Depression is a habit of thought. The process for dealing with depression is the same as the process for changing all habits of thought. Usually people embark on this difficult work because they want to change a habit of thought that causes a behavioral pattern that makes them unhappy or is destructive or dysfunctional. Habits of thought that someone might want to change could be an annoying behavior, a mental health issue, an addiction, or any other habit. The good news is that this process works. The bad news is that this is a process that takes years and will require that people learn many new skills and practice them over and over until they become new habits of thought.
Common habits of thought that people might want to change
There are many habits of thought that people want to change. Some examples are:
- Mental differences like depression, bipolar, schizophrenia, obsessive-compulsive disorder, anorexia,
- Habitual, dysfunctional ways of interacting with other people, such as passive-aggressiveness, or other poor communication habits, and
- Addictions to substances or behaviors
The process outlined below can be used to change any habitual way you behave that you feel like you have no control over. Any behavior where it seems like something is making you behave this way that is beyond your control.
What is depression like?
My chest started to feel jumpy — not like butterflies, but like there’s an angry wasp in there smashing at the walls, trying to get out. I’ve been unable to move all day, and I can’t think why. It’s Christmas, and I’m supposed to join my family caroling at a neighborhood gathering. All I can think is that someone has died. I call my parents to make sure everything is ok, and they are ok. No explanation there.
Over the following months, this feeling of weight began to colonize my stomach and shoulders. After a while, it earned it’s green card, becoming a permanent resident in my body and sense of self. It felt like a black hole, growing and growing as it sucked more and more of my thinking time into it. It seemed to suck in anything good or useful about me, leaving me only with thoughts of how I had failed. As it grew, I came to despise myself and call myself a failure. Slowly, I came to hate myself. At rare moments, when I could even conceive of overcoming this black hole, I thought it would take a lot of love to fill it up. Then, I thought, all the love in the universe wouldn’t be enough. It would get sucked into the black hole in my stomach and disappear without leaving a trace.
When my depression was at its worst, the only thing I could feel was constant pain, and I couldn’t imagine that it would ever stop as long as I was alive, I felt like I only had one option to stop the pain: death. I didn’t want to die. All my life, I had been curious to know what would happen next, but if finding out what happened next meant enduring this pain, that I thought was worse than any physical pain, I didn’t think I could take it. I felt that I would rather have my limbs amputated without anesthesia than to endure this pain for the rest of my natural life. But who gets elective amputation? The window in my eighth floor office, the only window on the floor that opened, began to sing a siren song of promise: slip through, and all your pain will end in a moment.
How depression works
Depression causes us to redefine ourselves. Instead of being people who have failed to solve problems, we are failures, incapable of solving problems. This temporarily lets us off the hook. We have redefined ourselves as not having the potential to solve problems. Since we fail because we are failures, and not because we made a mistake, there is no point in trying to solve the problem any other way.
This idea that we are failures in general, instead of just failing in a specific instance, is difficult to hold onto, because other people constantly urge us to fight it, and to overcome our problems. We usually feel ashamed of ourselves, and try again to overcome our problems. However, if we continue to try and fail, we generally become more and more confirmed in the idea that we cannot do anything but fail. No effort we make will ever succeed. Each time we try and fail, our burden of shame at being a failure (as opposed to having failed in a specific case) grows and becomes a constant irritant, making us feel worse and worse about ourselves. It can easily bloom into full-on self-hatred.
Depression is a self-soothing habit. It works in a way that is not so obvious, but essentially when something causes us pain (usually shame) for not meeting the expectations of others who are important in our lives (usually parents), we can have two reactions. Most people expect that if you are disappointed in a child, they will try harder to please you, and this may be true. However, if you never seem to be able to do enough to please those you care about, or if you never are taught that you are an acceptable person even if you do very little, then the goal of pleasing others can come to seem unattainable.
So, at some point, you realize you can never succeed at meeting someone else’s expectations. At this point, your only other option is to redefine yourself as a person who cannot do what is being asked. This means lowering your self-appraisal, and that is depression. Thinking less of yourself.
