Depression and self-obsessiveness

Tim Ferriss is one of those voices who I’ve paid close attention to in recent years.

It’s well over a decade since his Four-Hour Work Week catapulted him into the minds of millennials everywhere who were intent on finding freedom before retirement age, but his thoughts and work related to the area of mental health, and major depression in particular, is something else entirely and one that may well reveal him to a much larger and much broader audience — at any rate a much more diverse audience — in time.

He has spoken at length about how depression brought him to the brink of suicide in the past, and last year revealed he was part-funding of potentially revolutionary research in treatments for depression, based on studies of the effects of microdosing of psilocybin, the mind-altering compound found in magic mushrooms.

Ferriss spoke with Ryan Holiday on his podcast last week, and after kicking off by talking about dogs, Ferriss riffed on the antidepressant benefits of owning a puppy because it forced him out of his tendency to ruminate.

Caring for a puppy, at least if you do it well, takes your attention outside of any type of self-indulgent reflection / obsessive-compulsive rumination. I’m someone who has had a history of depression, which is being stuck in the past and being highly self-referential.

Depression is, I think, as someone who has experienced it a lot in life, very self-obsessive. So when you have something in front of you that requires and demands care or it’s gonna pee on your carpet every two and a half hours, like Molly my dog, it’s incredibly antidepressive because it forces a complete refocus.

A key element of cognitive behavioral therapy is to address rumination: the seemingly endless and unbreakable cycle of typically negative and, yes, self-obsessive thoughts of the depressive.

These thoughts are generally, although not always, focused on the past. Things that didn’t work out as well as they could. Things that might have gone differently. Mistakes made that have brought you to this point in time, and the inability to reverse the clock and change them.

Anxiety and depression: two sides of one coin?

Anxiety feels a bit like the flip side of the depression coin. Many people who suffer from depression also suffer from anxiety, and vice versa; it’s unclear where causality or correlation lie, but it’s well established that depression might cause anxiety and that anxiety might cause depression, in an ever-spiralling negative cycle that needs to be broken if life can be lived at all.

Anxiety is obsessing negatively about the future, and depression is obsessing negatively about the past and the present, and both hugely affect the present, where one or both can be totally debilitating. It’s not for nothing that the World Health Organisation describes depression as a leading cause of disability globally.

The most debilitating thing about depression

The most debilitating thing, however, might just be the thought that depression (or anxiety) are just an unavoidable part of who we are, and therefore an empirical fact that cannot be challenged or changed.

The way I think of it in my case: I have struggled for years with many bouts of major depression. But depression is not a part of me. A susceptibility to depression is. And that’s a very different thing.

As always, the recovery starts first with awareness, and secondly action based on that awareness.

The awareness is mostly already there — as Guru Singh has said, “If you’re depressed you’re paying attention” — and it’s the beating down of that awareness, the refusal to believe the things of which we are deeply aware, that can make us depressed.

The action can be a different task entirely. For us depressives, taking any action can often be a step too far, but finding a way to take even one small step, and finding our footing there before trying another, can have massive positive long-term benefits.

The far-reaching benefits of one small step

Taking even one small step forward shows us that taking a step forward is possible. And if we can take one small step, and follow it sometime soon with another, perhaps we can keep taking small steps until our condition is under control, or at least not a constant threat of inflicting cataclysm on our lives.

Doing something that doesn’t just encourage us to take a few steps forward, but forces us to — something like owning a puppy — can set the ball rolling in a way that might have far-reaching benefits in months and years to come.

Doing something that forces action upon us can lift us up and out of the self-obsessiveness for long enough to take a couple of these small steps.


The spectrum of the human condition includes everyone

The human condition is everything, and by the very definition — we are human — it affects all of us. Let me go further: The human condition is all of us.

But first, a definition (as offered by Wiktionary). The human condition is

the characteristics, key events, and situations which compose the essentials of human existence, such as birth, growth, emotionality, aspiration, conflict, and mortality.

Wise old Shakespeare gave his take on the human condition memorably as the seven acts of being in his “All the world’s a stage” monologue from As You Like It.

The human condition — this state of being human — contains everything: joy and sadness, love and grief, certainty and doubt, clarity and overwhelming ambiguity.

In this era of extraordinary and unprecedented technological change (I hesitate to say “progress”), it contains all the collective state of figuring-things-out that all of us now experience simultaneously.

This can become manifest in anyone as fear or anxiety or violence or addiction or depression or self-sabotage.

The difference, at an individual level, is not between those who experience suffering and doubt, and those who do not.

The difference, knowing that suffering and doubt affects everyone, is in how we respond to it.

To learn from the past but not wallow there. To plan for the future but not become slave to its multitude of possibilities.

To choose to stay present as much as we can, to decide what is the next right thing to do, and to do it as best we can.

What’s in a name? Names, labels and depression

There are a few lines in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, the “what’s in a name?” lines about names and titles and labels.

