You’ll feel helpless. But you’re not.

Over time, helplessness can really get stuck at the core of our very identity. 

And why wouldn’t it? Our identities form around what we feel most often. 

When we’re depressed, anxious, dealing with trauma, or struggling with addiction, it’s as if we are constantly beaten over the head with how ineffective we are at dealing with life. 

That’s what our struggles do: they hijack our focus and make us think that we suck. 

Our emotional and behavioral struggles work hard to convince us that we can’t stay focused on what really matters in life…and we only have ourselves to blame. 

It’s not true— but depression, anxiety, trauma, and addiction work hard to make us FEEL like it’s true. 

The truth is, who WOULDN’T have a hard time doing what they need to do every day, when every second their thoughts and physical energy are being dragged down by depression?

Who WOULDN’T have a hard time doing life, when they feel so anxious that their stomach literally hurts and it feels like they literally can’t think because they’re so tense? 

Who WOULDN’T have a hard time doing life when every second their attention is scattered due to dissociation— or pulled back inexorably toward a past full of pain and fear? 

Who WOULDN’T have a hard time making good decisions when every cell in their body feels like its screaming out for a fix of some substance or behavior? 

Think about it this way: let’s say you were the best conductor in the world. You’re the maestro of maestros. In front of an orchestra, no one is more skilled or suave than you. 

And let’s put you in front of an orchestra. Ready to conduct? 

And then, just as you’re about to conduct your orchestra, let’s point a bunch of huge speakers right at your face— the type of speakers they use at rock concerts— and let’s blast Aerosmith’s Greatest Hits at you so you can’t hear yourself think, let alone hear the orchestra you’re supposed to conduct, let alone be able to actually CONDUCT it. 

That’s what depression, anxiety, trauma, and addiction do to us. 

They blast their destructive nonsense at us so loudly and obnoxiously and obtrusively, that it doesn’t even MATTER how good we are at life: it’s going to appear that we suck at it. 

It’s going to APPEAR as if we are helpless. 

Over time, we experience that again and again…so much so that we forget that, actually, we CAN conduct an orchestra, when Aerosmith isn’t being blasted in our face. 

Recovery is partially about learning how to get that speaker blaring heavy metal out of our face. 

But it’s also about remembering that we are not how we feel in our most helpless moments. 

Are are not helpless and hopeless. We don’t suck at life— no matter how we’ve been made to feel when we’re exhausted and in pain. 

It’s really important that we not let ourselves be defined by our most difficult moments. 

EVERYBODY, including the most competent person you can think of right now, has felt helpless and hopeless at times. 

But helplessness does not have to become part of our identity. 

It’s a state, a condition, a feeling, a reality at times. But it is not who we fundamentally are. 

The greatest artists and leaders in the world have felt helpless and hopeless. 

Everyone who has ever recovered from depression, anxiety, trauma, or addiction has very much felt helpless and hopeless. 

I’ve felt helpless and hopeless. 

But we are more than our most difficult feelings. 

Remember who you are. 

It may have been awhile— but remember. 

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Your pain matters because your life matters.

I start out from the premise that your life is valuable. 

I can’t prove it. I can’t even really argue for it. It’s not the kind of thing you talk somebody into. 

The premise that your life valuable and worth saving is one of those things you either believe or you don’t— or you’re willing to accept or not. 

I’ve worked with lots and lots of suicidal people. 

In my job as an inpatient therapist on a hospital unit that worked almost exclusively with severe post traumatic and dissociative disorders, the overwhelming majority of my patients were suicidal. That’s how they wound up on the unit to begin with. 

I’ve been suicidal. I’ve been in intimate relationships of varying kinds with other people who have been suicidal. 

I cannot crawl inside anybody’s head and know exactly their experience— but I’m not coming at the subject of the value of life from an abstract, theoretical place, either. 

I know that I’m not going to “convince” a deeply suicidal person that life is worth living. 

There’s nothing I’m going to say to someone that will suddenly convince them, “OH! I hadn’t thought of THAT! OF COURSE I want to keep living now!” 

It’s not that simple— and acting as if it IS that simple is insulting to people who are already in a great deal of pain. 

I’ve never met a suicidal person who is happy to be in the amount of pain they’re in. 

Suicide is never anyone’s first option. 

Neither is self-injury, substance abuse, or dozens of other self-harmful behaviors. 