The problem with thinking less of yourself is that it quickly can become a self-reinforcing cycle. You lower your self-image, but then you are ashamed for being less of an accomplished person, and this causes you emotional pain, and your automatic response is to lower your sense of self a little further. This cycle goes slowly at first, and if caught soon enough, it is much easier to reverse. However, if it keeps on going, then you go round and round, down the rabbit hole whirlpool into the reverse, upside down, inside out looking glass perception matrix that is depression. The longer it goes, the worse it gets, and the harder it is to get out. The habit of thought of lowering your self perception just gets reinforced more and more.
Depression is one of many dysfunctional behavior patterns identified as “mental illness” or “personality disorder.”
Dysfunctional behavior patterns are initiated by habits of thought. People who behave in these characteristic patterns are identified by the psychiatric profession as having mental illness or a personality disorder. Dysfunctional mental habits usually are the result of experiencing more shame for being unable to think and act the way you believe others expect you to act than you can handle. This results in behaviors that other people think are unusual and potentially harmful to yourself or others. Psychiatry has given these patterns of behavior many labels, such as bipolar disorder, depression, Schizophrenia, Psychopathy, Anorexia and many others. It is important for psychiatrists and insurers to label these behavior patterns because it helps them conduct research and get paid for “real” problems, not ordinary dysfunctions. The major significance for patients is that having a diagnosis is necessary for health insurers to pay for mental health care.
Depression is very similar to an addiction
Addictions are habits of thought that people often want to change. There are two criteria for an addiction. First, it is a thought habit where you recognize a problem and apply the same already-made solution to it without thinking. Second this thought pattern, even though it solves the problem, must do it in an inefficient or dysfunctional way. One criterion for it being dysfunctional is that the solution causes more problems in the long run than it solves.
Most addictions solve the problem of emotional pain, and depression, even though it is painful, is a strategy to stave off even worse pain. However, instead of fixing the cause of the emotional pain, addictions are like pain killers. They address the pain without addressing the cause of the pain. Once this becomes a habit, the brain is quite resistant to making changes in that habit of thought. In essence, the brain has learned that a solution works, and it never wants to have to think that pattern through again.
The conscious mind doesn’t have as much control as it thinks it does
It helps to understand the brain as made up of numerous different minds that don’t always agree with each other. Most people think they are in control of their thoughts. They experience themselves making decisions about what to think. This is how the conscious mind usually thinks. The conscious mind thinks it rules all the other minds, so it believes that if it understands a problem, all the other minds will follow its lead.
However, the other minds (often referred to as the subconscious, but I prefer to call it the non-conscious so as to refer to all the ways our brains process problems that we are not aware of) are not so docile. Some of them hang onto their way very strongly, making it difficult and sometimes impossible for the conscious mind to lead all the interior ways of thinking to change their ways. The understanding that much of our thinking is automatic, not governed by the conscious mind, is helpful when figuring out how to change the way we think.
The advantage of habits of thought
Our brains evolved to be efficient problem solvers. One form of efficiency is that we learn to recognize different types of problems. One simple distinction is that there are problems like problems we have solved before and new problems. We have evolved to identify problems we have solved before so we can apply the solution that worked before as soon as possible, without spending much of our most precious resource, thinking, as possible.
The disadvantage of habits of thought.
Habits of thought can save us thinking time, but when a dysfunctional solution to a problem becomes a habit, it can cause a lot of problems. When a person is addicted, they will continue to go to a habitual solution to a problem, even if the conscious mind thinks it knows better. It seems to me the conscious mind is more influenced by the other parts of the mind than vice versa. The non-conscious mind has so much influence over the conscious mind that it can subvert the ability of the conscious mind to see things clearly. For example, many addicts are unwilling to even admit they are addicted until the evidence is far more convincing than we ordinarily require to come to know something.
The difficulty in changing habits of thought
It is very difficult to revamp your thinking habits. Habits, by definition, are built in to our brains so we don’t have to waste conscious time thinking about what to do in a given situation. People tend not even to be aware that they have thinking habits. The non-conscious mind responds to situations that it recognizes so quickly, that we do things without even realizing that we made a choice to do those things. We didn’t actually make a conscious choice. We made a non-conscious choice based on recognition of a type of problem that our brains solved long ago.
Habits of thought developed over many years. They are a thought path that is followed over and over. Each time the path is followed, the connections between the neurons involved in that pattern of thought get stronger. Just as ancient footpaths eventually become superhighways to accommodate the traffic, neuronal connections of our thought habits become so strong that they are part of the infrastructure of our minds. We take them for granted. They are no longer a matter of discussion. An addiction is a thought superhighway that goes in circles, never getting you to the place you wanted to go. For most of the time we drive along these superhighway, we think we are getting somewhere other than back to the same place, over and over.
