I was far from done. I had to turn a breakthrough moment like this into the habit of turning off the voice every time I heard it.
2. Interrupting the Automatic Response
In a recent post about relationships, I described a method of interrupting the mental process that can rush you to negative judgment. A similar process is at work when depression is guiding your mind. The skill is to break into it before an automatic negative view is firmly established.
Although the mental processing seems instantaneous and automatic, there are a lot of complex activities going on, and there are opportunities to make choices about the meaning of your experiences.
First, you take in signals from your senses – a burst of sound, hundreds of visual impressions. The brain works faster than a computer to pick out the familiar patterns. Here’s a person I know talking to me. You listen to what he’s saying. It’s a simple encounter that could happen for any number of reasons. But you automatically make an interpretation that fits a depressive thought pattern.
You assume you know the intention behind what the person says and how they behave. These signals push into your awareness as a feeling and a judgment. Your interpretation of what you’ve heard might trigger shame and a judgment that supports the feeling. Without ever testing the accuracy of your assumption, you find new evidence to confirm the belief that you’re worthless. The super-critic is satisfied, and the real you is lost once again.
You have to learn that self-judgments like this are not inevitable. In fact, you’re making choices about how to interpret what you see. You can train yourself to stop the process as soon as you recognize the familiar negative pattern and where it’s likely to take you.
After long practice, I’ve gotten pretty good at cutting off the depressive voice. As soon as I hear myself repeating its mantras, I talk back to it. No – I’m not going there. That’s the same old lie, and I’m not falling for it.
I no longer dominated by what the voice is telling me. I know it’s wrong, and I’m not going to think about my life that way.
You can learn to stop that dynamic, turn off the voice, laugh at it, get bored by it, angrily kick it aside. That’s a tremendous accomplishment.
3. Changing Belief
But for me, there was something even deeper I had to change. It was the basic belief I had about myself, that somehow I wouldn’t or couldn’t do anything right, that there was still something wrong, incomplete, even inhuman about me. It went below conscious thinking and was hard even to define.
There was a bedrock belief that seemed to drive everything else. It was the worst and most resilient dimension of depression in my life.
Changing that belief has been the most difficult part of all, though progress in recognizing depressive thinking and the actions guided by it have been huge steps forward. Nonetheless, those lessons can be undone over the long term if there remains a haunting feeling that the changes are only superficial.
In the third part of this series, I’ll describe the much more difficult process of shifting the deepest beliefs.
Have you found yourself acting in self-defeating ways in your personal and work lives as a result of depression? How have you been able to change these patterns of behavior?