The world strangely likes to focus on some of those behaviors, rather than the pain behind them— as if the problem here isn’t the fundamental pain, but rather how an overwhelmed, suffering person responds to the pain they’re in. 

And we wonder why more people don’t seek help. 

Anyway: I don’t expect you to agree with me that your life is with living or saving right now. You’re in a lot of pain, and that pain has often been invisible to the people who should care about it. 

You may have often felt invisible to the people who are supposed to care about you. 

I don’t want your pain to be invisible anymore. 

I don’t want you to be invisible anymore. 

That’s why I start out from the premise that your life is valuable and worth saving— because to get into a philosophical discussion about the intrinsic value of life completely misses the point of why we’re even interacting, why you’re reading these words, why you even know who I am. 

I just accept it as given, so we can get on to talking about the REAL problem here: your pain. 

People respond to their pain in all sorts of ways— and they’re very often judged for it. 

They’re called cowards, they’re called weak, they’re called attention-seeking….as if the problem isn’t their pain, but how they respond to their pain. 

Don’t get me wrong, people respond to pain in all sorts of ways that creates more problems than it solves. 

But the pain is the thing. 

I believe your pain is worth trying to do something about— and in the vast majority of cases, there CAN be things done about your pain. 

I know, I know. You might be thoroughly convinced you’re the exception to that, you’re the one actually, truly hopeless case— and if you’re reading this, I probably don’t know you personally, I’m not going to arrogantly assert that you’re wrong.

Who am I to say? I’m no one, some prick on the internet. 

I will tell you this, though: I’ve met dozens, maybe even hundreds, of people who were thoroughly convinced that nothing could be done about their emotional pain. 

They were convinced they were nothing but the trauma of their pasts. 

Or they were nothing more than the everyday depression that weighed down their every waking moment. 

Or they were nothing more than the addiction that seemed to make every decision for them from a place of craving and desperation. 

They’d often tried a lot of things— and they were at the end of their rope. 

And they’re still with us— but more importantly, they feel better. 

Your pain matters BECAUSE your life matters. 

If your life didn’t matter, it wouldn’t matter that you were in pain. 

If you didn’t matter, your pain wouldn’t matter. 

But you do matter. 

That’s what I think, anyway. 

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“Gratitude” is not a cure.

We hear a lot about gratitude. 

We’re told to be grateful. 

Actually, it’s more insistent than that— we’re emphatically told we SHOULD be grateful. 

We’re often told that no matter how difficult a situation is or how badly we may be feeling, there is ALWAYS something for which to be grateful…and it’s on us to find it. 

It’s often heavily implied that emotional problems such as depression and anxiety can be healed, at least partially, by focusing on gratitude. 

This carries with it, of course, the implication that emotional problems such as gratitude and anxiety are at least partially CAUSED by our LACK of gratitude. 

Hmm. I don’t know about that one. 

We’re going to tell someone who struggles with, say, depression, that what they’re struggling with— at least PART of what they’re struggling with— stems from the fact that they’re not sufficiently focused on the stuff in their life for which they “should” be grateful? 

We’re going to tell them that this feeling they have— that they are worthless, that life is pointless, that the future is bleak— is at least partially caused by the fact that they’re just focused on…the wrong stuff? 

That they should just make a choice to focus on other stuff, and they’d feel differently? 

Meaning it’s…basically their fault. Because they’ve made poor choices about what to focus on, therefore they’re depressed. 

You might think I’m exaggerating, maybe setting up a straw man for the purpose of writing a blog post, but I assure you, this really is the attitude out there: depressed people “choose” depression because they’re not sufficiently focused on the good things in life, in this case gratitude. 

I’ve known and worked with a lot of depressed people in my career. And anxious people, and addicted people, and people who have experienced trauma. 

Not once have I sad across a therapy room from a person and thought, “You know what the problem with this dude is? HE’S NOT GRATEFUL ENOUGH!” 

Not once. 

Lack of gratitude focus is not the cause of depression. It is the result of depression. 

Lack of gratitude focus is not the cause of anxiety. It is the result of anxiety. 

Depression and anxiety hijack our focus. We are not ourselves when we’re depressed and anxious specifically because we are NOT choosing our focus— because our focus has been forcibly rerouted by the processes and chemicals in our brain and body. 