How can we change habits of thought?
The way to change habits of thought is by slowly working at it, step by step. We will have to uproot our thought “superhighways,” and then rebuild them so that they take us to where we want to go more directly. We will have to work at it over time — maybe not as much time as it took to build and reinforce the habit — but still, a long time. It is a matter of years of sustained effort.
The importance of getting the conscious mind to recognize it has no control over habits of thought
The effort to change addictions will not work as long as the conscious mind thinks it is in control. The conscious mind hates the thought of giving up the belief that it controls all of the mind. The conscious mind holds onto the idea that it is in control ferociously. It seems completely against our ordinary experience to believe we are not in control of our thoughts. Yet, if that is the truth, then using the conscious mind to guide the process of changing thought habits isn’t going to work.
So, the first step is to recognize you (your conscious sense of self) have no control over this thought habit. This goes against pretty much everything you’ve probably ever been taught or experienced about your thinking. However, to actually change thought habits, you have to change the parts of the mind that are actually controlling the way you behave — the non-conscious mind. As long as the conscious mind thinks it is in control, you will try and try to fix your addiction and you will fail, over and over, which can make things worse.
When the conscious mind can’t control your behavior, it thinks it is doing something wrong. It tries and fails, tries and fails. Eventually the conscious mind breaks, and blames itself for being unable to do this thing. The blame turns into shame, where the conscious mind starts beating on itself, thus making you feel like you are incapable and stupid. Thinking these kinds of thoughts about yourself over a long period of time can easily make you fall into a deep depression, where you are completely ashamed of yourself because your conscious mind can’t control the rest of your mind. The shame gets worse and worse the more your conscious mind fails, and eventually, you find yourself thinking you are a worthless human being who should die.
How to get the conscious mind out of the way
I’ve seen people get their conscious minds out of the way in several different ways. Some manage to argue themselves into this realization. They somehow find a way to convince it it has no control. Some are forced into it when the cognitive dissonance of constant failure gets so great, that the conscious mind breaks and is forced to give up. Yet others find ways to experience the quieting of the conscious mind, and eventually they learn to be able to quiet it almost at will.
To convince your conscious mind that it that it has no control, you may try arguing yourself into the belief you have no control, but that may not work. That’s kind of like trying to learn how to play the piano by reading a book. You will understand the theory, but until you have the experience, you can’t really know what you are doing.
Sometimes, people are forced into this realization by the crushing reality of their failure to fix themselves with the usual tools. You may have to be broken by this feeling of utter and complete failure in order to realize that your conscious mind can’t change you. If this happens, you may feel great relief for suddenly giving up the impossible burden. It may be such a strong sense of relief, that you will feel as if the proverbial weight has been lifted from your shoulders. If this happens, it will probably be quite recognizable because it will be such a clear feeling. I suppose this might happen without such a powerful sense of relief, but I doubt it.
Another way to get your conscious mind out of the way is to work at it. There are any number of practices that will help you learn how to quiet the conscious mind, and these skills are going to be useful throughout the work to change your habits of thought. Meditation, yoga, exercise, activities that put you in a state of “flow” and other practices can help. However, if you work at it, I’m not sure you will get that sense of relief from your conscious mind suddenly giving up the fight. I think there is importance to the conscious mind breaking, because of the relief that can bring.
For me, a life-long trumpet player, the only time I had any relief was at weekly dance workshops where I was part of the band. Both the music and the dance was improvisational. In trying to interpret the instructions of the workshop leader, melding with the other musicians and interacting musically with the dancers, my mind was so caught up in doing that it had no space for conscious thought. I was trying to keep track of melody, harmony, rhythm, the leader’s instructions, and the constellations of dancers all at the same time. I believe all that creative effort made it impossible for my mind to ruminate on my thoughts of failure and self-hatred for the couple of hours each week that the workshop lasted. Later, I would describe that experience as “forgetting” the depression. It was the only thing that gave me any relief, although a I time came when I felt so bad about myself that I even gave up my trumpet and the dance, in what I later came to see as a need to punish myself for all the harm I had caused.