Juliet is locked in passionate conversation with Romeo, talking about the fact that the obstacle to their joy is nothing more and nothing less than his family name.

‘Tis but thy name that is my enemy;
Thou art thyself, though not a Montague.
What’s Montague? It is nor hand, nor foot,
Nor arm, nor face, nor any other part
Belonging to a man.

What matters most, she says, is what something is, and not what it is called:

What’s in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet.

It transpires over the rest of the play, of course, that a war over names can be an unwinnable one.

(Arthur Miller, three and a half centuries after Shakespeare, was just as aware of this. John Proctor, his protagonist in The Crucible, talked about his name in a scene made memorable to many by Daniel Day-Lewis’s film version.)

Names vs Labels

Labels, on the other hand, are different to names.

We are born with our name, most of us, but labels are a story we tell ourselves.

That story can serve us, but just as often that story can limit us.

I vividly remember, during a spell of counselling three years ago, taking the GAD-7 and PHQ-9, the two short questionnaires that determined if I was suffering from Generalised Anxiety Disorder or Depression, and if so where I sat on the scale, from Mild to Moderate to Severe.

A couple of years previously, during a series of sessions with a psychotherapist, I had taken the tests and been diagnosed as clinically depressed, my score giving me the label Severe Depression.

For the next two years, I clung to that label like a crutch. I had Depression, and it was so bad that my label was Severe.

When I sat the test again two years later, with a different counsellor, the score came back as Moderate.

“No,” I thought, illogically. “I’m at the Severe end.”

I didn’t voice it but my unspoken thought was,

Please don’t take away my Severe Depression.

It was the first time that I started to think about these labels and what they were doing, how they were propping me up and holding me back.

Shakespeare wrote and Juliet said, “That which we call a rose / By any other name would smell as sweet.”

Labels that can empower us and those around us can be beneficial for our world and everything in it.

On the other side of the equation, though, recognising that labels can limit us and hold us back can be more powerful still.

What’s in a name? The heavy label of depression

Now, I don’t consider that I “have” depression. Occasionally, I become depressed, and that depressed state can run deep and lay me low. It can still confuse me, overwhelm me, de-energise me, so much that there are times that I need an outlet. Times that I need to retreat to a dark room where my phone and my email can’t reach me.

Jim Carrey says that “depressed” can be rewritten as “deep rest”. That being depressed is out body’s way of telling us that we need deep rest. That resonated with me.

Now, I choose to see what I previously thought of as “depression” as something different. As something even positive. It is a call from my core to pay attention, not to push through. When I try to push through, the wheels can spin and I embed myself deeper in the dirt. When I pay attention to what’s going on, and choose to take some deep rest, I find that I return to positive energy quickly.

In this way, I’m extraordinarily grateful what may in the past have turned into a couple of months of depression I can now limit to a couple of days or even a couple of hours.

Labels can be as powerful as names. When we attach a label to something, we give it a realness and a normality and a power that we might find impossible to overcome.

But when we consider that labels are artificial, and that we can remove them or change them whenever we please, just by deciding to, they can be overcome.

When deep down we want to move forward, labels can justify procrastination. When deep down we want to lead the way, labels can prevent us from stepping up. When our inner spirit urges us to speak up, labels can compel us to quiet down.

Overcoming a name can be an insurmountable challenge. But a label is different. Labels are artificial and we can take it off and choose a different one, one that serves us and empowers us, almost any time we please.

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Pessimism is a game that’s impossible to win

One of the enemies of happiness, of peace of mind in the moment, is pessimism: the uncertainty, anxiety and fear we have about the future at any given point in time.

Jane Austen, the 19th century novelist, has a line in Emma that goes: “Perfect happiness, even in memory, is not common.”

For many of us, though, memory is the only place where we’re truly happy. Because when we remember any given situation, the one thing that we don’t recall, because it has been erased by the passage of time, is the uncertainty and fear about the future that we held in that particular moment.

(Kevin Barry is an Irish novelist working 200 years after Austen. His thoughts on happiness owe something to this retrospective state of happiness, of a happiness in memory because the memory doesn’t contain the uncertainty, anxiety and fear that we held deep in our psyches in real time. He told Blindboy in a live podcast interview recently, “I’m generally moaning and grizzling at the time, but as soon as I leave a place I become nostalgic for it. I think, Yeah, I was happy back there.”)

So how do we become happy in real time? How do we have that peace of mind in the moment that is a hallmark of true happiness?

Things can go wrong. Things can always go wrong. Things do go wrong.

But how often do things go right? Or at least, how often do things not go wrong in the way that we have projected in our minds?

Retreating into pessimism about the future, allowing ourselves to be anxious about things going wrong, is a game that is impossible to win.

As Tesla founder Elon Musk, in an interview with Joe Rogan in September, said, “I’d rather be optimistic and wrong, than pessimistic and right.”

Pessimism is a game we can’t win, even if we’re right.

And optimism is a game that helps us win, even if we’re wrong.

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