We can learn to reclaim our focus from depression and anxiety and addiction and trauma— over time, with practice. 

But please, this Thanksgiving, I beg you: don’t share posts that state or imply that depression or anxiety is CAUSED by a lack of gratitude. 

People who struggle with depression WISH they could just flip that gratitude switch and feel better— and they’ve been told, again and again, that they “should” be able to do so. 

People who struggle with depression and anxiety are even told this by people who say that “gratitude” is how they healed their OWN depression or anxiety— therefore they KNOW for a FACT that gratitude heals emotional problems if only it is tried. 

Guys, depression and anxiety are complex. 

There is not one “just do this” solution. 

“Just be grateful” doesn’t cure psychiatric disorders. 

It ay have been helpful for you, and I’m glad. 

But please don’t try to cream everyone who is suffering into one mold. You don’t know what’s happening in their nervous system. You don’t know what’s happened in their past. You don’t know what they are or aren’t grateful for. 

I can tell you from experience that gratitude and suicidality are quite capable of coexisting. 

Focus on gratitude if it is helpful and meaningful to you. 

But please remember your experience always has limited relevance to someone else’s. 

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Stop digging.

You’re going to have bad days. Bad weeks. Bad months, even. 

They’re going to happen. 

You’ll run into obstacles. You’ll experience loss. 

You’ll get dumped. A friend or colleague will disappoint you. 

Someone will die. 

These things don’t happen because your life sucks. These things happen because we’re human beings and this is the real world. 

The quality of your life is not dependent upon bad things not happening. Bad things WILL happen. 

The quality of your life is far MORE dependent upon what we do WHEN bad things happen. 

Can we somehow respond to the negative events of life in such a way that they are not painful? No. 

Some things will always be painful. 

But can we respond to the negative events of life in such a way that we don’t kick our own ass? 

Yes. 

There is always a way to respond to even the most negative life event without digging ourselves into an even deeper hole. 

Without self-sabotaging. Without self-harming. 

The negative events of life do not have to lead us to self-destructive behaviors— no matter what our history has been. 

Negative events in life can be overwhelming and confusing. 

Especially when we’re already tired and kind of desperate, negative and painful life events can really put a strain on our ability to cope and function. 

You’re not weak for struggling or feeling bad when negative events happen. The fact that they elect those reactions in us is WHY we consider them negative. 

But for many of us, the occurrence of negative or painful events has historically been a cue to dive into self-destructive behavior as a way of trying to avoid feeling bad. 

Drug or alcohol abuse. Self harm. Impulsive sexual behavior. Suicide attempts. 

What ultimately ends up happening, is that as painful as a life event might have otherwise been, we end up in even more pain because of how we responded to it. 

Many of us don’t experience those patterns as a “choice.” 

All we know is, we feel bad, and we do stuff. 

It feels very reactive, very instinctive. 

What we need to understand is that we’ve been conditioned into patterns of response. 

Most of our conditioning has been with us for a very, very long time. So long that it usually doesn’t even feel like condoning— it feels like behavior that somehow comes from inside of us. 

We may think that we are just wired or programmed to respond to painful events a certain way. 

But the truth is, we can take control of our response patterns. 

It’s not easy, specifically because we are working against decades of conditioning. 

It takes persistence, insight, and support— and for many of us, those things are in short supply. 

But you are not hopeless. 

Your patterns are not set in stone. 

Your responses and behaviors will respond to new conditioning. 

You CAN learn to respond to the negative and painful events in life in ways that DO NOT kick your own ass. 

As with everything, we are talking baby steps. 

Baby step, by baby step, by baby step. 

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Your anxiety isn’t “wrong.”

Managing anxiety isn’t as straightforward as “you’re freaking out for no reason, just calm down.” 

In my experience, we rarely freak out for “no reason.” 

Most of the time, when we’re anxious, or when a panic attack hits, it’s triggered by a connection in our nervous system that is quite valid.

Our nervous system is not dumb. It doesn’t activate for the hell of it, or just to annoy us. 

It IS the case that sometimes our nervous system OVERreacts to the threat in front of us— that it activates as if it’s being confronted with a much larger, more dangerous threat that resembled something in our past. 

But we don’t have to blow off our anxiety reactions as “I’m freaking out over nothing.” 

