In the midst of winter I finally learned there was in me an invincible summer.
— Albert Camus
Many folks find today’s world a complex, complicated, and confusing challenge. Strange weather and climate. Strange politics. Disruptive technology. Things are changing faster than people can cope. Impossible to navigate successfully. Many cannot take charge of their goals and dreams, and make them real. As a result, increasing numbers of people suffer from anxiety and depression. And suicide.
Depression has many causes: childhood trauma, genetics, serious illness, chemical imbalances, stress and overwhelm, loss and/or fear of loss, abuse and relationship conflicts (at home and at work).
Treatments vary widely: antidepressant drugs, psychotherapy, interpersonal therapy and various other talking therapies, diet, outdoor challenge and exercise, and even electro-shock therapy.
Research by the U.S. National Institute of Health shows that one of the most effective treatments for depression is Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT). CBT helps depression sufferers identify and change distorted views of themselves, their situations and their future.
In milder depressions, this “rational-emotive thinking” approach works well on its own. In deeper depressions, antidepressants can be used to ease symptoms and allow the “change your thinking” approach to work.
You can even learn rational-emotive thinking on your own, and practice it as a way to prevent depression, and increase your ability to create results that matter to you. Experts in the field describe this approach as “logotherapy.” Learning by reading.
Change Your Story; Change Your life
Think about something, some task that you would like to do but cannot; something that matters to you that you have tried and failed to do. It could as simple as threading a needle or as complex as writing a book, starting a business, or creating a lasting relationship.
As you think about trying and failing at this task, say, “I can’t do this.” And note how you feel.
Then say, “I will never be able to do this.” And note how you feel.
Finally say, “I will never be able to do anything that matters to me. I am a total failure.”
Not much fun, eh?
Most people who try this thought experiment report escalating feelings of frustration, helplessness and hopelessness, as they negatively judge themselves and their efforts, then draw absolute conclusions about their future.
Now try this:
Think about the same task you thought about above. See yourself trying and failing. Then say, “I can’t do this, yet.” And note how you feel.
Does the last statement make you feel better than the previous one? It does to most people who try this experiment.
Adding “yet” changes your story from a negative, judgmental story of failure to an objective, emotionally neutral description your ability to do the task—at this time, and with current skills.
Saying, “I can’t do it” or “I’ll never do it” usually leads to negative emotions. Such feelings erode energy and can lead to ineffective actions. It is easy to get frustrated, quit, give up.
Then, worse, you might feel bad about your self for quitting, then draw the absolute conclusion that, “I am a quitter. I’ll never do anything worthwhile.”
Such statements and stories are prime causes of depression and anxiety.
On the other hand, saying, “I can’t do it, yet,” helps you step back, look at what you’re doing and try, try again. It also helps you look for other ways to do the task, and/or work on the skills required to master it. Adding “yet” to sentences such as those above increases your energy, and usually leads to more effective actions and better results.
I’ve used this “yet” lesson in teaching and coaching situations from instructing skiing and rock climbing to helping writers who are stuck, entrepreneurs whose ideas are not yet bearing fruit, and hundreds of individuals who feel down, depressed and anxious.
The President of a Fortune 500 company for whom I ran a 5-day mountain-challenge executive team retreat in the Rockies said, “The whole experience was invaluable but the “yet” lesson was the one we immediately put into practice back at work and it produced great results.”
I regularly use the “yet” lesson, and other rational-emotive techniques, with clients who are “stuck” in their lives, careers, relationships and other areas, and with those feeling mildly to moderately depressed, anxious or both.
When Life Gets Too Hard
Here’s another example of how the story you tell yourself can affect your emotions, actions and results.
Imagine that your life is not progressing as you’d like it to. Imagine suffering a set back, a loss of fortune or relationship or that you’re dealing with what seems like overwhelming difficulty. Then say, “Life is hard.” And note how you feel.
Now, say, “Life is soooo hard.” And note how you feel.
Finally, say, “Life is too hard.”
All three sentences are judgments about, not descriptions of, reality. All three distort reality. Each can lead to negative emotions, bad feelings and ineffective actions. Indeed, the last one can lead to strong feelings of helplessness, hopelessness and despair—even to suicide.
I know. I’ve been there.
Deep In The Pit of Despair
Many years ago, I taught high school. Although I loved teaching and adored most of the kids, I despised “the system.” I hated what I felt forced to do by the bureaucratic structure in which I was immersed. I felt stuck, trapped, with nowhere to go.