Working with the non-conscious parts of your mind
When you get your conscious mind out of the way, you can actually start working on changing the habits of thought, or a specific habit of thought where it will actually help — in the non-conscious mind. The non-conscious mind is taught by practice without expectation or practice without judgment.
Judgment is the conscious mind creeping back in. It will try to do so all the time, so you have to learn to recognize when it appears. It appears whenever you think an idea that begins with “I should.” It appears whenever you think something is good or bad, a success or a failure.
Practice simply means what it says, doing something over and over. You must practice doing things without expectation or judgment. Eventually, if you practice enough, this will become a new habit — doing things without expectation or judgment.
There are many forms of this practice. Perhaps the most famous one is meditation. But any practice that quiets the conscious mind so you can do things simply to do them and not for a specific result will help. Play really helps, because play is just to play — unless you start judging yourself for winning or losing. It helps to play games which are purely fun; that can’t be won or lost. Other activities include exercise or volunteering. Exercise usually helps quiet the conscious mind because you get so focused on the physical, your conscious mind lets go for a while. Volunteering is work you do without compensation. The reward, if any, is in the doing of the work, or the response you get from the people you help, not getting paid in some concrete way.
The point of all this practice is to gain experience with the feeling of being without your conscious mind always observing and/or judging. The more you experience this, the easier it will become to get to that experience. It will never be easy, but it will become easier after much practice. You can expect to practice this for the rest of your life.
Finding triggers: identifying memories and events that cause automatic responses
Once you understand this feeling of thinking without thoughts in words, you start to apply it to your life. First, you revisit your past, remembering it with this new habit of thought. Ironically, this is done deliberately, at the direction of your conscious mind. This is to change your attitude about the events of your past, and to reintegrate the historical revisionism into a different sense of self. You must investigate yourself in great detail in order to identify all the different kinds of ways that your past contributed to the subconscious problem and solution that you call an addiction. The point of this self-relearning is to get your subconscious mind to go back to each place or event that contributed to building your habit of thought, so you can prepare to consciously recognize when a current situation triggers that past, now automatic response.
You will have to use your conscious mind to do this because it is the part of your mind that can analyze situations. You need to teach it to recognize when the subconscious mind is going on autopilot to trigger the addiction behavior. This is so that eventually, you’ll have an exhaustive list of triggers in your conscious memory that the conscious mind can recognize. When it recognizes a trigger, you will feel the urge to engage in your addictive behaviors. Usually, we just give into the feelings, which the subconscious mind feels and acts on.
When people start identifying triggers, they often don’t do it until years after the fact. A therapist can help you go through your past with a fine tooth comb, looking for the first memory of when you felt a certain way. You then look for memories of the first time you responded to these feelings by fixing the feeling, not whatever caused the feeling. I think it is easier to do this work in a group of peers who have the same problems you do. Often, when other people share about their triggers, it reminds us of our own similar experiences. This is much more efficient than working with a therapist who doesn’t believe in sharing their own experience, as is typical.
This is painstaking work that, like everything else in the process, takes years. However, with a lot of practice, you can learn to identify the triggers closer and closer in time to when they actually happen. The sooner you can recognize the trigger, the easier it is the use your conscious mind to divert that subconscious response into something else — something, preferably, that would solve the underlying problem, instead of solving the feeling.
Developing alternative ways to respond to triggers
Once you are able to recognize triggers in real time, you’ll need an arsenal of alternative responses that you can engage in at the direction of the conscious mind. There are two types of alternatives responses you will need to develop new skills to handle. The first set of skills you will need to develop are ways to intervene inside your head when you get triggered so that you do not resort to the automatic response of fixing the feeling caused by the problem, but not fixing the problem. The second is to identify the real problem causing the triggers, and learn how to solve that by fixing the problem instead of fixing the feelings only. These alternative responses will have to be figured out and learned. Again, this takes practice — lots of it.
Stopping automatic responses to triggers
When you find you are able to be aware of being triggered even as it happens, you can start doing something about that train of thought. I think the most effective way is not to try to fight them. Trying to oppose your thoughts directly often leads into the failure trap where you let your conscious mind try to fight and fail and feel shame. Instead of opposing your thoughts, you learn to acknowledge them, accept them, and then move on to another thought.