If we get into the habit of calling our anxiety attacks “freaking out over nothing,” we’re repeatedly telling our bodies and minds that the danger signals they are generating and receiving are “wrong.” 

When the fact is, those signals aren’t necessarily “wrong.” 

Mismatched to the occasion, maybe. 

But not “wrong.” 

Anxiety and fear serve a valuable evolutionary purpose. Animals that lack fear often find themselves in danger— and deeper in those situations than they’d realized. 

We’re told over and over again that anxiety and fear are our enemies…when the truth is, they’re actually quite useful. 

Yes, anxiety in particular can interfere with our activities of daily living…but it’s really important to acknowledge that anxiety fundamentally comes from an adaptive place. 

Our nervous system is TRYING to keep us safe. It’s TRYING to protect us. 

At some point along the way, our wiring may have gotten a little scrambled, and perhaps our early warning system— our fear/anxiety response— may be a little oversensitive. 

We may be getting lots of air raid sirens in our heads that are being set off by pigeons, as opposed to bombers. 

But our nervous system wants to keep us alive— so it’s actually designed to err on the side of “maybe I’ll sound the alarm, just in case.” 

Don’t be mad at your nervous system. It’s exhausted and trying to do a good thing. It really thinks you’re in danger when it sounds the alarm. 

On the other hand, it’s also a tremendously practical question to ask, what can I do to avoid being exhausted and burnt out because of the constant alarms my nervous system is raising? 

First thing’s first: we have to separate anxiety signals from our responses to those signals. 

Our brain and body sends us all kinds of signals every day. 

A great deal of our cognitive energy every day goes to sorting out those signals— what they mean, and what we should do about them. 

When our brain and body register that we have to go to the bathroom, most of us don’t immediately stop where we are and urinate. We acknowledge the signal, then we make a plan to find a bathroom, and only go when certain conditions are met. 

A similar process happens dozens of times every day. We feel impulses triggered by our nervous system; but instead of reacting right away, we pick and choose the timing and sequence of our behavioral responses. 

We can do the same thing when we get anxiety signals. 

With anxiety signals, the task is somewhat more complicated, because the anxiety/fear system is designed to make us VERY UNCOMFORTABLE if we ignore its signals— which is part of why it is so successful at keeping us alive. 

Our task, then, is successfully coping with those anxiety signals EVEN AS we pick and choose our behavioral responses. 

That task is doable. 

Not easy, but doable. 

As usual, we’re back to investing in coping skills: grounding, containment, distraction, self-talk. 

I know, I know. It’s not sexy. 

But it gets the job done. 

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So why ARE we so vicious with ourselves, anyway?

Why do we find it so easy to attack ourselves? 

Many of us say stuff to ourselves that we wouldn’t DREAM of saying to someone else. 

We’re harder on ourselves than we would ever be on anyone else. 

We give other people many benefits of many doubts that we don’t give ourselves. 

Why? 

After all, most of us supposedly “know” how important it is to love ourselves. We have the importance of self-love stuffed down our throats by inspirational quote after inspirational quote after inspirational quote. 

So what’s our deal? Why are we so hard on ourselves. 

For many of us, it’s what we saw modeled. 

We grew up with people who didn’t give us the benefit of the doubt. 

We grew up with people who were quick to dismiss the things we did right or well- -but perseverate on the missteps we made. 

Very often, when we grow up believing we are undeserving or incompetent, we seek out “evidence” for those beliefs in our behavior…and we find it. 

That is, we find it by focusing on the stuff that we don’t do well, the stuff at which we fail, the stuff that doesn’t work out…and telling ourselves that that’s evidence of the “real” us. 

The other stuff, the stuff that goes well and works out and that we’re good at? That stuff “doesn’t count.” 

After all, as many of us were told repeatedly growing up, “even a broken clock is right twice a day.” 

The truth is, no child growing up is inherently “bad”—but we have that message programmed into us again and again. 

Some of it is cultural. 

Many of us grew up misunderstanding the concept of Original Sin (the Christian Judeo idea that, at some point in human history, human beings disobeyed God, as dramatized by the Biblical story of Adam and Eve— and that every human is henceforth born in a state of “sin” that needs to somehow be cleansed) to mean that we, personally, are in a position of swimming upstream against our essential “badness.” 

Some of us grew up being beaten over the head with what we were told was “tough love”— which, oddly, seemed long on the “tough,” but a little short on the “love.” 

