Depression rabbit hole

Why You Shouldn’t Tell Someone With Depression to Adopt a ‘Positive Outlook’ 

When you tell someone with depression that they should try having a “positive outlook”, you might think that you are being helpful or that you are providing genuine advice, perhaps on the basis of your own experiences. But what needs to be understood is that, for most depression sufferers, it is simply not the case that it hasn’t occurred to them not to be in a state of intense and asphyxiating sadness that engulfs them entirely. Rather, it’s that having a “positive outlook” is not possible. Telling someone that they should be happy when they are not presupposes the idea that we somehow have complete agency over our own emotions- after all, we are perfectly able to change the way we interact with and perceive the world if we just made more an effort to think happy thoughts. This is probably not true of people in general, and it is certainly not true of depression sufferers. In that respect, telling someone to change their outlook is simply unhelpful.

But there’s a bigger problem here. It is also important to bear in mind that the lack of general awareness of and information about depression applies to depression sufferers as well. Many have never received a diagnosis or believe that their depression is something else, something temporary rather than clinical. Even those who recognise their depression have still internalized the stigma surrounding mental illness and absorbed the narrative that it is something other than what it is- an illness which ought to be given treatment. That means that many people who suffer from depression will continue to absorb the negative messages fed to them by others, rather than simply ignoring unhelpful advice. So when you tell someone that they can alleviate their suffering through a self-initiated act such as changing the way they feel, the fact that they have not done so becomes a personal failure. In effect, this is equivalent to telling them that it is their fault that they are suffering in that way, and their continued suffering is a result of them failing to change things for themselves. Their condition is self-inflicted because they are incapable of cheering up, unlike all the happy, capable people around them.

The fact is I have a talent for thinking negative. You could pretty much mention anything and I could put some doom and gloom on it without much thought at all. It is the natural thought process when you are depressed and one we have to confront all the time.

I have to tell myself that it is fine to feel certain emotions. Like I am very stressed about my long-term disability application and I am telling myself any normal person would feel stressed about this. But I have to stop myself from dwelling on it. From making it so much worse than it is. From creating horrific scenarios.  From making myself more stressed and then feeling hopeless and worthless. Because that is the natural track for my thoughts to just spiral down on.

So instead of thinking positively which, to be honest, seem fundamentally empty to me… I think more think rationally. Think realistically. I try to tame these thoughts and contain them before they get out of control. Or that is the general idea.

Fact is when I make myself think a positive thought… I immediately think of a contrary thought. It just pops into my head. And it feels more real to me. More profoundly real than that flimsy positive thought I put in there just to make myself feel better. Like I am trying to fool myself. And I can’t fool myself. I live with this chronic pain reality and it is a difficult one. There are very real facts I have to deal with.

I think of it like slippery slope arguments. You have a negative thought. The premise is sound or skewed. But you don’t even pay attention to it. Instead, you load on premise after premise that are more and more skewed until you have the worst possible outlook or outcome. And then think that is the reality. I loathe the irrationality of it but there you go. It is the automatic program my brain runs on. I will argue against a positive premise because it doesn’t feel accurate to me.

So the idea, which is damn difficult in practice, is to stop yourself at that negative thought and think about it. What are you really saying there? Does it even make sense? Is it slanted or skewed? And then try and replace it with a more realistic thought. And apparently, if we do this over and over and over again we will break our programming. Or affect our mood anyway.

Telling me to think positive is far too simplistic for what I actually need to do. And I will just counter it with something negative. My brain won’t allow it to get in. So then I have to counter that with something realistic anyway. It is like I have a broken antenna. It is picking up the negative signals really clearly but only partially picking up the positive ones. At my worst when I am in a lot of pain and depression is this deep dark hole in my brain… a positive thought is like an insult. I bitterly laugh at it. Its insignificance makes me feel worse.

See also:

Not miserable? You must not have pain
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