Psychology of Depression: How to Ruin your Life?

I am in that temper that if I were underwater I would scarcely kick to come to the top. – John Keats

Rare is the individual tho goes through life without at some point being afflicted by the anguish to which Keats refers. Sometimes this is triggered by an adverse or tragic event but often merely reflecting on the discrepancy between how our life is in how it could have been can cast a shadow over our very existence. For most people, these feelings prove temporary the dark clouds that felt so consuming at the moment lift almost spontaneously and life resumes on the course but for others, these feelings do not abate with time but only intensify as depression sets in one come to view themselves as worthless as an object of pity, hate, and anger.

And life becomes a burden of the greatest magnitude, the question as to what leads people into the depths of depression has been debated for millennia. Why can some people recover quickly from adversity while similar circumstances push others into a prolonged misery over the past several decades there has been an increasing focus on the biological causes of depression but while our genes and biology may predispose us to depression there is no denying that how we choose to love and the patterns of thought and behavior we cultivate are also of great importance.

Not all ways of life are equal if we wish to avoid the acute suffering associated with depression and in this article we are going to examine one way of life that has repeatedly been identified by philosophers and psychologists as placing one at great risk for depression. Specifically, we are going to discuss the danger of relying too heavily on a limited number of sources for our feelings of self-worth as humans we need to feel that our life is of value and that we are here on earth not merely to take up space consume resources and ultimately to die.

This need to think well of ourselves and to have others do the same is one of the most fundamental shapers of our life for without feeling that we are an individual of worth we suffer and so much of what we do is driven to satisfy this need.

The job we take, who we associate with, the status symbols we adopt, and the social issues we champion are all influenced by whether they help or hinder us in this regard. The more sources we have from which to obtain our feelings of self-worth the better but some people often by virtue of their upbringing greatly restrict themselves in this regard and in so doing they predispose themselves to depression. Depression is often the result of a combination of 2 factors,

The loss of a valued object in conjunction with psychological rigidity is the inability to produce variability in our patterns of thought and behavior and to creatively adapt to changes in our environment.

Our risk for both these factors increases the more we rely on one or few objects for our feelings of self-worth in some cases people rely too heavily on another person. Such are the individuals in constant need of the praise of a parent or a spouse to feel good about themselves rather than believing they can imbue their life with meaning and become an individual of worth through self-directed action.

Such people always seek assurance, direction, and validation from what can be called their dominant other but while those who live like this may have good reasons for having slipped into such an existence, unfortunately, this way of life never cures what ails them for the more we rely on another person to validate our worth the more psychologically rigid we will become, we will never cultivate the crucial ability to attain self-esteem through our efforts and discovering how to feel like an individual of worth without the constant praise of another is a necessary life skill.

For if one’s dominant other dies or abandoned them the lack of this ability will quickly take its toll in depression sometimes of a severe nature may result or as Ernest Becker aptly put it such a person has lost the only audience for whom the plot in which he was performing was valid he is left in the hopeless despair of the actor who knows only one set of lines and loses the one audiences who wants to hear it. In other cases rather than relying on a dominant other, some people adopt grandiose life goals in the hope that one day they will achieve them.

Such goals become the primary source of their self-worth, this tactic is often resorted to by individuals who lack satisfying interpersonal relationships. Perhaps such a person grew up with emotionally distant parents was ostracized by his or her peers or experienced too much rejection later in life but whatever the case. If one repeatedly fails to find the acceptance of others eventually he is likely to believe that there is something fundamentally wrong with him.

He must become someone else if he is ever to become worthy of the love and respect of others and what better way to do this than by accomplishing a magnificent feat such as becoming a famous musician, the best selling author, a successful entrepreneur, or something else of a grandiose nature believing that one day he will accomplish his goal and therefore find the acceptance.

He so desires can imbue his life with meaning and help him feel that he is an individual of worth or at least on the in that direction but like the life lived in the service of a dominant other. this way of life also places one at great risk for depression. The problem it must be stressed is not the focusing on a single goal as often we need to limit our goals so as not to dissipate our resources rather the risk of depression arises when we stake too much on the achievement of any single goal, especially if the goal is of a grandiose nature for while some achieve their grandiose goals. Most people do not and as the years pass and the goal remains nothing but a fantasy, the realization eventually sets in that it is unlikely that success will ever be achieved, and therefore like the individual who is dominant other dies so do those who stake their existence on the achievement of a dominant goal also experience death.

But in this case, it is the symbolic death of the individual they hoped to be “…when the ambitious man whose slogan is “Either Caesar or nothing” does get to be Caesar, he despairs over it. But this also means something else: precisely because he did not get to be Caesar, he now cannot bear to be himself.”

But no matter how we go about limiting the range of sources from which we attain our feelings of self-worth, the problem is the same when we lose the object on which we staked our well-being.

We will be at a loss of where to turn whereas Silvano Arrietty explains in his book Psychotherapy of severe and mild Depression, “The depressed person sees a big discrepancy between what he aspired to in terms of human relations and life goals and what he can achieve in this meager reality. He cannot solve the conflict. What is available is not acceptable to him, and what would be acceptable he cannot grasp. He experiences the tragic situation of having no choice.”

While Psychological rigidity or the foreclosure to alternative ways of living is especially prevalent in those who live for a dominant other or a dominant goal we all run the risk of becoming too rigid in our ways. Most people glue themselves a little too tightly to a certain persona or social mask and rely too heavily on things such as looks or other status symbols for their feelings of worth to avoid the pitfalls of psychological rigidity.

We should take a page out of the stoic playbook and periodically meditate on the fact that we can and indeed probably will lose some of the things we value most.

The object of your love is mortal; it is not one of your possessions; it has been given to you for the present, not inseparably nor forever. – Epictetus, The Discourses

But with that said when we do lose something of great value we will likely experience at least a temporary descent into the darkness of depression these periods, however, should not be viewed as wholly without worth. For often it is during these times that we see the world and our place in it a little more clearly or as Herman Melville put it

The intensest light of reason and revelation combined, cannot shed such blazoning upon the deeper truths in man, as will sometimes proceed from his profound gloom. Utter darkness is then his light, and cat-like he distinctly sees all objects through a medium which is mere blindness to a common vision.” – Pierre, On The Ambiguities

To avoid descending too deep into the chasm of mental pain that accompanies depression it should be recognized that there are always alternatives or is from which we can attain our feelings of self—worth but to discover such sources an active approach to life must be taken we must try new things and experiment with new patterns of thought and behavior for while a period of mourning can be beneficial following a loss of deep depression will set in if we stagnate in such a state for too long.

The work of changing -indeed the work of living -cannot be done on one’s behalf by another person… We can learn important lessons from those who have gone before us…But, ultimately, each of us faces a unique configuration of challenges and a very personal responsibility for the choices we make in moving onward with our lives. We have only partial information, limited understanding, and imperfect control. Yet the physical world and our social communities hold us responsible. Such is our shared existential predicament. – Michael Mahoney, Constructive Psychotherapy