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On Life

Ruminations and provocations.

Filtering by Tag: positive thinking

Depression isn't what it seems: Facing the demon head-on

Stephen H. Provost

Hello, my name is Stephen, and I live with depression.

If that sounds like an Alcoholics Anonymous introduction, it’s intentional. Depression, like alcoholism, is a condition, and it’s something I deal with on a daily basis.

That doesn’t mean I’m “down” or “blue” or melancholy as I’m writing this. You can live with depression without being those things at any given moment. And, conversely, you can be those things without living with depression.

Depression doesn’t always look the same. It’s a cliché that all those who live with depression mope around all day like Eeyore and some can barely drag themselves out of bed. Certainly, this can be the case. I’ve been there. But more often, I deal with depression by doing the opposite: by staying busy.

People who live with depression can be some of the most productive people you’ll meet. At times, they seem to live at an almost frenetic pace. Think of Robin Williams or Wil Wheaton. We often have successful careers, and those who don’t know us well may be shocked to find out we deal with depression. How could I possibly be depressed? I held down an office job for three decades, and I’ve produced a dozen books in the past two years.

But I’ve lived with depression that entire time. In fact, I’ve lived with it as long as I can remember.

Paradox?

It seems like a contradiction. In fact, it seems so different than the kind of depression that keeps you in bed all day that clinicians have created a separate label for it: “high-functioning” depression. Supposedly, it’s less severe. Now, I’m not a clinician, but I know from personal experience that this is utter B.S. Obviously, Robin Williams’ depression, as “high functioning” as it appeared on the outside, was pretty severe.

Depression is depression. Clinicians have fallen into the trap of creating separate labels for the same condition based on the way people react to it. We don’t do this when people manifest different symptoms of the same physical illness, and we shouldn’t do it for depression, either.

To use another analogy, when faced with a dangerous situation, the human fight-or-flight response kicks in. Some people will choose to “fight,” while others will opt for “flight.” Yet, the danger is the same in both cases; the only difference lies in how each individual reacts.

My hunch is that “high-functioning” depression is viewed as less severe for one reason and one reason alone: It’s less visible. It’s more socially acceptable. It’s less ... inconvenient to society as a whole. (Hey, that person ain’t on welfare. It can’t be as bad as all that!). So, it’s easier to brush it under the rug and pretend that everything’s OK.

Focal points

I’ve always been a highly focused person. I tend to zero in on a task, put my head down and go for it. I dedicate the bulk of my attention to achieving that goal, and I don’t let myself get distracted. I’m driven. That’s the secret to my productivity.

But there’s a downside to this ability: When I focus on something negative, it’s just as liable to take all my attention as that book I’ve worked so hard on. It might be something insignificant, like trying to find a misplaced set of keys, but if it’s a problem I can’t solve, I get stuck looking at it. I start spinning my wheels. I feel like I’m revving my engine while my gears are stuck in neutral. And if the problem remains a problem for any length of time, it becomes a symbol of every other problem I’ve been unable to solve. Then, all of a sudden, all those problems – even those I’m no longer facing – gang up on me to make me feel ...

Overwhelmed.

Worthless.

That’s what I focus on. It’s like a snowball effect. There’s a tendency to overthink and overanalyze every aspect of things in an attempt to reach a solution, to the point that I become stuck inside the problem rather than approaching it from an objective point of view. Eventually, my engine burns out, and I’m left in the unmotivated, can’t-get-out-of-bed state that most people think of as depression.

Which is something I can’t allow myself to do, because I know the world won’t stop turning on my account, and I’ll be damned if I’m going to create even more problems for myself by becoming paralyzed.

That’s where my ability to focus becomes an asset (yes, it’s very much a double-edged sword). Because, once I’ve burned myself out dedicating all my attention on that insoluble problem, I can shift that focus elsewhere: toward a problem I know I can solve; a challenge I know I can meet.

Some people might work on the car. Others might clean house. Me? I tend to write books. The important thing is, it’s a task that’s within my control – something I can use to rebuild my sense of accomplishment and self-worth. At least temporarily.

Happiness

Robin Williams said that “all it takes is a beautiful smile to hide an injured soul.” But with me, at least, the smile isn’t usually fake. The thought that I’m “making progress” and “doing something productive” puts me in a genuinely good mood, and I’m liable to laugh, crack silly jokes, make funny faces and do all those things genuinely happy people tend to do.

The problem isn’t that it’s fake. The problem is, it doesn’t last.