I’d spent eight years in University. I didn’t want to do another degree. I didn’t think I was fit for any other kind of work. Besides, I had debts to repay and needed a salary. I told myself, “I’m trapped. There’s nothing I can do. I’m doomed; stuck in a classroom forever.”
Such thoughts about myself, my reality and my future not only depressed me, they terrified me. Worse, they led to even scarier and more dysfunctional thoughts. I began to conclude, “This is all there is to life. It’s meaningless. It’s too hard. It feels too awful. I can’t stand it.”
Dark thoughts swarmed around me. I suffered paralyzing anxiety and panic attacks I referred to as The Terror. Fear so sharp and painful it debilitated me struck day and night. I felt helpless, hopeless, overwhelmed, and on the edge of despair.
It got so bad that I almost opted for the ultimate solution—the only way I could see out of the terrifying pain and sadness—or so I thought. Almost every time I stood on a hotel balcony or drove under a concrete bridge abutment, thoughts of ending it all gripped me.
I sought help.
Although doctor-prescribed Valium took the edge off The Terror, it did nothing for my depression, or the thinking that gave rise to my dark, self-defeating emotions.
Overcoming Anxiety and Depression
I quit teaching. I tried various education approaches and different jobs.
Over the next five years, moderated by the drugs, the intensity of what I called “my perambulating nervous breakdown” waxed and waned.
When I worked on projects that had meaning to me, I was fine. I didn’t need the valium.
But when I worked at what I judged to be meaningless and/or “impossible” jobs, the Terror attacked me like an enraged raptor. I struggled to keep sane. But, the anxiety and depression came close to crippling me.
Luckily, four years into my ordeal, I stumbled upon a psychiatrist practicing Rational Emotive Therapy (one of the founding forms of CBT). He also taught Rational Emotional Thinking (RET) as part of his pioneering wellness approach.
Doctor Joe helped me see how I self-created most of my “overwhelming problems,” and my frightening, negative emotions.
He showed me that, by judging reality, exaggerating my self-talk, and blaming others, my situation, or life itself for my “problems,” I thought and talked myself into emotional distress.
He showed me how I created The Terror, by drawing absolute conclusions such as “I’m trapped. I’m doomed. There’s no way out!”
Reading the book Joe gave me—RET founder, Albert Ellis’, A New Guide To Rational Thinking, I taught myself to recognize distressful thoughts, dispute them, and replace them with more functional, self-supporting but realistic thoughts.
By changing the stories I told myself, I changed my feelings, actions and results.
It’s No Quick Fix or Magic Bullet
Initial results were excellent. The Terror faded into the background. Most of my worst feelings of depression and anxiety dissolved within weeks. I relaxed, slept better and felt much better about my life and my future.
But, I quickly learned, if I stopped practicing my new skills, symptoms flooded back.
Chagrined, and fearful of re-experiencing The Terror, I embarked on what became a life-long practice of a technique called The ABC’s, along with other RET/CBT skills that I describe in my Emotional Mastery ebooks.
Slowly but surely, I soothed my anxiety and dug myself out of depression. Later, as I mastered the Life Design skills I now teach and coach others to master, I became able to embrace and transcend almost any challenging circumstance.
After struggling through many dark and frightening winters I, too, found within myself an invincible summer.
You, Too, Can Change Your Stories And Change Your Life
By changing how you talk to yourself and the stories you tell yourself—about your situation, other people and yourself—you can greatly improve the quality of your experience, create improved results and feel much better all around.
I’m not saying it is easy. It is not. It takes practice. But I found that the time and energy I invest in learning how to change my stories is repaid to me many times over in positive feelings, effective actions and successful results.
“Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances.”
— Victor E. Frankl
“The only time we suffer is when we believe a thought that argues with what is. When the mind is perfectly clear, what is is what we want.”
— Byron Katie
“Keep your thoughts positive because your thoughts become your words. Keep your words positive because your words become your behaviors. Keep your behaviors positive because your behaviors become your habits. Keep your habits positive because your habits become your values. Keep your values positive because your values become your destiny.”-
— Mohandas K. Gandhi
“If we don’t change, we don’t grow. If we don’t grow, we are not really living. Growth demands a temporary surrender of security. It may mean giving up familiar but limiting patterns, safe but unrewarding work, values no longer believed in, relationships that have lost their meaning. As Dostoevsky put it, “taking a new step, uttering a new word, is what people fear most.” The real fear should be of the opposite course.“
— Gail Sheehy