bhapter7 88-148 January 24, 1990
The hand of the past pushes a depressive toward depression.But it is usually the jab of a present event that triggers the pain - say, loss of your job, or being jilted by your lover. It is that contemporary happening that darkly dominates your thoughts when you are depressed. To get undepressed you must reconstitute your current mode of thinking so you can get rid of the black thoughts. Again - yes, the past causes you to be what you are now. But the main avenue out of your present predicament is by reconstructing the present rather than dealing with the past.
A crucial issue is whether you interpret contemporary events accurately, or instead distort them in such manner as to make them seem more negative than they "really" are. We are here talking only of negatively-perceived current events. Positively- perceived current events which are persistently misperceived as even more positive than they "really" are constitute part of the manic phase of a manic depressive cycle. (By the way, most depressives do not have extended manic periods after their depression becomes chronic.)
Usually there is little question about whether a current event has a negative or positive valence for a person. Almost all of us, almost all the time, agree about whether such events as loss of a job, death of a loved one, damage to health, financial distress, success in sports or education, are positive or negative. Sometimes, of course, a person's reaction is unexpected: You may conclude that loss of wealth or a job or a competition really is beneficial, by relieving you of a hidden burden or opening up new perspectives or changing your view of life. But such unusual cases are not our topic.
In many cases the knowledge of your fate reaches you along with knowledge of how others have done. And in fact, such outcomes as an examination score or a competitive sports outcome only have meaning relative to the performance of other people.
The choice of whom to compare yourself with is one of the important ways that you structure your view of your life. Some choices lead to frequent negative comparisons and consequent unhappiness. A psychologically "normal" seven-year-old boy will compare his performance in shooting a basketball to other seven- year-olds, or to his own performance yesterday. If he is psychologically normal but physically not talented, he will compare his performance today only to his performance of yesterday, or to other boys who are not good at basketball. But some seven-year-olds like Billy H., insist on comparing their performances to their eleven-year-old brothers; inevitably they compare poorly. Such children will bring unnecessary sadness and despondency upon themselves unless they change their standards of comparison.
Whose performance should you compare yourself to? People of the same age? Those with similar training? People with similar physical attributes? With similar skills? There is no general answer, obviously. We can say, however, that the "normal" person chooses a standard for comparison in such manner that the standard does not cause very much sadness. A sensible fifty- year-old jogger learns to compare his time for the mile to others' times in his age and skill class, not to the world record or even to the best fifty-year-old runner in the club. (If the standard is so low that it provides no challenge, the normal person will move to a higher standard that offers some uncertainty and excitement and pleasure in achievement.) The normal person lowers too-high standards in the same manner that a baby learns to hold on when starting to walk; the pain of doing otherwise is an effective teacher. But some people do not adjust their standards in a sensible flexible fashion, and hence they open themselves to depression. To understand why this is so for a particular person, we must refer to his psychological history.
I am an example of a person with an unwise set of standards. I treat myself the way an engineer treats a factory: the goal is perfect deployment and allocation of resources, and the criterion is whether the maximum output is achieved. For example, when I wake at 8:30 a.m. on weekdays, I feel like a time thief until I have hit my desk and started work. On a weekend day I may wake at nine--and then I think "Am I cheating the children by sleeping too much?" Maximum productivity may be a reasonable goal for a factory. But one's life cannot be satisfactorily reduced to a striving to meet a single criterion. A person is more complex than is a factory, and a person is also an end in himself or herself, whereas a factory is only a means to an end.How We Distort Reality and Cause Negative Self-Comparisons
One may manipulate current reality in still other ways that produce frequent negative self-comparisons. For example, one may convince oneself that other people perform better than they really do, or are better off than they are. A young girl may believe that other girls really are prettier than she is, or that others have many more dates than she has, when this is not true. An employee may be wrongly convinced that other employees are being paid more than she is. A child may refuse to believe that other children share her difficulty in making friends. A person may think that all others have argument-free marriages, and never fail to cope with the demands of their children.
Another way that you may generate more negative self- comparisons than a "normal" person is by inaccurately interpreting a single event as something other than what it really is. If you receive a reprimand from the boss, you may immediately leap to the conclusion that you will be fired, and if you are warned that you may be fired you may conclude that the boss surely intends to fire you, even when these conclusions are not warranted. A person who suffers a temporary physical disability may conclude that he is disabled for life when that is medically most improbable.