But for most of us, it’s pretty straightforward: one way or another, we internalized the idea that we were not competent at life nor worthy or happiness. 

If we happened to display competence, it was a fluke— or so we were made to feel. 

if we happened to be happy for a moment, it was undeserved— or so we were made to feel. 

Many of us did not grow up believing that we had the ability to become competent at life— and that we had the right to be happy. 

So what now? 

Now, we have to start where we are. 

Many of us STILL don’t believe we are competent at life or worthy of happiness— and our lives and behavior reflect this belief. 

Many of us are now in the position of having to heal a wound that should never have been inflicted upon us. 

But: we have to start with what we have. 

And for awhile, we’re going to have to “act as if,” as they say in the Twelve Step tradition: act as if we CAN develop competence at life, and act as if we ARE worthy of happiness. 

Slowly, our beliefs about ourselves and the world change as we behave as if they were true. 

Slowly, we develop faith in our abilities to life life competently. 

Slowly, we come to believe that we might well deserve happiness— or, at the very least, we don’t deserve to be miserable. 

Beliefs don’t change overnight. They’re largely the result of conditioning, and conditioning happens over time. 

It’s on us to put in the time, to be consistent and persistent, and to not give up on ourselves. 

Yeah, it’ll feel like we’re faking it at first. 

So fake it. 

Just get the ball rolling. 

Journeys don’t just start with a single step— they continue and conclude one step at a time. 

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The anxiety dominos.

When we have day to day anxiety, we’re running a well-conditioned pattern of thinking and feeling. 

It’s a pattern we run over and over again— and patterns that are repeatedly run, get much easier to run. 

That doesn’t mean it’s your FAULT that you run this anxiety pattern of thinking and feeling every day. 

The truth is, the overwhelming majority of people who have daily anxiety developed that pattern by default— usually because they’ve been exposed, over and over again, to unpredictable, uncontrollable environments. 

OF COURSE you’re going to develop anxiety when you grow up around people who are unpredictable and volatile. 

It would be weird if you DIDN’T develop anxiety growing up in that kind of environment. That’s not your fault. 

My dad was an addict. Those who grow up with addicts in their household know that you can never quite expect which version of the person to expect when they come home at night. 

Anxiety is all about our body and brain trying to arm itself against an impending threat— a threat that it can’t predict or control. 

OF COURSE that ends up being exhausting— especially after years. 

But we can’t just “let it go,” either…because it’s a pattern. 

When we repeatedly think, feel, and do things in succession, those sequences literally get “wired” into our nervous systems. 

The neurons that govern those responses become physically fused together. 

When one neuron fires, the other neurons in the chain fire. 

We can’t just “decide” to stop that chain reaction— it’s a biological reality. 

What we CAN do is try to scramble that chain reaction as it’s happening. 

Imagine a line of dominos, stood up next to each other. 

When one tips, the rest of the chain is going to go, because, you know, physics. 

But what happens if you put a finger in between two of those dominos? 

The chain reaction still happens— there is still force propelling those dominos forward— but the sequences is kind of screwed up. 

Now imagine doing that at multiple points along the line of dominos. 

Eventually the line is going to get so screwed up the dominos won’t fall in their neat, predictable pattern anymore. 

That’s what we need to do with your nervous system when it comes to anxiety patterns. 

We need to screw up the pattern so it can’t run the same way anymore— and eventually, so it can’t run at all. 

This is not a matter of “willpower.” 

This is a matter of choosing specific things to think, say, and do when you become aware of running that anxiety pattern, that screw up the pattern. 

This is how affirmations work. They’re not just empty phrases you repeat and hope they take hold— they’re verbal pattern interrupts. 

This is how “opposite action” works. It’s not just doing something incongruous for the hell of it— it’s a behavioral pattern interrupt. 

This is why we keep things to listen to, like songs, and short things to read, like quotes, handy on our phone— you can pull those out and use them to interrupt the pattern of anxiety. 

This is even how posthypnotic suggestion works— when used appropriately, those suggestions put things in the way of the anxiety dominos so that the pattern gets wonky. 

When you find yourself jumping out of your skin with anxiety, think to yourself: “Oh, right. I’m running that anxiety pattern again.” 

And then immediately turn your brain to the question: “How can I interrupt this pattern?” 