The moment another scary obstacle appears on my radar screen, my focus is hijacked right back to that dark place of, “Holy hell! What do I do now?” The more often this happens, the easier it is to rush back there at the drop of a hat. So, each time a familiar trigger arises – financial worries, a familiar criticism or whatever – the more quickly I wind up in an almost panicky state, spinning my wheels and revving my engine again.

Even worse, I start anticipating bad news because I’ve received it often enough that I want to be prepared the next time it comes. (Especially if I’m stuck in a pattern I don’t know how to change.) So, at the same time I’m staying busy, trying to keep myself “up,” I’m expending even more energy preparing myself for the next crisis, which I’m sure is just around the corner. It’s not that the happiness I’m feeling isn’t genuine, it’s just that it never lasts.

And I become accustomed to it not lasting. In fact, it becomes more fleeting over time, because I spend more and more of my energy bracing for the next crisis, and less and less actually enjoying the interludes between them.

Instead, I am drawn to perfectionism: The idea that, if I just prepare perfectly for every challenge, I’ll never have to deal with those feelings of fear and inadequacy again. This worked well enough in school: I always prepared for tests thoroughly and arrived on time for class; as a result, I chalked up nearly a 4.0 grade-point average in college. But life as a whole doesn’t work like that. Perfectionism is, ultimately, a fool’s errand. But in the near term, it can still sound better than admitting defeat – even if it does leave you continually on edge.

More labels

This may sound more like anxiety than depression, but it’s really just a stage an overall process that’s more like a vicious circle or a roller-coaster ride than anything else. It is exhausting. And the more I engage in it, the more drained I feel.

Clinicians have a name for this, too. They call it “bipolar depression” – an alternating series of highs and lows. But as with the other labels, I don’t find this one particularly helpful. Again, it isn’t really a separate sort of depression, it’s just a way of reacting to it. Most people experience emotional highs and lows depending on how their lives are going. That’s human. Overlaying depression with a common human experience doesn’t enrich my understanding of it; it’s just another way to label people and dismiss what they’re going through.

It may feel helpful to the clinician, but it’s of little use to the person going through it.

Then there’s the idea of drawing a distinction between “chronic” and “situational” depression. In other words: Are you living in a continual state of depression, or are you simply unsettled by temporary circumstances? This is just as unhelpful, because it equates depression – falsely – with the blues or feeling down. It’s like equating alcoholism with drinking. The underlying issue is always there beneath the surface, whether or not it’s triggered by something external: liquor for the alcoholic, a “situational” trigger for someone living with depression.

You can’t deal with any condition effectively by identifying and targeting its symptoms; you have to get to the root of the issue.

Avoidance

One way of dealing with the snowball effect I described above is to rush back into that feeling of fear and anxiety whenever a new crisis – or perceived crisis – appears on the horizon. Another way is to simply avoid it and pretend it doesn’t exist.

There are times when I don’t rush back into a feeling of melancholy when I see a new problem arise – or that same old one, rearing its ugly head yet again. In fact, I do just the opposite: I don’t want to deal with it, so I stay focused on the distraction that’s keeping me afloat (usually writing; sometimes just mundane chores).

Again, these are simply two different reactions based on the same underlying depression: the feeling of fear that I won’t be able to deal with something, and that some sort of catastrophe will befall me as a result. The feeling of being out of control. I can retreat to a place of busyness, or I can withdraw to a place of solitary self-pity.

This is where positivity comes in. Staying positive can be a great tool in keeping depression at bay: Focusing on the good stuff in life has a way of making the bad stuff a little less scary. The people I find deal most effectively with depression are those who remain consistently positive, and I try to do the same myself. But I have to be sure of my motives: Am I staying positive in order to fight depression, or as another means of avoiding the real problem?

Brutal honesty with myself is the only thing that will work to keep me from slipping into the avoidance trap, and that takes a lot of energy, too!

Faith

So, what, exactly, is depression? And what’s the best way to deal with it?

To me, depression is an underlying sense of unease that can surface at any given moment. It’s not a single “thing,” but a molten stew: a blend of thoughts and emotions that can include insecurity, fear, self-pity, hopelessness, anxiety and sadness. Perhaps a few other things, too. And in different proportions for different people.

I’m becoming convinced that best treatment for these underlying causes is something I’ve had problems with all my life: faith. It’s a word that’s always led to disappointment for me in the past. Faith in religious dogma? That’s always felt inadequate to me, either too vague to be of use or too specific to apply in any universal sense. People? They’ve let me down repeatedly. Hell, I’ve let myself down (perfectionism doesn’t work).

