Overcoming depression is about change. Last time I talked about changing your thinking by focusing on thoughts of gratitude in order to generate the energy to act, to make further changes, to get where you want to be. For many with depression, especially long term depression, thoughts about what you want may have become habitually secondary to what you think others want from you. Early childhood experiences that honed your vigilant attentiveness to others’ needs may have represented an instinctive and necessary, i.e., adaptive survival strategy. While sensitivity and responsiveness to others’ needs can be rewarding, maybe even lead to a career path as a lawyer that employs your valuable people skills, it can also become an impediment to your discovery of what you really want and need, to what will enable you to experience “authentic happiness,” not just win others’ admiration and approval, and perhaps a spurious sense of security.
A common manifestation of this impediment is what is increasingly referred to as “codependency,” a relationship of mutual dependency based on an implicit bargain in which “I take care of you and you take care of me,” in which both parties avoid having to take full responsibility for themselves. While self-sacrifice is a part of all healthy committed relationships (spouses and parents do it all the time), sacrificing oneself in order to avoid something difficult, or to leverage payback from the other is a form of avoidance or manipulation. Whether it occurs in a personal relationship or a professional one, it is somewhat dishonest, self-defeating and disempowering and inevitably creates resentments, disappointments, feelings of victimization, and possibly depression.
Some have never learned to give themselves permission to want and to dream, to know their own feelings and wishes, or have done so in a very limited way. Some may be very clear about what they want in one sphere of their lives, say the professional sphere, and much less so in their personal life, e.g., the successful lawyer who lacks close satisfying personal relationships. So, how do you begin to identify what you want? One place to start is to simply think about what makes you feel good, enhances your self-esteem, that employs your unique talents, that piques your interest or gives you enjoyment, that inspires, energizes, and excites you, that makes you want to get up in the morning.
If you haven’t felt any of these things recently, or experienced them in only one sphere of your life, think as far back as necessary to when you did. Pursuing the things that make you feel good is not frivolous self-indulgence; it is a participation in life, in the creative process. True creativity is implicitly positive, additive, contributing to the larger community and greater good in some way, however small. Do you like to cook and make pleasing meals for your family? That is creative. Do you like to read and share your thoughts with a book club? That is creative. Do you grow vegetables or flowers in a garden? Exercise to maintain your health and energy? Keep a home that is welcoming to others? Work collaboratively with others at home, in the workplace, in the community? Share your energy, time, or money with someone in need of it? Do you smile at strangers? Write programs, plays, books, pamphlets, songs, poetry, menus? Do you pray, meditate, praise, appreciate? It’s all creative.
What do you want? If you don’t know, then you must figure it out, discover it, keep asking yourself the question until you do. Be sure to ask yourself the right question(s). Do not ask yourself questions such as, “Why can’t I do this?” or, “Why can’t I be happy?” or “Why haven’t I accomplished more?” Such questions invest a subtle belief in an undesirable condition. The questions are pointless and will yield invalid, useless answers. Ask instead, “How can I do this?” “What makes me happy?” “What can I do to make myself feel good right now?” The amended questions create a receptivity to discover new possibilities, ones you may not have previously considered.
If you want to feel good, you must discover, decide, and begin to move toward what you want. It involves training yourself to think in ways that open possibilities, create new opportunities. Give yourself permission to explore what you want. Dream, visualize, fantasize, and then take a step. In so doing, you are beginning to change yourself, consciously and intentionally, from inside out and outside in. Your best and healthiest self is happy, alive, involved, and active. If you realize you have an interest in something, stay with it and nurture it with some action, however small, that moves you in that direction. You can change course at any point as you gain clarity about exactly what you want. If you don’t know what to do, seek the assistance of someone who can help you discover what you want and overcome inertia.
A helpful and inspiring read is Martin Seligman’s book, Authentic Happiness. He correctly notes that happiness is not something that one can pursue directly; rather, that happiness is a condition that ensues from the creative utilization of our given talents in a manner that participates in and contributes to the greater community – be it your family, your workplace, your neighborhood, or the world. Everyone, even you at your most depressed, has something to offer. I’ll go so far as to invoke Chaos Theory; the truth is you may never know how even an unreturned smile to a stranger will reverberate and magnify to your own or another's ultimate benefit, or how your holding the door for someone may improve the course of that person's whole day. Small consistent efforts at change can produce enormous results over time. The important thing is to act, to put yourself in motion and enjoy the results.