Practice gently letting go of your self-shaming thoughts. I like to imagine that I write the thought on a leaf, and put it in the river of life that I am wading through. The leaf usually circles back to me (as thoughts will), but if I let it float away enough times, it will eventually actually float on down the river — leave my consciousness. I then have room to think other thoughts, instead of constantly recycling the thought that bothers me. Hopefully you can think other thoughts that you like thinking, but at the beginning of this process, it is most likely that the next thought is also one you want to gently let go of, and the next and the next. Eventually, with enough practice, you will be able to free up space in your consciousness to consider thoughts that cause less harm to you.
This is a practice that takes years to become proficient at. Give yourself time to learn it. If you keep at it, you will eventually be able to identify your self-shaming thoughts as they happen and let them go before they do much damage. At first, you won’t identify them until hours or even days after they occur. You will have done a lot of self-shaming in the time between when you think the thought and you identify it as a trigger. But over time, the interval between the thought and identifying it as a trigger for self-shame will become shorter and shorter, and eventually, you’ll be able to work on letting it go before it has time to do much damage.
There are many ways to practice letting go of thoughts. Meditation is a practice that teaches this skill. For some people, religious beliefs help them let go of thoughts. “Let go and let God” is the slogan that twelve steppers use for this skill. Anything that stops you from thinking in words and allows you to access nonverbal ways of thinking will help. Creative activities are pretty good, because once you get into the flow of creating, very few people are able to hold onto ruminative or shaming thoughts. Exercise is yet another way.
Solving the actual problems
Actual problems are the events that cause you to feel shame. Failing tests. Losing money. Not meeting the expectations of parents. The list of things that make us feel shame is probably endless. We learned to cover over the feeling of shame with compulsive behavior (often called addictions). Now we have to learn how to solve the problems that caused the feeling instead of just covering over the feeling.
Probably the most important alternative you will learn is courage. The courage is to talk about the problem that is triggering your feelings. It takes courage to talk to parents about your perception of their expectations and to work with them to stop triggering you. It takes courage to admit to mistakes and ask for help in finding ways to fix the mistakes instead of drinking away your shame.
Equally important are communication skills. If you have the courage to raise a subject you are afraid of, but you can’t get productive problem solving to start, your courage will be wasted. The communication skills are to help you negotiate a resolution to the problem more effectively when solving the problem requires cooperation with someone else — as most problems do.
Other skills you will need are planning and surfing. Planning is something you can find out a lot about elsewhere. Surfing is about learning to improvise your way through life. The crucial part of it is to learn how to change directions instantly, when necessary; when blocked by an obstacle that is too strong to overcome.
This is where you learn a kind of mental martial art. Instead of fighting things directly, you learn to use their energy to help you go where you want to go. You surf the waves and go where they send you for the most part, but also you are controlling how you surf the wave, always moving towards your goal. You will learn to not be attached to your planned path towards the goal, and eventually how not to be attached to the goal, itself. Ultimately, you will learn to appreciate the path or the surfing as fun in themselves, whether or not you get to where you thought you wanted to go. When this happens, you will enjoy much more of your life. You will completely give up beating yourself up for failure. There will be no failure, because you won’t care if you reach the goal. You’ll only care about working the waves.
Installing more effective habits
These new skills are nacent habits or proto-habits. Once you have developed new ways to respond to triggers, you need to reinforce these new proto-habits, and make them a part of your habitual thinking. You do this by practicing with people who you have hurt in your life back when your triggers led to addiction behavior instead of problem solving behavior. You must go through an exhaustive practice of identifying those you’ve hurt, figuring out how you’ve hurt them (where the problem solving went wrong) and then meeting with these people to tell them the mistakes you made and to let them know you are now working out a new way to cope with these problems, instead of using your addiction to cover the feelings.
One way to practice your new habits is to visit people that you have harmed in the past, own up to the harm you caused, explain how and why you did it, and talk about how you will respond differently in the future. Meeting up with people from your past, often people you haven’t seen since you harmed them or they harmed you, gives you opportunities to practice courage and communication and creative problem solving.
Finding your passion
So you’ve given up conscious control. You’ve practiced not-judging and acceptance. You’ve identified your triggers. You’ve developed and practiced alternative responses to triggers that address the actual cause of the feeling instead of just making the feeling go away. You’ve developed new problem-solving habits and reinforced them.