So, what does that leave?

It leaves the one thing I keep coming back to: faith that I have a purpose here. Faith that I can make a difference. Maybe I won’t be a bestselling author or a prize-winning journalist, an “expert commentator” or a noted historian. But I can make a difference in people’s lives. How do I know? Because I’ve done it. I’ve said a kind word that made a difference. I’ve helped people recall cherished childhood memories. I’ve entertained people with my stories.

I may not be remembered past this lifetime, but the impact I’ve made will live on through the lives of those I’ve touched. And that’s what’s most important.

Yes, I live with depression, but I also have a purpose. That’s something worth believing in.

 

Positivity: the antidote to perfectionism

Stephen H. Provost

For all the talk about positivity, bad news has a bigger impact – and sticks with you longer – than good news.

That’s why it’s important to be even more positive: because the alternative isn’t a whole lot of fun. Trust me, I know. That alternative, or at least one of them, is becoming a perfectionist, living your life in a minefield of hesitance and fear. That minefield has been my life for far too long, and I’m just now realizing why.

It’s no mystery why politicians use negative ads or the news media highlight negative news stories. They work. They attract attention. For all the hand-wringing about attack ads in politics and bloody car crashes on the 6 o’clock news, people still watch them more than the positive ads and feel-good stories they say they want.

It makes sense why they work, too. It’s evolution. Think of yourself as a gazelle at the watering hole. Are you going to be thinking to yourself, “What a nice day it is outside! The tall grass is so wonderfully green and silky! The birds are singing such a lovely song!” Or are you going to be thinking. “There’s a pride of lions around here. Somewhere. And if I don’t pay attention, I’m going to end up as someone’s lunch meat.”

Right. This is why political ads aren’t just negative, they’re scary. The scarier the better, to appeal to your internal gazelle. Hordes of immigrants are massing at the border, planning a full-scale invasion! If Goldwater’s elected, he’ll get us into a nuclear war with the Soviets (cue video of H-bomb exploding)! Dukakis let a convicted murderer out on furlough! They’ll take away your guns! Your health care! Your religious freedom!

On and on it goes. Whether there’s truth to any of this is beside the point. The point is what’s being emphasized – the negative – and why.

The fairness factor

All this fear and negativity will drive you crazy. So, as a would-be antidote, we came up with the concept of fairness. This concept, we tell our children, will insulate us to some extent from the mean ol’ world out there. The police will protect us. The courts will protect us. Our institutions will protect us. And if all else fails, we’ll get justice at the pearly gates or karma will kick in.  

Excuse me for being blunt about this but ... what a crock of bull.

Life ain’t fair. Police corruption is real. So is judicial corruption, gridlock and bias. Our institutions? They’d work a lot better if the people in charge would support them rather than trying to find loopholes and undermine them to further their own agendas. The hereafter may or may not exist, and it’s a bit long to wait for justice even if it does. As to karma, whether you believe in it or not, it has zero to do with protecting people, doling out vengeance or righting wrongs.

Fairness is, in short, a placebo we take to convince ourselves that life isn’t as dangerous as it really is.

(Hey, Provost, you talked about positivity. Hold your horses, I’ll get there. Eventually.)

The ‘perfect’ solution

If we’re paying attention, we realize soon enough that all these external controls meant to guarantee fairness are no guarantee at all. So, we take matters into our own hands by doubling down on something else our parents told us. Call it the Protestant work ethic, the American Dream or pulling yourself up by your bootstraps. Whatever you call it, it promises that, if you work hard, you’ll get ahead. If you graduate from college, you’ll get a good job. If you excel, you’ll get rewarded.

It’s automatic.

Pardon me if I repeat myself, but ... what a crock of bull!

Hard work can facilitate success, but guarantee it? Not in this world. You’re far more likely to lose your job because of the boss wants to pad his bottom line than you are for subpar performance. It’s far easier to lay people off because you want to make more (or lose less) money than it is for “cause,” which can precipitate lawsuits and cost the company even more! Perish the thought! Is it any wonder that some mediocre employees survive cost-cutting while some who excel are led to the unemployment line?

Oh, and if you embarrass the company publicly, it’s even worse. You say it was unintentional? That you’re an otherwise exemplary employee? It doesn’t matter. The minute some segment of the public starts calling for your head, you become the sacrificial lamb du jour. (If you’re lucky enough to have your faux pas featured on Twitter, you’ll probably get death threats, too.) Forgiveness? That’s for patsies. Zero tolerance is the name of the game.

