My intention with this blog was to first discuss much of my experiences and thought processes surrounding my conversion to Islam, but since I’ve been doing a lot of pondering, reading, and self-analysis on the subject of depression, I decided I’d go ahead and post it in hopes that it can help others.
Depression: A Symptom, Not a Cause
Going through graduate school for counseling psychology, I often heard that depression isn’t the cause but is a symptom of something else. That something else can come from pretty much anything – internalized, unexpressed anger, dissatisfaction with life circumstances, etc. There is no one answer. Yet, it seems that so many people, especially in the US and other western countries, suffer from the imprisonment of depression.
Why? When we have so much in our lives; when we live better than many other people in the world – why are we so depressed? We don’t have to suffer through the horrors of being in a war zone, having relatives killed or raped, living in constant fear, always in survival mode, not free to move beyond the comfort of the basics and express ourselves creatively, give back to the community around us… Even the poorest among us are still relatively better off than those considered ‘normal’ in other countries. We have more civil liberties, we can express ourselves, we can disagree with the government if we want to, we have a judicial system which is relatively uncorrupted (although institutionalized racism and discrimination still exists, but it certainly isn’t as overt as in other countries) so we can count on justice and fairness for the most part. So why do we feel that life is so hopeless?
External vs. Internal Roots
There are many answers. Sometimes depression can be circumstantial and be caused by external factors, but many times, especially in the case of Americans, I believe it is intrinsic, internal. My thoughts stem from a theory I recently came across by a couple, the Weinholds, who are also psychologists. Developmental psychologists know that the first 3 years of life are the most crucial for forming personality, our view of ourselves and others (the world around us), and the behaviors we develop to get us through life. If trauma occurs during this critical stage, the likelihood of developing maladaptive traits and behaviors is strong.
However, the theory that this couple puts forward is that smaller traumas that occur here and there early in life can add up to having the same effect as an extreme trauma. I think many of us may fall into this camp, which is where unhealthy patterns begin to occur. Smaller traumas may not even be noticeable to the adults in the child’s life, such as moving frequently (thus creating a sense of instability and abandonment), the birth of a new sibling (and the child being left alone, ignored), frequent changes in caretakers (such as going to daycare early on and being looked after by several employees in the same day even), and so on.
Early Experiences: Long-Term Effects
All of these smaller traumas can add up to create issues in adult life, especially if they aren’t explored and processed. Adults can become afraid of abandonment and thus get into codependent relationships in which they sacrifice themselves at all costs to keep the other happy so that they won’t ‘leave’. They lose their boundaries and sense of self in order to do and be everything the other person desires. When a person loses their sense of self, they no longer give value to their own thoughts and feelings and push them aside. Depression springs up as a signal that something is wrong; something is unbalanced.
Other people begin to play the perpetual victim role in order to achieve the attention they didn’t get early in life. Even if the attention they receive in their relationship now is sufficient, without those early events being processed and recognized, they still create a sense of desperate hunger in our innermost being. This obviously wreaks havoc on a relationship, as the victim is manipulating the feelings and actions of the other person, and is no longer being genuine and honest. This can push the victim into depression because their true self isn’t known.
Early trauma can also cause us to believe that the world is not to be trusted (since our caretakers did not give us attention when we cried for it), and that others cannot be depended on. It also reinforces the idea that we must not be valuable or worth anything if we were neglected (or received intermittent care). This is the core of depression, in my opinion. Early experiences taught us that others don’t care about us because we aren’t valuable, creating a deep self hatred and even anger.
So, the root of depression is in our attitudes towards ourselves. Medication won’t cure it (it only numbs it for a while til your body gets used to it and needs a stronger dose or different medicine), exercise or changing your habits won’t cure it (although they can be a healthy way to help alleviate it), and definitely self-medication doesn’t help (such as drugs, alcohol, sex – although it numbs it), as those create even more problems down the road.
In Search of the Cure
For a while, I’ve struggled with the question of which is more important for self-improvement and (hopefully) digging ourselves out of depression: focusing on our weaknesses, or focusing on both our weaknesses and our strengths? Which one will keep me in a self-aware, humble, and driven state of mind conducive to self-improvement? If we acknowledge our strengths, I thought, we might become complacent and lazy, telling ourselves that we’re not that bad and not feel as compelled to change as a result. Plus, some people may be so depressed and self-loathing that they fail to see any strengths at all.
