As I described in my last post, having little or no self-esteem has led to a habit of comparing myself to other people. I always come up short. The other person is always better than I am. But those self-comparisons are only one part of the problem.
In the depths of depression, I’m generally obsessed with my own worthlessness, with or without the fuel of self-comparisons. Thoughts and beliefs about myself are full of No, Never, I can’t, I don’t deserve it, I’ll fail - and all the rest.
As I started to recover from depression, the habit of thinking so poorly of myself was a hard one to break. I’ve come to believe that damage to the sense of who you are starts so early in life that it’s one of the conditions that brings on depression - a cause, not just a symptom. Its roots are deep and hard to pull out.
What could I do to feel good about who I was? How could I get from here, consumed by shame and doubt, to there, alive with confidence and self-respect?
I realized it would be just as bad to swing from always feeling like the worst person to always feeling like the best. "Always" is the tip-off. I wanted to respect, trust, believe in myself but in a realistic way, recognizing that I’ll make mistakes, fail to reach goals, get into arguments with my wife - in short, live a normal life.
There are two methods that have served me well. One draws on the traditions of meditation and mindfulness, the other on cognitive therapy. Both start with a similar idea. You can’t change by trying to avoid the depressed thinking and feeling you’ve been engulfed in. Trying to head off the shame or fear or hurt that triggers self-judgment or the thoughts of worthlessness that keep coming up just doesn’t work. The more you try to avoid them, the closer you get to them.
I realized that avoidance wasn’t much of a method. I needed to start with smaller steps that would help me look directly at what I was going through and defuse its power. Meditation helped me gain a degree of detachment from the storm of ideas and fears that obsessed me.
The most effective form of meditation turned out to be one of the most basic: a focus on the inhaling and exhaling of breath. Counting breaths at each exhalation took a lot of concentration and practice. The distracting ideas and feelings seem to swarm thickly. By focusing on the counting and the flow of breath out of my lungs, I could gradually get clarity about the central emotion that drove the self-judging words.
By letting the wordy thoughts float away, I was able to let myself "see" and feel the shame and fear that kept coming up. It’s a strange kind of awareness that took me a long time to reach. I could feel those emotions without being overwhelmed by them, without believing in them.
It’s like being an observer, the way I am when watching characters in a film. I will have all sorts of emotions in response to the action, perhaps feeling quite intensely. But after the film is over, those feelings will soon go. They may leave a lasting impression, but I haven’t been overwhelmed and trapped in them. They haven’t turned into a dominating mood.
That’s similar to what happens through meditation practice. I observe the feeling but don’t dismiss it as an illusion. It’s part of me, and I let myself experience it. Feelings don’t last all that long if I let myself live with them. If I try to avoid or keep them in check, they seem to become more powerful.
If I can be this feeling observer - even for a little while - I know there’s hope that the space apart from depression can grow until it’s bigger than that dark side.
Once I’d gotten that far, then the methods of cognitive therapy became much more effective. Becoming mindful of the feelings of depression made it easier to look more critically at the verbal thoughts that expressed all the negativity.
Cognitive therapy is not about substituting positive statements for the negative ones crowding your mind. It’s more about looking at the specifics of the actions and events that trigger the self-condemnation. In that way, it’s possible to look at experience more realistically rather than in the absolute terms of depressed thinking.
For example, if I’m depressed and see that I’m going to miss a deadline at work, I am gripped with shame and panic. I’m instantly convinced I’ve ruined everything. “How could I have done that? I’m a complete screw-up, the whole project is a failure. I’ll lose this client and never get another one again. I can’t do anything right .”- And a lot more of the same.
With a cognitive therapy approach, the first thing I try to do is hold off on the self-judgment and focus on what actually happened. This is by no means an easy thing to do, especially in the early days of trying to use this method. So I forced myself to write down all the specifics, leaving out every word of judgment. This is the deadline. The report includes everything on the checklist except for one item. X has that information. I haven’t been able to reach X for this reason.
Then I can look at what I might be able to do about this specific problem. I can try another way to get the information. I can call the client, explain what’s happening, see if it’s OK to send the report without that missing piece - and so on. The reality of the facts is more complicated than the simple-minded judgment of depressed thinking.
I go through a similar process when I compare myself to someone else and can feel nothing but shame at how worthless I am. If I can list out what I really know about the person, it usually becomes obvious that I don’t know much at all. Whoever he is doesn’t matter. I just wanted a trigger to remind myself of how bad I was.
Exercises like these have helped build new skills that I’ve been able to apply so often they’ve become a new mental habit. They’ve enabled me to experience myself realistically and get rid of the absolute judgments of depression about who I am.
Have these methods of mindfulness and cognitive therapy been helpful to you? How do you try to rebuild self-esteem?
John wrote for HealthCentral as a patient expert for Depression.