Still another way a person can produce many negative self- comparisons is by putting disproportionate weight on single negative instances. A non-depressive girl will react to the information that she has failed an exam or received a reprimand from the boss by combining this instance with her entire past record. And if this is the first failed test in her school history, or the first reprimand on this job, the non-depressive girl will see this instance as being somewhat exceptional and therefore not deserving of great attention. But some people (all of us do it sometimes) will, on the basis of this one instance, make a faulty generalization about their present conditions with respect to this dimension of the person's life. Or, one may make an inaccurate generalization about one's whole life on this dimension based on this one instance. The depressive carpenter who loses a job once may generalize, "I can't hold onto a job," and the depressive basketball player may generalize, "I'm a lousy athlete" after one poor game on the basketball court.
A person's judgment may also be inaccurate because he or she puts too little emphasis on a present event. A woman who has learned athletics late in life may continue to think of herself as unathletic, though her present achievements make the past irrelevant in this respect.
The Causes of Distortion
Why should some people's interpretations of their present conditions and life experiences be inaccurate or distorted in such manner that depression is brought on? There are several possible factors acting singly or together, including early training in thinking, extent of education, fears caused by present and past experience, and physical condition. These will now be discussed in turn.
Albert Ellis and Aaron Beck explain most depression as due to poor thinking and distorted interpretations of present reality. And they analyze the present operation of the mechanism without delving into the past causes of such bad thinking. They believe that just as a student can be taught to do valid social-science research in a university, and just as a child in school can improve his or her information-gathering and reasoning with guided practice, so can depressives be taught better information- gathering and processing, by education in the course of psychotherapy.
Indeed, it is reasonable that if you judge your situation in the light of a biased sample of experience, an incorrect "statistical" analysis of your life's data, and an unsound definition of the situation, you are likely to misinterpret your reality. For example, anthropologist Molly H. was often depressed for long periods of time whenever one of her professional papers was rejected by a professional journal. She ignored all her acceptances and successes, and focused only on the present rejection. Ellis' and Beck's sort of "cognitive therapy" trained Molly to consider a wider sample of her life experience after such a rejection, and hence reduced her sadness and shortened her depressed periods.
Burns prepared an excellent list of the main ways that depressed patients distort their thinking. They are included as an afternote to the chapter.
Poor childhood training in thinking, and subsequent lack of schooling, may be responsible for an adult's misinterpretation of reality in some cases. But the lack of strong relationship between, on the one hand, amount of schooling, and on the other hand, propensity to depression, casts doubt on poor mental training as a complete explanation in many cases. More plausible is that a person's fears cooperate with poor training. Few of us reason well in the midst of panic; when fire breaks out few of us think as clearly about the situation as if we were sitting quietly, and coolly considering such a situation. Similarly, if a person greatly fears failure in school or profession or in an interpersonal relationship because the person was severely punished for such failure when young, then the fear may panic the person into poor thinking about such an occurrence when it happens. The genesis and cure of such poor thinking will be discussed in following sections.
Sometimes a current major catastrophe such as loss of a loved one, a physical disability, or a tragedy in the community, triggers depression. Normal people recover from grief, and find satisfying lives again, and in a "reasonable" length of time. But a depressive may not recover. Why the difference? It is reasonable to think that experiences in the past predispose some people to remain in depression after a tragedy whereas others recover, as discussed in Chapter 5.
Grief deserves attention because, as Freud put it, the person's sad feelings in ordinary depression are like those in grief. And indeed, his observation is consistent with the view of this book that sadness results from a negative comparison of actual and benchmark states. The benchmark event in the grief after the loss of a loved one is the wish that the loved one is still alive. Grief in the normal person also resembles depression in that the sadness is more prolonged than the normal person suffers after less catastrophic events. But the depressive may not recover from his grief at all, in which case we properly call it depression. Freud's analogy of depression with grief is otherwise not helpful, however, because it is the difference between depression and grief--as between depression and all other sadness from which people recover quickly--that is important, rather than any special similarity between depression and grief.
Physical condition can affect one's interpretation of present circumstances. We have all had the experience of suffering a setback when tired, but after a rest later realizing that we had overestimated the damage and the seriousness. And this is logical, because a tired person is less able to deal with a problem, and hence the setback is more serious and more negative relative to a desired or accustomed state of affairs than when one is fresh. Too much mental stimulation may have a similar effect by overloading and tiring the nervous system. (The role of too little stimulation in depression might be interesting, too.)
A crucial issue in depression is whether you interpret contemporary events accurately, or instead distort them in such manner as to make them seem more negative than they "really" are. We are here talking only of negatively-perceived current events.
The choice of whom to compare yourself with is one of the important ways that you structure your view of your life. Some choices lead to frequent negative comparisons and consequent unhappiness. This chapter discusses various mechanisms that can operate to cause one to view one's situation in a fashion that produces negative self-comparions.