As some of you know, I struggle with chronic depression. I’ve been seeing a therapist for over five years now, and it’s helped a lot, but depression is not really something you can “just get over.” It’s more like a permanent wound that you learn how to mitigate and survive. Being a creative person with depression has its own hurdles, as many of the routine tasks of making art can be appropriated by depression and used to reinforce a negative core belief. Today I want to talk a little bit about how that manifests for me, and some things I try to keep in mind that have been helpful, in hopes that others may benefit from it. It’s easy to feel isolated and alone when depressed, as though no one else experiences these kinds of things and feeling depression is a weakness of character. Neither of those things are true. We are survivors. The only reason we’re still here is because we are strong.
A Negative Core Belief & The Arts
What is a negative core belief? Well…most people that I’ve met perceive themselves in some positive light. They believe that they are, at their core, a good person. A positive core belief. Having a negative core means that at best, I perceive myself as a bad person. At worst, I perceive my own identity as an aching sensation of broken emptiness. When in a depressive low, the perspective is narrowed and exaggerated to reinforce that belief.
To improve as an artist, it’s important to identify areas for improvement, accept feedback, and learn to express the truth of our own experiences as much as possible. What depression will do is take these activities and twist them. Aspects that need improvement become to my mind evidence of incompetence, laziness, and stupidity. Furthermore, I will feel these flaws are unchangeable and eternal. Not because I am incapable, but because there is something wrong and broken about me that prevents me from ever being good enough to realize my potential. That if I wasn’t so weak and pathetic, everything I want for myself would be instantly achieved. Outside criticism only reaffirms this belief, and instead of being able to utilize useful and specific critique, I will fixate on vague comments that my mind can twist to feed that negative core belief. A comment like, “The style isn’t very pro,” can get blown out of proportion to the point that my mind takes it as evidence that my ambition will always out-strip my talent, and that everything I attempt will end in failure.
Sometimes depression can even block the creation of art, because the emotion I’m trying to access is triggering. As a result, I encounter blocks due to the stress, lethargy, and despair depression brings on. This makes me feel as though I’m taking too long, that I’m not working hard enough, and I will blame myself for my lack of progress. This in turn only increases the difficulty in getting the work done. It’s a nasty cycle. However, it is not a cycle that is impossible to change.
Strategies to Cultivate
Developing coping strategies is a constant effort. Many have cumulative, rather than instant, impact. Which means that the first time many of them are attempted, they may not have any clear effect at all. However, I have found that slowly, piece by piece, these strategies have contributed to the emergence of a small, but ever growing, positive core. It has not replaced the negative core belief, but rather stands next to it as a contrast. Having it there has changed how I experience and endure depressive episodes.
1. Respecting the Necessity of Time and the Inevitability of Change
Being depressed often feels like being suspended in an eternal, stagnant, hopeless moment. If I’m not successful NOW, I feel as though I never will be. I remind myself that art, life, and learning are all a process, not an end goal. That mistakes and setbacks are inevitable when attempting anything, as that is a major part of how humans learn. If anything, a mistake is something to celebrate, as it indicates that I am DOING something and trying something new. Which means I’m cultivating a new skill, and will get better, given time and practice. No “Now” is permanent. No day lasts forever. Nothing will remain unchanged.
2. Compassion and Self Care – How would you treat a friend?
When I’m down, I often put my own needs at the bottom of my list of priorities. Eating, sleeping, hygiene. If I feel like I’m not a person, then what need is there to take care of me? Am I worthy of such kind treatment, of a soft bed, of a meal, or a hot shower? Except, as common sense tells us, it’s really hard to feel good about anything at all when you’re tired, hungry, and your own odor repels you. Add to that all the depression voices constantly berating me, and it becomes a very ugly picture. I’ve learned to ask myself, “If a friend was feeling the way I feel, how would I treat them?” Then I try to treat myself as though I were that imagined friend in need. (Hint: It usually involves a lot more sleep and soup, and a lot less tirades on what a horrible disappointment I am.)
3. Becoming an Investigator
Depressive lows are not states of mind that can be solved with a forced smile, thinking happy thoughts, finding silver linings, or employing distractions. Sometimes the best that can be done is to just ride the wave until the mood has run its course. However, that does not mean I have to be helpless. Attempting to force happiness creates a situation where I am at war with myself, and often prolongs the depressive low. Becoming a neutral observer, on the other hand, provides me useful information for next time without interfering with, repressing, or invalidating my present experience. I try to trace back to what triggered a mood and observe patterns of thoughts and behaviors. Sometimes I might reflect on past situations and find connections. Or perhaps I’ll evaluate if there are any physical symptoms of the mood, depression “Tells,” that might help me identify triggering incidents in the future. All of it is useful information for developing future strategies and helps cultivate a self-aware mindset. I have found that becoming an Investigator of my own depression has been one of the most effective tools in transforming it. I can now often recognize when I’m going to have a low in advance. In some cases, mitigate it or prevent it all together. When I am in a low, I’m better able to articulate how I’m feeling and communicate to loved ones what I need. I can often separate thoughts that are based on the negative-core-belief from the realities of a situation, giving me valuable perspective that makes it easier to take care of myself despite a major low. And no matter how bad it gets, when I can remember to act as an Investigator, it makes it feel as though even that horrible experience has value. That I’m still learning something. It gives the process a meaning and purpose, where otherwise there would be only emptiness.
I hope that some of these strategies are helpful to any readers that also struggle with depression. You’re not alone. I know that my experience is likely different than yours, and that what works for me may not be the same as what works for you, but we do share some common experiences. You’re a good person. WE are good people. Hopefully one day we can both believe that, in our core.