Giving yourself proper credit is an important mental habit for overcoming depression.
Give yourself credit for your accomplishments. Give yourself credit for your positive personal qualities. Give yourself credit for your positive impact on the world around you.
Depression can make this hard to do. Depression pushes us to downplay anything positive about ourselves and to exaggerate anything negative. We automatically reach for the worst possible interpretation of everything in our live. We reject praise and compliments. Sometimes we apply derogatory labels to ourselves. To overcome depression, we need to find a way to fight this negative bias about ourselves.
The term “self-esteem” gets a bad rap these days. For depression sufferers, however, “low self-esteem” can be very real, painful and debilitating. Boosting our self-esteem back to a realistic, healthy middle ground takes work, but it’s worth the effort.
In Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy, David Burns lists the “cognitive distortions” typical of depressed thinking. Distortion #4 is “Disqualifying the Positive”.
Disqualifying the positive is one of the most destructive forms of cognitive distortion. You’re like a scientist intent on finding evidence to support some pet hypothesis. The hypothesis that dominates your depressive thinking is usually some version of “I’m second-rate.” Whenever you have a negative experience, you dwell on it and conclude, “That proves what I’ve known all along.” In contrast, when you have a positive experience, you tell yourself, “That was a fluke. It doesn’t count.” The price you pay for this tendency is intense misery and an inability to appreciate the good things that happen.
Does that sound familiar? Sure does to me. So how can we resist and reverse this tendency?
Becoming aware of this tendency is a major first step. Notice when depression steers you toward a negative view of your character and your efforts. Notice when depression urges you to “disqualify the positive”. Catch yourself thinking this way, don’t let it keep happening automatically.
Recognizing this way of thinking as distorted is a second key step. Depression tries to convince us that its unrelentingly negative view is accurate, but it’s not. Depression deceives. This constantly negative self-image is not just hurtful, it’s wrong. In order to feel better, we need to look past those distortions and see ourselves more clearly.
The third step is giving yourself credit. Allow yourself to acknowledge your positive qualities and accomplishments. You don’t have to pretend to be perfect, just build a more honest, more well-rounded self-image that includes those positives.
There are a few mental exercises you can undertake to get there.
Take pride in your accomplishments. Take a few minutes to remind yourself of good things you’ve accomplished, things that you’re justifiably proud of. Look at your past and present, brainstorm a bit.
You might feel a nagging negative impulse urging you to dismiss accomplishments (“that wasn’t a big deal”) and deny yourself pride. That’s depression pushing back. Resist that impulse. Allow yourself to feel pride.
Be totally honest. These should be things that you truly consider accomplishments, things that matter to you. Some might be very small things. Include grand public triumphs, but also include times that you were kind and supportive to someone in need. This isn’t a job interview, it’s just you being honest with yourself.
This process works best if you write things down. I keep a journal devoted to depression-fighting exercises, and I highly recommend this practice. Writing makes things stick in your mind more firmly. You can review or add to this list next time you need encouragement.
Remind yourself of your positive qualities. In the same way, take a few minutes to write down your positive qualities, a self-portrait of you at your best.
When you’re depressed, this can be difficult. Susan Noonan, author of Managing Your Depression: What You Can Do to Feel Better and guest on the first Smash Depression Podcast episode, writes:
Depression takes away your sense of self as a whole human being, leaving you with the feeling that there is nothing in life BUT depression. Your baseline self seems to fade into the background. Your usual characteristics are still there, they are just hidden down deep and over-ridden by the stronger symptoms of depression.
Noonan recommends making a special effort to “stay connected to your baseline self”.
You should start by remembering your positive qualities, strengths, skills, interests, preferences, likes, and dislikes relating to everything around you. Try to recall what makes you you. Start to paint an internal picture of yourself when you are well and at your baseline self. Then, using these qualities, construct a statement for yourself (only) that describes who you are, what you are about. Keep that in the back of your mind and use it to boost yourself at times when you are down or overwhelmed by your circumstances.
This is great advice. Again, this process works best if you write it all down.
Keep this exercise honest and personal. Don’t list qualities you think you should possess, and don’t concern yourself with what other people might think about you. This is just for you.
Learn to accept compliments and praise. Many of us reflexively respond to compliments with a polite rebuttal — “it was nothing” or “you’re just saying that to be nice”. Depression makes this process more vicious. Praise conflicts with our negative self-image, and depression urges us to reject it automatically because we couldn’t possibly deserve it.
Learn to resist this kneejerk rejection. Learn to accept compliments and praise, both outwardly and inwardly. You don’t have to be arrogant about it (“you’re right, I’m awesome”), just accept praise politely in the spirit it was bestowed. Accept that the other person meant the praise sincerely. When you deserve praise, accept that you deserve praise and let yourself feel good about it.
For someone who has not experienced depression, this all might sound egocentric. List my own accomplishments? List my own positive qualities? Bask in praise and compliments? Isn’t this advice encouraging people to be self-absorbed and boastful?
Not really. People battling depression are invariably not egocentric enough. Depression imposes an irrationally negative self-image, and we need to make the extra effort to fight back.
Giving yourself credit, actively reminding yourself of your positives, helps to restore balance, clarity, strength and hope.
Photo credit: Lin Mei on Flicker.