There are hundreds of different ideas about how to overcome depression. Get regular exercise. Watch your diet. Examine core beliefs. Enhance social contact. Conduct behavioural activation. Schedule rewarding activities. Buy crystal amulets. Whatever.
When I talk about depression I’m always afraid that I’ll completely bore the audience, because most people could easily recite the same list I do (which doesn’t include the crystals, BTW). Much of depression treatment is tediously common knowledge.
There are some bits of obscure or counterintuitive thinking, however, and they can often be key to the process. One of these is the importance of learning to distrust one’s instincts.
I live on the West Coast of Canada, and not unlike the West Coast of the United States we are supposed to believe in all kinds of things: astrology, past life regression, quantum healing, you name it.
One idea that’s imbedded itself deeply in the psyche of many is that our instincts are always infallible, and that the key to recovery from almost any ailment is to learn to let our instincts guide us.
It’s a lovely idea, but the specifics are often lacking. Like: What IS an instinct? How does it differ from a notion or an assumption? How did instincts get to be so wise? Do they ALWAYS point in the right direction, or only sometimes?
If you dig around in people’s ideas about instinct, a picture usually emerges. An instinct is a behavioural impulse developed not through conscious reasoning or education. It emerges into consciousness with a powerful emotional sense of rightness or conviction (a “feeling in one’s bones”). And, sure enough, it often seems to have access to information that we might not ordinarily use in constructing our plans. It seems mysterious, as though it comes either from a deeper, more knowing part of the self, or from outside. It can even be interpreted as a form of spiritual guidance from unseen deities.
And, importantly, it is always right.
But it isn’t.
Depression is commonly classified as a mood disorder, but really it is a disorder of everything: thought, behaviour, physical functioning, emotion – and instinct. During depression people can exhibit all kinds of deep convictions:
- I am the most worthless (stupidest, least lovable, most offensive) person on earth.
- The things that I once hoped for will not and cannot ever work out.
- This feeling will never pass; I will be depressed like this forever.
- I know with certainty what others think of me, and it’s not anything good.
- Working against this state is futile.
If you ask about these types of ideas, it quickly becomes apparent that these are not (or not entirely) the product of conscious reasoning. They are not viewed as hypotheses, which might be confirmed or disconfirmed. They are certainties. They are as substantial and undeniable as gravity. They are felt in the bones. They have weight.
Try to distinguish these deeply-held beliefs from what people normally think of as instinct, and you quickly descend into hair-splitting.
It’s tempting for believers in the infallibility of instinct to try to fence off depressive (or anxious, or paranoid, or angry) thinking and distinguish it from “true” instinct. But the starting point for this effort is usually a presumption of the positivity or truthfulness of instinct, and so the argument quickly becomes circular. “Instincts are right, and some of the convictions that clients have during depression are wrong, and so even though they feel as solid and indisputable as instincts they can’t really be instinct.”
Rather than trying to make a distinction that the thinker cannot discern (and that I don’t believe really exists), it seems a better option to encourage a buffer of distrust in instinct-like beliefs – particularly ones that align with a form of distress or disorder the person already has.
So a dog phobic should treat their instinctive certainty that the neighbour dog is vicious with suspicion. A manic person needs to cultivate distrust in grandiosity (a difficult task, that one). And a depressed individual needs to view particularly bleak convictions as possibilities rather than certainties.
We don’t need to convince our clients that any particular idea is wrong. They believe one thing, we believe the opposite: Why should they trust our own beliefs over theirs?
But perhaps we do need to point out that depression affects not only our notions, or transitory ideas, but also our deeper instinctive feelings. I like to have clients identify depression-like thoughts that feel particularly instinctive, or solid, to them. We can experience wonder at their solidity, and at the fact that seemingly incontrovertible knowledge can shift, change, or fade.
“Was there ever a person you felt in your gut, in your bones, the sense that we will be friends, or lovers, for as long as we live – and it turned out otherwise?” “Did you ever have a sense of certain knowledge that you were doomed to fail an exam that you subsequently passed?” “Have you ever believed instinctively that someone hates the sight of you, and later found out they quite liked you?”
We don’t have to reform our instincts during depression. We don’t have to turn them into unconditional positivity. We don’t have to stamp out our negative ideas.
But we do have to recognize that the sense of instinctive solidity that comes with them is an illusion. We need to demote them from the realm of knowledge to the less satisfying territory of hypothesis.
And then test them.
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