If you don’t get what you want, you get sad.
If you consistently don’t get what you want, you get depressed.
Depression is a sort of hibernation of the soul. When physical winter makes the food scarce, certain animals hibernate their bodies. When psycho-social-spiritual winter makes enjoyment scarce, we humans hibernate our minds.
Depression is your subconscious going “Oops! It seems there are slim pickings out there. Better curl up somewhere I know is safe and wait it out.”
And so, when you’re depressed, you revert back to whatever your subconscious has registered is safe: typically, whatever you can do alone which worked to pick you up again when you were a child or adolescent (books, film, TV, video games, masturbation, etc.).
When you’re depressed, you lack energy, motivation, and fail to find pleasure in things you normally would.
Getting out of it is a tricky process. Since primates are pack creatures, typically, it falls on one of the other monkeys to do it. For obvious reasons:
Energy, motivation, and pleasure are unevenly distributed among the individual members of the social unit. When one of them gets down, the one with the most energy and motivation goes over to the one which is struggling and shares some with them. That’s how it’s supposed to work.
But in our current society, we are deeply alienated from each other. And so, we are left in the unnatural position of having to pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps.
The first thing to notice here is just how unnatural and difficult this is. If what you lack is energy and motivation, where exactly are you going to get the energy and motivation to go get energy and motivation? If you don’t take pleasure in the things you used to love, how are you going to take pleasure in the difficult and unfamiliar things you have to start doing to dig yourself out?
The answer is this:
You start extremely small and build up.
So, let’s take exercise. If you’re physically powerful, you can trick your mind into thinking you can start to get out of your hole and begin doing what you want.
OK. So you set out a time of day, and do one push up. Or one jumping jack. Or one squat. Or one whatever.
And then the next day, you do two.
And then the next day, you also do two. Because let’s not push it, yeah?
If you ever find yourself slipping back into despondency, it’s cus you tried too hard.
The easier you make it on yourself today, the easier it will be tomorrow. You’re proving to your subconscious that this is actually do-able, actually easy.
Same with setting a daily schedule. Start with one thing at a time: exercise at 10. When that’s established, then add another: check your email at 11.
Same with to-do lists. Get a piece of paper and write a couple things down. When the piece of paper gets too messy, start a new one. Eventually, you’ll be motivated enough to find out a fancier way to do it, if that’s your thing.
Same with everything. Seeing people. Meditation. Reading a book. Cleaning your room. This. That. Whatever. Start with one person, one minute, one page, one crumpled up tissue… and build up.
That is the one and only way out of depression and into a full, active life which you can do by yourself.
The problem is that the depression will try to pull you back.
There are circuits in your brain which correspond to depressive rumination. If you stop being depressed, they will wither away and be repurposed for something else. They don’t want that. Because they, like most everything else, want to continue existing. So they’ll try to pull you back.
And the other thing is that, the more time in each day which you spend in depressive thinking, the more that will drain you, and the less energy you’ll have to pull yourself out.
And so, the real trick of it becomes noticing when you’re doing the thing again, and then, ideally, directing your mind to doing something else.
It’s a painstaking process. But it does get better with time. When you start, you’ll be 5 hours in a depressive thought loop until you notice it. And then 4, and then 3, and then 2, and then, eventually, it’ll be a few minutes or seconds.
Plus, once you notice it, you won’t always be able to switch tack. At first, 9 out of 10 times, you’ll slip back into it. Then 8, then 7, etc.
And what I’ve found is that these depressive thought cycles keep fishing for bigger and bigger things. Once you’ve finally gotten over one thing, they’ll move on to a scarier and more fundamental problem, so that you don’t have the time and energy to leave your hole and go get out there and be disappointed all over again.
So what I’m going to do is take you through an ascending list of things your mind will try to get you to worry about. Once you get to the end… congratulations. You’re probably still depressed, but you’re too high-functioning to even notice.
So now, onto the important bit. What to look out for.
Well, the classic set of basic things to look for is Aaron Beck‘s list.
So you if you notice yourself doing any of those, stop. Just stop. The overwhelmingly likelihood is that whatever you were just thinking was bullshit.
Simple, right? 😉
Now, onto the Intermediate stage.
Your mind will often present you with things you did in the past which you wish you hadn’t done. And then you feel bad.
Typically, this just means you’re confused. That thing you just saw isn’t really happening. It’s just a memory. You’re reacting as if it happened a second ago. It didn’t. Relax.
Secondly, you misunderstand.
Think of it this way.
What if a child were to come over to you, telling you something bad had just happened — for example, they’d just fallen over and scraped their knee.