The illusion of control

Still, as soon as you realize that the external “guardians of fairness” – ordinances, karma, the legal system, etc. – don’t work on any consistent basis, your only real option is to buy into the “hard work” approach. At least it offers you the illusion of control. And if you can just avoid making that one catastrophic mistake, then maybe, just maybe, you’ll survive.

If you can just be good enough, maybe you can rise above it all. Sounds a bit egotistical when you put it like that, doesn’t it? And really, even if you were to succeed (hint: you can’t), is that any way to live? Now, you’re not just a gazelle at the watering hole, you’re a deer in the headlights. Welcome to the continual stress and panic of perfectionism.

Truth be told, we don’t live at watering holes anymore. Life is still dangerous, but the dangers are different. Simple fight-or-flight responses don’t work as well in the modern world, where lions are no longer a threat, but stress-related illnesses such as strokes or heart attacks certainly are.

No matter how hard you try, you can’t control everything. You will make mistakes. And even if you lived a “perfect” life (whatever that means) the entire rest of your days, some external factor could bring you down. Even if you made zero mistakes, someone would always be there to accuse you of something you didn’t do, or blame you for their own mistakes and insecurities, because it’s easier than looking at themselves.

You don’t just stop being a perfectionist in one day, though. It’s a learned defense mechanism that you’ve reinforced over several years in your quest to survive. Ironically, if you were to demand this of yourself, you’d be setting the same kind of expectation that made you a perfectionist in the first place!

So, what’s a recovering perfectionist to do? If negative news takes a big bite out of our attention, the best possible course, it seems to me, is to overwhelm it with positivity. With appreciation. With wonder. With creativity. With beauty. This works, really, whether you’re a perfectionist or not. So do the following ideas for perfectionists and those who are around them.

Perfectionism is the placebo. Positivity is the antidote.

Tips for perfectionists

  • Let go of the expectation that hard work guarantees success. But don’t stop working hard. Pursue your dreams. Enjoy the process. Savor each moment as a success in and of itself.

  • Don’t dwell on past failures or past injustices. Process them, learn from them, then move on.

  • Focus on the positive. You don’t live at the watering hole anymore. You can afford to look around at the soft green grass and listen to the birds singing. That’s a great gift.

  • Remember that you are not your mistakes. They are not your identity. Don’t personalize them.

  • Acknowledge your inherent worth as a unique and gifted individual. Value yourself for who you are, not what you can do!

  • Instead of working to avoid mistakes, work to create beauty.

  • Embrace your sensitivity. Don’t apologize for it. Instead, make it work for you by creating empathy toward others and an awareness of the world at large.

  • Be thankful. Learn to appreciate the good things in life and focus on those. Since bad news makes more of an impact on us, overwhelm it with an avalanche of positivity.

  • Don’t expect others to be perfect. Some perfectionists direct their demands outward, but if they’re unrealistic for you, they’re just as unrealistic for others.

  • Stop worrying. Start living. Let the chips fall where they may.

Tips for dealing with a perfectionist

  • Focus on his or her positive attributes. Perfectionists become so committed to avoiding mistakes, they often define their self-worth based on what they do rather than who they are. Support them in turning that around.

  • Avoid nitpicking and micromanaging. Don’t look over their shoulder while they’re working. This only magnifies their fear of failure. Unless something’s important, don’t make a big deal about it.

  • Remember that it takes a lot of good words to overcome a few bad ones, so be effusive with your praise and selective with your criticism.

  • Keep criticism constructive; present it as an opportunity to improve rather than a condemnation for past behavior.

  • Don’t bring up past failures repeatedly. As a perfectionist, the person’s first instinct is to try to “fix” the problem, but since the past can’t be fixed, the person is likely to feel hopeless.

  • Don’t criticize the person for being too sensitive or call them names. And avoid making fun of them. Sensitivity isn’t a crime. Encourage them to use it as an asset.

  • Don’t project your own frustrations with yourself or unrelated issues onto them. They’re already their own worst critic; making them responsible for more things they can’t control can feel debilitating.

  • If they do something nice for you, thank them. Don’t immediately tell them how you think it could have been done better.

  • If you disagree on something, don’t be dismissive: Instead of saying the person is wrong, ask how they came to think the way they do. Show an interest and listen to the answer. Even if you still disagree, affirm the other person’s right to self-expression.