Depression is a miserable experience for many reasons. It robs us of perspective, particularly the perspective that things will change and we won’t always feel as we are now feeling. And for many people, it causes the committee meeting of voices in our head to turn into a relentless chorus of negativity and bad advice. You’re stupid. You’re lazy. You’re a bad partner. You’re going to lose your job if you don’t start doing better. But we don’t think of them as voices. We think of them as reality, and that’s what makes us suffer.
A couple of years ago I saw a Broadway show called “Title of Show” about writing a play. One song discussed the negative self-talk that accompanies writer’s block this way: if someone were talking to you that way while you were waiting for the subway, you’d move to the opposite end of the platform. How true! But the voice is in our head, and we can’t physically move away.
Arguing with these thoughts trying to get them to shut up doesn’t work. In fact, it can make the feelings more intense. It is just the way our mind works. If I tell you not to think of an elephant, what’s the thought that immediately comes to mind? A vivid image of a pachyderm.
The key is to withdraw attachment to these negative thoughts. Instead of ruminating about them as if they were an accurate reflection of reality, just notice them and label them for what they are: thoughts.
- “Nothing will make this better.” That’s a thought.
- “I can’t do anything right.” That’s a thought.
- “If I don’t get this promotion, my life is over.” That’s also a thought.
Most of us have these troubling negative thoughts and worries. Why not stop giving them more respect than they deserve? Notice if a thought is troubling, but demands your attention (“I really need to stop spending more money than I can afford”) or just useless negativity. When a thought does require action, just notice it, recognize it for what it is – just a thought, background noise in your head – take a deep breath and let it go.
When we notice our thoughts, feelings, moods, opinions, etc., without getting too attached to them, something wonderful happens: freedom. We’re no longer captive to the negative chatter. We are less attached to it. The intensity of the feelings diminish. We move on.
This approach is simple, but that doesn’t mean it is easy. Most of us have a lifetime of experience in confusing the thoughts and feelings in our heads with something we think of as meaningful and real. Changing these patterns takes practice — and sometimes coaching. You may want to consider a simple sitting meditation practice to help you become more proficient, or talk with a therapist who can help you learn to manage your mind.
When negative thoughts become truly obsessive and resist all urges to manage them, it may be time to talk to a professional and get more support for making changes to support your happiness.