What do they want from you?
Do they want you to go back in time and undo the fact that they fell?
What they want is reassurance.
They want you to tell them that’s it’s all OK. The problem isn’t that bad in the present. Things will get better in the future. Everything will heal.
And they want you to hug them, caress them, make gentle noises.
It’s the same thing with your mind. That is exactly what it’s doing when it brings up a negative memory. It’s coming to you — the “smart” one, the “adult” in the room — looking for reassurance.
You’re supposed to reassure it, not berate it.
If you successfully and consistently reassure it, it will stop bothering you with that particular memory.
I thought that should be obvious.
II. Pointlessness, Meaninglessness
Typically, when you’re depressed, you’ll start thinking that various things or activities — or, indeed, absolutely everything — is pointless or meaningless.
That means one of three things.
- You don’t understand.
- You’re confused.
- You’ve forgotten, and you have to remind yourself.
Things and activities don’t have a point. They don’t have a meaning. They don’t possess value.
What’s really happening is that you have a desire, and that desire imbues the thing or activity with value.
I’ll demonstrate this via an example.
Let’s say you’re feeling a little hungry and you come across a pie containing ingredients you tend to like.
You will think “Mmm! Yummy! I want to eat the pie! There’s a point to that! It has meaning! What a valuable pie!”
Alright. Now let’s say you’ve just had a massive meal and are full to bursting. And you come across exactly the same pie.
Not only will you not think it’s yummy and valuable and meaningful to eat it… you will be actively disgusted by it.
So, you see? Things don’t have value. We project value onto them, depending on the state of our desires.
And so, all you’re really saying when you go on and on about how everything is pointless is: “I consistently lack motivation.”
In other words, all you’re really saying is: “I’m depressed.”
So every time you find yourself thinking that, just go “Ah. Depressive ideation again.”
And then try not to get too frustrated at yourself.
III. Either/Or. The Double Bind.
It’s impossible! Either I do this, and mess things up one way… or I do that… and mess things up another!
There’s just no way out of it!
Some specific examples:
- Either I go see other people, and end up frustrated with them… or I stay alone, and end up lonely!
- Either I work hard, and burn out… or I relax, and nothing gets done!
- Either I eat a lot, and get fat… or I don’t eat much, and shrivel up!
What’s going on here?
The mind is trying to do something. And to do that, it needs to set up some coordinates. It needs some basic rubric to understand things through. It needs to set up some foundations to walk on.
And, because it doesn’t perfectly understand the issue, it can’t just pinpoint the exact right way to go. So instead, it sets up two points, as far apart as it possibly can. And then it goes “ok, the answer must be somewhere between them”.
It very rarely sets up a third point, because that would take more energy, and rarely will the third pole give you enough mileage to be worth it.
But then it gets confused.
These two points I’ve just set up to help navigate the world are opposites! If I do one, I don’t do the other! And if I do either, then it doesn’t work!
Ah! What’s going on?!!
What’s going on is that your mind has forgotten that it has just set up these two extremes to help it find the sweet spot which presumably lies somewhere between them.
So if you find yourself stuck in this kind of thinking, stop, and realize they’re just two suggestions which you’ll flit freely between. They’re just two arbitrary designators your mind is using to interpret your behaviour. Don’t take them that seriously.
And if it still isn’t working, then pick different coordinates, or just wing it thoughtlessly.
IV. Who the hell am I doing this for, anyway?
This is the real kicker. I still struggle with this one.
The vast, vast majority of humans are actually not selfish. Especially the ones who have a tendency to get depressed. Given the option, they will not do things simply for their own benefit. Which makes getting out of depression by yourself extremely difficult: the argument that “you’ll be better off” will rarely, if ever, work.
And soon enough, you’ll get to this place:
Alright, so I have to feed myself, by myself.
I have to exercise my body, by myself.
I have to clean my room, by myself.
I have to do all the admin that has been piling up for the days and weeks I’ve been too depressed to look at it… by myself.
I have to find a therapist, by myself, and pay them myself, so they can tell me stuff I already know and then tell me to work on it, by myself.
I have to — myself — go out of my way to go find people who will tolerate me being around them.
And so, before too long, you start asking:
…am I really so very horrible that no one — not one person in the world — will come over and help me do just one of these things?
And then you get even more depressed.
First off, you have to understand the absolute necessity of this state of affairs. What you’re going through necessarily has to happen to someone.
If we were to live in a just society, then the burden of everyone’s well-being would be evenly distributed. It would be as much my job to make you feel alright as it is your job.