However, recently I have realized that when we focus solely on our weaknesses, we essentially paralyze ourselves due to the constant condemnation, self-criticism, and the belief that we have nothing positive or of value to offer. When we get into that frame of mind, we go into survival mode. Our bodies and brains shut down and just try to survive – get through one day to the next, go through the most basic actions. We’re fearful of making mistakes, we’re harsh and unforgiving when we do… it’s all we can do to survive; we wouldn’t even consider branching out to take a risk or try something new.
Instead, the Islamic life motto, all things in moderation, walking the tight rope of the middle path, serves as the best solution. We need to have a balance of both. We need to recognize our strengths, because we can use our strengths to help us overcome our weaknesses. If we believe that we have no value, we’re left feeling very helpless and unable to change – because we simply don’t have the tools to do so. But, if we recognize and acknowledge our strengths, we can use them as tools to make ourselves better and improve our weaknesses.
Yet, some of us may still be too depressed and worn down to give value to our strengths. We may not trust ourselves to have an accurate assessment of our strengths. For those of us who believe in God, or in a higher power, then the solution is simple. All of God’s creation has been carefully crafted, and humans in particular, as the Bible states, are “fearfully and wonderfully made.” Out of our respect and sincerity in our belief in God, we must have respect for His creation, and thus, for ourselves. Even if we find no value in ourselves, God does. Even if we question our existence and wish we were better off not having been born, God intentionally put us here. Out of respect for God, we must respect ourselves.
Respect for Self
God is the most merciful, the most compassionate – as we are reminded over and over in the Quran. When we make mistakes, He doesn’t immediately condemn us to hell or send us an earthly punishment. He sees our grief, our desire for repentance, and He lovingly, mercifully, forgives us. If the God of the universe can be merciful towards us, then part of our gratitude toward Him should include having mercy toward ourselves.
To do this, we don’t need to lie to ourselves or live in a delusion that we’re in great shape and have no problems. Instead, we need to simply acknowledge our strengths, and use them to help us overcome our weaknesses. We need to speak to ourselves more mercifully. If our inner, self-talk is constantly negative and critical, logically our emotions and our energy levels will be negative as well. Our general functioning will decline – our health will worsen even. Yet, if our self-talk is merciful, encouraging instead of critical and destructive, we’ll feel more hopeful. We’ll feel more motivated to ‘do better next time.’ We’ll look for ways to expand, try new things, reach out, explore ourselves. With a safe, encouraging base, our minds are braver and more energized to reach higher goals. On the contrary, with a critical, unforgiving base, our minds are too fearful to attempt anything outside of what is ‘safe,’ which isn’t much because you’ve already determined that you have no strengths.
Positive Behavior causes Positive Emotions
One thing I often find myself falling into is that I’ll reward myself when I’m doing something right. I might wear clothes that I really like, for example, as a reward. If I’m not doing well, I won’t, which makes me feel worse as a result since I feel self-conscious about my appearance, and increases my negative self-talk. It’s a downward, negative spiral.
During graduate school when I was in the counseling program, one of my professors told me that he had trouble initially showing empathy nonverbally. He had empathic thoughts, but he had trouble actually feeling it and as a result, showing it. He decided to consciously ‘show’ his empathy (by raising his eyebrows, opening his mouth, gasping, etc.) in order to be more responsive to his clients. He found that over time, his feelings began to gradually catch up. He engaged in the behaviors before he ‘felt’ anything; yet his positive behaviors affected his feelings.
I realized that the same is true with fighting depression. If we do positive things as a reward for doing something right, inevitably we’ll end up spiraling downward, because we’ll make mistakes, punish ourselves, feel worse, punish ourselves again – causing ourselves to continue downward with no positive, rewarding behaviors. It should be the opposite: we need to engage in positive behavior, which will in turn cause our feelings to be more positive. Proponents of the Cognitive Behavioral Therapy approach to improving mental health know very well that our thoughts affect our feelings, our feelings affect our behaviors, and our behaviors affect our thoughts – and vice versa. Therefore, positive behavior will inevitably affect both our thoughts and feelings positively. When we care about ourselves, respect ourselves, we start to feel better. Thus, when we feel depressed, when we feel particularly loathing toward ourselves, this is when we should do something positive. Again, if not for our sake, but for the sake of respecting God’s creation.
I have more thoughts on this subject, but this is long enough to provide plenty food for thought. Below is the link to the psychologists discussing the theory of early childhood trauma causing difficulty later in life. They do come off as a bit bland, but they have fanstatic, intriguing things to say.