Keep asking that question, over and over again— and you WILL come up with answers that work for you. 

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You bet we’re “needy” and “attention seeking.”

It’s normal to want to feel visible. 

It’s healthy to want to feel visible. 

It’s not “narcissistic” or “dramatic” to desire to be, and really feel, seen. 

It’s true that narcissists typically want to feel overwhelmingly visible— usually at the expense of everybody ELSE around them’s visibility. 

But what makes a narcissist a narcissist isn’t necessarily their desire for visibility— it’s more often their lack of consideration or empathy for the other humans in their orbit. 

To a narcissist, being seen (and, most often, worshipped) tends to be the only priority in their worlds— outstripping any consideration for healthy, reciprocal relationships. 

But the desire to be visible is not, in itself, narcissistic. 

We don’t want to feel visible because we think we’re so great. 

Human beings kind of construct who we are in relationship with our environment and the other humans out there. 

For eons, we literally couldn’t see ourselves, so the only way we even knew we existed was the reactions and responses of other people and animals, or the impact we had on the environment around us. 

Thus it was really important for us to have relationships where we were seen and responded to. 

When we’re babies, our entire existence is wrapped up in other peoples’ responsivity to us. 

One of the reasons why babies are so sensitive to attachment and attention is because, if a baby isn’t appropriately attended to, it literally cannot survive. 

All of which is to say, there are really good evolutionary reasons why we want to be and feel seen by other human beings. 

Visibility is really important to love. 

Love is an experience where we feel we are uniquely valued by another person. 

How can we feel uniquely valued if we don’t even feel seen? 

To really feel uniquely valued— to feel loved— necessarily implies that the other person has taken the time and the care to really see us. 

 And yet, many of us are shamed when we express our desire to be seen and acknowledged. 

We’re made to feel as if we’re a burden. 

Some people brandish the label “attention seeking” at us as if it’s the ULTIMATE insult. 

What if there’s nothing wrong with seeking attention? 

Maybe we NEED attention, especially from the important people in our lives, to function well. 

Most of the time when someone accuses someone else of being “attention seeking,” there’s an implication that they are “creating drama” in order to gain attention they wouldn’t otherwise be entitled to. 

It’s become cultural shorthand for “being a pain in the ass.” 

Yes, it’s inconvenient when people we don’t want to pay attention to, do things to try to gain our attention. Yes, I get as frustrated as you probably get by those behaviors. 

But attention seeking itself isn’t bad. 

Seeking to be visible, especially to those who say they love us, isn’t bad. 

Needing attention and acknowledgement and affirmation isn’t bad. 

Some call this behavior “needy”…but is there any human (or any animal at all) who DOESN’T have needs? 

You bet we’re needy. 

And you bet we’re attention seeking. 

And sure, maybe it’s important to try to develop ways to seek attention and to get our other needs met that aren’t overly intrusive or inconvenient or exhausting for those around us. 

But let’s not shame ourselves for having needs. 

And let’s not pretend we don’t ALL want to be visible. 

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Avoid the self-blame and self-shame trap.

When we begin exploring the possibilities of healing from depression, trauma, anxiety, or addiction, sometimes we can get up in our heads about what it means to “recover.” 

One of the things we discover when we begin really investigating the subject is that there are things we can do to feel better. 

Maybe not totally better; maybe not better all the time in every way; but there are techniques, habits, and rituals that we can develop that can make our lives easier and results in feeling better and more stable every day. 

We discover that the possibility of recovery is, at least partially, in our own hands. 

The thing is, when we discover that, our brains often try take a leap ahead of us— and cut us down before we get too far down that path. 

“Ah HA!” our brain will try to tell us. “So how we feel IS in our control! See, I TOLD you it was ALL YOUR FAULT that you feel terrible! I KNEW we were just doing this to ourselves!” 

That is to say: sometimes, when we learn that the way we feel can be responsive to things we do or don’t do, we often turn back around and blame ourselves for feeling bad in the first place. 

This is a trap. 

This is your depression trying to twist the facts around to unfairly shame and blame you. 

It is NOT the case that “we create our own misery” when we are depressed. NO ONE asks to be depressed. 

No one wants to feel this way. No secondary benefit— attention, sympathy, whatever— is worth this hell. 

The fact that we can influence how we feel does NOT mean that we must have been “choosing’ to feel depressed. 