However, we do not live in a just society. Therefore, there simply have to be some people who are largely self-starting and self-sustaining. (By which I mean, existentially and emotionally self-sustaining — not that they grow all their own food and make all their own clothes, etc.) If there weren’t, then the whole show would have collapsed by now. It would necessarily have collapsed.
And you have been called upon to be one of those people.
Secondly, you must permit yourself your fantasies of self-importance.
When shipwrecked sailors started to starve, they would fantasize about long tables creaking under the weight of huge amounts of food.
When you’re really lonely, then you fantacize about being on chat shows or giving TED talks or whatever.
And you’re allowed to think that. That’s what you get in exchange for being saddled with depression, and then, furthermore, being saddled with the task of getting yourself out of it.
You get to think yourself a celebrity — someone who is celebrated by others. Or a hero. Or a sage. Or, if you really want to make it hard on yourself — a saint.
If you refuse to accept these fantasies, and make yourself feel guilty for having them, then you can wave goodbye to getting out of this yourself. It’s just not gonna happen.
But because you’re depressed, and one of the basic signs is Minimization (downplaying the importance of a positive thought, and just hating yourself instead), you are going to struggle greatly with this point.
So here’s my tip.
Back in the day, this is how it went.
- A human would get depressed.
- Nothing anyone else said or did seemed to work.
- So they would go off by themselves.
- Eventually, they would find a way of making themselves feel better.
- But because of point 2, they usually couldn’t express what they had found to other people. So they would go back off alone.
- Eventually, the village or town would spawn another kid who had it as bad as the one we introduced in point 1. And the kid would come find them. And they would both find solace in each other.
Most of the great mystics of the past only ever had one disciple. (Sometimes, that only happened many years after their death.)
What that shows is that it only takes one kid.
So long as you find your way out of it, and just keep hanging on… it only takes one kid to come and find you and learn from your example to get you to die thinking it was all worthwhile.
So just picture one kid — one kid — finding your life meaningful… and that should be enough to keep you going.
And if you can permit yourself to imagine more than one… then good! Picture a whole stadium, man. Who the fuck is around to give you shit about it, anyway?!
Oh, there is someone? Great! Get down on all fours, say you’re sorry for feeling good about yourself for a split second, and then beg them to help you clean your room.
So once you get past the basic and the intermediary steps, the only thing that remains are actual, substantive existential issues. And the answers to these cannot come from psychology or self-help — they have to come from philosophy, spirituality, religion… whichever name you prefer for the inquiry into “deep questions”.
What are those substantive existential issues? Typically:
- Life after death.
- (Isn’t it funny how we worry about both?)
I’ll write something on these real soon and come back to link them. But for now I’ll just say that these are really a subset of worries about Time. And I’ve already written something about that, so do go ahead and check it out.
The other classic one is suffering. Your own suffering, or, if you’re basically fine, then the suffering of the world.
Handily, I’ve already written something about that too.
There’s also the old chestnut that none of this is real, and that is somehow bad. On which I’ve written this.
As best I can tell, once you’ve gotten over death, immortality, time, suffering, and worry that none of this is real… the only thing that’s left is world-weariness. In India, it’s the problem of samsara, but I tend to call it the “Book of Ecclesiastes” mood.
Vanity of vanities, everything is vanity. There’s nothing new under the sun. It’s all the same old shit, just in bigger and bigger piles. Nothing ever changes — it just gets louder.
This, I attribute to the fact that the mind is fundamentally trying to find patterns, in the attempt to understand itself and its environment. And this world-weariness is the inevitable result of that disposition.
Oh, and then there’s the idea that actually everything is for the best and this is all part of God’s plan and God knows what it’s doing. Which is the most depressing thought yet. Thankfully I figured that one out too.
But whatever the exact nature of your deep, dark thought, my basic stance on it is this.
Firstly, your friends suck, and should be doing more to lift you out of these mind tunnels.
But more importantly: once you find yourself worrying about these issues, then there’s just not much more to do. Congratulations. You’re now wise. You have found yourself in the headspace of the greatest minds in history. You’ve succeeded in eliminating all trivial worries, and now you’re worrying with the Big Bois.
So, pat yourself on the back.
You have arrived in the place the gods themselves tremble to tread.
So there we go. Them’s my two cents.
- You try to build yourself back up to full functionality, slowly but surely.
- You pull yourself out of each bout of depressive rumination, painstakingly and miserably, through bigger and badder questions… until your depressive neural networks run out of things to suck you in with.
I wish you good luck, and I send you my affection and respect.