Now comes the fun part: figuring out who you really are when you aren’t being buffeted around by all those shoulds and oughts and self-judgments, good or bad. What is your passion? What gives you the most joy when you do it? Again, some introspection is involved, but actually, by this time, it may be obvious to you what you really get a kick out of now that you are living with self-acceptance instead of trying to do what you think others want you to do. If it isn’t obvious, keep on practicing accepting the guidance of your wants and desires until you find things you enjoy doing that actually solve your problems instead of covering over the feelings.
When you get to figuring out your passion, you will no longer be living according to what you think others think you should do. Your thinking will no longer be clouded by that kind of thought interference. Now you can let yourself start to pay attention to your thoughts that are really yours. The ones you think naturally, before the shoulding interferes to blow those thoughts away.
Once again, it can take years to become clear on your own thinking that you really get passionate about. This is when you can start working on your true goals. The goals you thought you had — the ones you think you have now — are probably not your true goals. They are goals to please others. Once you find your true goals, it will become much easier to work on them, because they are things you are passionate about and that you want to do.u
Teaching others what you have learned
We’re now at the final step in the process of putting your addiction into remission. This is where you take your passion and align it with activities that help others. If you are doing what you love to do, and helping others at the same time, who is going to complain? Who will be unhappy?
You will, at this point, have created new, more effective habits of thinking that actually address your problems and let you do what you love to do while helping others. Of course, old habits are hard to break, and you will never really be able to let down your vigilance. The old habits are enshrined in your memory — built into your brain by your past years of thinking the same thoughts all the time, and strengthening the connections between the neurons involved in these old thoughts.
Even though you’ve worked at reducing the strength of the memories and behaviors that became automatic responses in your addiction, and you’ve found a way to respond differently to situations that triggered your addiction, the old thought patterns are still there. They will always be there. You will always have to be mindful of that, and so, it will be helpful to continue to use this method, over and over, for the rest of your life.
At this point, you will be ready to use your passion to help others. You will be able to teach others how to pursue their goals and teach them to the tools necessary to bring their thinking into alignment with their passion. This will be fulfilling in itself, and it will give you great joy because your passion is aligned with supporting others. This helps you strengthen your connection to others, so you no longer feel alone or isolated.
Getting support to follow this process
One of the easiest ways to do this work over and over for the rest of your life is to do it with others who are doing the same work. You can share ideas and experiences, and provide understanding when an old thought habit wins out over the new ones. Others can help you remind yourself that you are powerless over this — at least, your conscious mind is powerless. Your conscious mind is of great value when it comes to building new habits, but it has no power to give up old habits. That’s the work of your subconscious mind.
The importance of patience
As you can see, this is a long process. It takes a lot of practice to become proficient at these things. You have to give yourself time to learn. Impatience gets in your way, and is something you will need to learn to surf with. Acceptance of yourself as you are is a very important tool in this process. The more you learn self-acceptance, warts, depression, and all, the better you will be able to identify your passion and start to enjoy your life.
Stories instead of debate
You will come to stop judging yourself, and also stop judging others. You will come to realize that stories are what you want from others, not advice or argument. Right and wrong will become irrelevant issues. It will be moving from this point to the next point, accepting yourself and others however they make this movement, and working it into your path as best you can, without fighting yourself or anyone else.
Being an adept
Eventually, you will become adept at following your path and using that to help others, leading to greater connection and fulfillment and less worry about goals and success. Your life will be much easier because you no longer fight yourself to get anywhere. Instead, you go along with yourself. The work you need to do to achieve your goals stops being work and becomes play. Once you are playing your way through life, questions about motivating yourself will be irrelevant. You will always be motivated because everything you do will be aligned with what you want to do and who you want to be.
Hope is possible
The process I have described will work for depression or any other mental illness regardless of diagnosis. It will help with addictions of all kinds: addictions to substances or addictions to behaviors. It will work for any habit of thought that results in a behavior you want to change. These things are all changeable, but not by brute force. You start by coming to feel you can’t control yourself. Then, when you no longer believe you are in control, it becomes much easier to rebuild your way of thinking and make it more into what you want it to be. In the end, you find out what you love to do, and it is so much easier to keep on doing what you love to do than to be fighting yourself all the time.