We need to be very careful to avoid this kind of self-blame…because if we don’t it can really lead us down a rabbit hole. 

Let’s be clear: yes, of course we can influence how we feel, in numerous ways. 

If we couldn’t influence and change the way we feel—if the way we feel is just the way we feel, and there wasn’t anything we could do about it— then therapy itself would be pointless. 

(In fact, many of the people who DO think that therapy is pointless take exactly this position— that they just feel the way they feel, and there’s nothing anyone can do about it, so why bother?) 

But we know we CAN change the way we feel. 

Why does any form of entertainment exist? To change the way we feel. 

Why do we ever get into relationships? To change the way we feel. 

Why do we crave and seek out certain foods or use certain substances? To change the way we feel. 

We can change the way we feel. We’re not “stuck” feeling this way. 

But that doesn’t mean we’ve “chosen” to feel depressed or anxious in the past. 

What has ACTUALLY happened has been, we’ve been exposed, over time, to external circumstances that have literally shaped our brains, and made it very easy to feel depressed and anxious. 

Those circumstances have interacted with our already-existing brain structure and chemistry. 

By the time we’re self-aware, we have no real awareness of all the factors that conspired to make us feel the way we do on a daily basis— we just think this is how it is. We feel how we feel. We are how we are. 

You didn’t “choose” to feel depressed any more than you “chose” your genetics, your brain structured chemistry, or your environment growing up. 

You didn’t “choose” how to interpret the world growing up. We have no idea what’s happening to us as our brains are being shaped by experience after experience. 

Don’t fall into the trap of believing you “chose” to feel the way you do. 

Recovery is not about self-blame. 

It’s about identifying what, realistically, we CAN change, now, about our thoughts, beliefs, and behaviors, and changing them…one by one, on purpose. 

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Realistically learning the SKILL of self-compassion.

Self-compassion is a skill. 

We’re often told we need to “be compassionate” toward ourselves. I say variants of this on my social media pages almost every day. 

But what does self-compassion actually look like? 

How do we put it into action? 

For the concept of “self compassion” to be meaningful or helpful, we need to have practical ways to put it into action. 

Which is rough, because many of us were very much NOT taught how to be compassionate toward ourselves. 

We didn’t see it modeled. We weren’t told it was a skill, let alone an important skill to learn. 

For that matter, many of us were taught that there was some sort of virtue to being hard on ourselves. 

I’ve even seen where people are encouraged to be “harder on themselves than anyone else will be.” 

The idea, supposedly, is that if they hold themselves to a “higher standard” than anyone else would expect of them, then they will easily exceed the standards that other people in the real world WILL expect of them. 

I have some questions about this logic— I’m not at all confident it actually works that way— but I’m always curious about why holding ourselves to a “higher standard” often equates to being ruthless toward ourselves. 

Holding yourself to a high standard doesn’t have anything to do with being mean to yourself. 

It doesn’t have anything to do with insulting yourself. 

It doesn’t have anything to do with degrading yourself. 

The idea of holding ourselves to a “higher standard” gets entwined with the notion of “tough love”— which itself is a notion that often gets defined as “behavior that may not feel loving, but is intended for our growth.” 

I agree, there are some behaviors that we may not experience or “feel” as loving, but which can help us grow. 

But it also seems to be the case that many times when people pride themselves on showing “tough love,” they’re mostly looking for an excuse to be “tough,” end of sentence. 

So what does self-compassion look like? 

Self-compassion is paying attention to our own needs and reactions with respect, not disdain. 

Self-compassion is prioritizing getting our needs met for things like nourishment and rest— without giving ourselves a hard time for needing those things, let alone needing as much of them as we do. 

Self-compassion is really all about attention and attitude. 

We need to pay attention to ourselves with a loving, tolerant attitude. 

And we have to do it EVEN IF we are frustrated with ourselves. 

We have to do it EVEN IF depression or trauma has convinced us in the moment that we are somehow terrible or inferior. 

We have to do it EVEN IF we were never taught or shown how to do it. 

We have to do it EVEN IF everything around us is falling apart and everyone around us is turning on us. 

Our self-compassion cannot be contingent upon us “feeling” like it or other people approving of us. 

We are deserving of self-compassion and we need self-compassion no matter the circumstance. 

Self-compassion is not a goal to aspire to. 

It is an important life skill to use every day. 

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