So, here’s an interesting thing I’ve noticed about depression.
When I’m depressed, I tend to think “my life is horrible, I am a terrible person, and I will be crazy forever.” When I am not depressed, I tend to think “my life has good points and bad points but, all things considered, is pretty good and getting better. While it hurts that I’m not currently living up to my values, I can work harder and live up to them eventually, and morally the important thing is that I keep trying. And even if I don’t recover– although the recovery rate for BPD is pretty good– I can have a joyous, happy, virtuous life and still be crazy as a loon.”
Now, I want to be clear what I’m saying here. I am not saying “Depressed!Me thinks my life is horrible and Not-Depressed!Me thinks my life is great.” Depressed!Me has a point about some things! It really does suck to feel suicidal when the house is messy! But there is an important distinction between “I feel guilty because I am a pretty damn ineffective altruist” and “I feel guilty because every part of me is inherently tarnished.”
What I’m saying here is: don’t believe everything you think.
Most people’s brains have a handful of thoughts they really like to play. You can call it their theme song, if you like. One of my theme songs is the imp of the perverse: the urge that makes me go “well, I spilled half my tea, the only reasonable reaction is to spill ALL THE TEA”. The good part about noticing your theme songs is that you can go “welp, that theme song is playing again.” As the Tumblr post says:
the trick to intrusive thoughts is not to try to resist em but like…..let them happen and dont fixate on them…treat them like an annoying friend who’s yelling random shit from the backseat like “hey you could stab yourself in the leg with those scissors” thanks timothy i could also not do that
Identifying your theme songs doesn’t exactly solve the problem. Having a friend constantly yelling from the backseat “you’re a bad person!” or “d e s t r o y e v e r y t h i n g” is likely to ruin your day, even if you recognize he’s full of shit. But it’s definitely an improvement on not recognizing he’s full of shit.
The problem with knowing that thoughts aren’t reality is that you can go a very long time going “yeah, yeah, Ozy, I know, don’t believe everything you think, I KNOW my brain is lying to me all the time” before it actually clicks that you do not have to believe the things your brain is saying just because it is saying them.
A few weeks ago, in group, we did an exercise where everyone wrote down their responses if they said hi to a friend across the street and the friend didn’t respond. I wrote down that I would feel like a horrible person, because I’d violated the rule, and I would be convinced that I’d said hi to a random stranger and that person hated me, and simultaneously convinced that I’d said hi to my friend and they hated me, and worried that there were a bunch of rules about how to say hi to people and I had unknowingly violated them and everyone was going to hate me forever and want me to die, which was only just and right, because I was a horrible person who deserved it.
Much to my surprise, as we went around the group, no one else had this reaction. In fact, in a group of people selected for (a) being crazy (b) being crazy in pretty much the same way I am, absolutely none of them concluded that someone not saying hi to them meant that they deserved to die.
I had always known that this was a completely ludicrous way to react to things. But I think, at that point, I managed to finally grok that that was a completely ludicrous way to react to things.
And the thing is that once I had the deep-down, emotional knowledge that it doesn’t make any goddamn sense, pretty much instantly, I stopped feeling so ashamed. The intellectual knowledge helped some; the emotional knowledge fixed it.
I, unfortunately, do not know how to make other people have such an experience. However, the nice people of mindfulness-based cognitive therapy claim that they can cause you to grok this difference.
If you have a meditation practice, whenever your mind wanders away from your intended focus, pause long enough to recognize what you’re thinking about, then say “thinking” to yourself, then gently and kindly reorient yourself back to what you’re trying to focus on. This gives you practice in recognizing your thoughts as thoughts.
You can also practice focusing on your thoughts, both observing and describing them. Practice noticing what you’re thinking and stepping away from it. It can help to have a metaphor or image: for instance, your thoughts being up on the stage, your thoughts being a leaf on the wind, or your thoughts floating on a river. Three to four minutes at a time is quite enough; meditating on your thoughts is hard.
Finally: when you’re upset, don’t just do something, sit there.
Seriously. The second you notice your emotions getting out of control, or you’re in a stressful situation, or you’re overwhelmed, or you’re in a situation you really don’t want to be in, stop.
Then, carefully and deliberately take your awareness away from your thoughts into your bodily sensations, the feeling of your emotion, the felt sense of your emotions. Drop down into your body. Those sensations are likely to be unpleasant, because you’re in an unpleasant situation. It’s okay. Now, try to bring a gentle, kindly sort of awareness to your bodily sensations. It’s okay if you’re thinking “argh! I hate this! I do not want to pay attention to my damn heart clenching! It hurts!”; just bring a gentle, kindly sort of awareness to the fact that you can’t bring a gentle, kindly sort of awareness to your body sensations. Go up as many meta levels as you need to until you find something you can relate to. Look at your sensations with a sort of interested, friendly curiosity, a “what have we here?” sort of perspective, like you’re looking at an interesting rock you’ve just found.
Step away from your thoughts; notice that they come and go. Remember your thoughts are not necessarily facts, just things your brain is coughing up. See if you can notice any of your theme songs. Remember that your thoughts are not the enemy; be friendly and interested in them, and allow them to be just as they are in this moment. If you’re having a very hard time with it, write down your thoughts on paper (or on a badbrainsblog on Tumblr); the process of writing thoughts down often makes them seem less objectively true and more like crud your brain happens to have come up with.