Depression: Healing the Ideas That Aren’t Working

Our culture endlessly tells us that we can do anything we want to do and be anything we want to be. With almost limitless opportunities to choose from, there’s never a reason for us to be unhappy for more than a few minutes–or so we’re told.

Of course there’s some truth here, but pushing these ideas too far can put us at risk for depression.

Here are three versions of this “You are all powerful” myth that can be dangerous to our mental health:

1. If a relationship isn’t working, it’s because we aren’t skilled enough or trying hard enough.

Not true. Yes, love, sacrifice, and effort can often heal a relationship. But it’s also true that many people–especially addicts–are experts at making the people around them feel guilty and inadequate when a relationship breaks down.

Ann Wilson Schaef describes a conversation with a therapist who said that whenever he worked with a depressed client, he looked for a relationship with a substance abuser–and usually found one.

Joining Al-Anon or a similar support group can be a lifesaver if a co-worker, family member, or close friend is a substance abuser. In other cases, it may be time to withdraw some of your energy from the relationship–or even break it off completely.

2. We create our own problems.

Wrong again. This half-truth–which even some professional therapists subscribe to–ignores the reality that we live in an imperfect world populated by imperfect people. Conflicts, confusion, and mistakes are a normal part of everyday living–ours as well as theirs.

Putting all the blame on ourselves prevents us from stepping back to see the larger picture–essential if we’re going to find solutions that will benefit everyone affected by the problem.

3. Anger is a choice.

There’s an especially insidious error here. Anger, a natural response to hurt and harm, isn’t always unhealthy or wrong. It’s a stage in the grieving process, for example: When we lose something or someone who helped get our needs met, we’re likely to feel anger. Anger is also an appropriate response to injustice, where it can be a powerful incentive to work for change.

We make a great mistake when we tell ourselves that anger is always a sign of a character weakness. A wiser approach is to set aside time to explore our anger: What are its triggers? Is the anger pointing to a wrong that needs to be righted, or is it a form of self-indulgence? What can be done about it?

Gritting our teeth and trying to rise above the anger rarely works. As most of us have discovered, repressed anger usually goes underground, where we lose control of its powerful energy. We’d do better to stay in touch with the anger and make a conscious decision about dealing with it.

Depression–that heavy slowness pulling us away from everything we love about life–requires complex responses from us. Perhaps that slow heaviness is telling us something important: It’s time to step away from the bustle of everyday living to examine our assumptions about life and love.