Depression infiltrates your thoughts like a virus of the mind. You might realize on one level that your depressed thoughts are illogical or extreme… but they feel so true.
My life is going nowhere.
I’m a failure.
What’s the point in anything?
Depression also takes over your emotions. You may feel overwhelmed, sad, stuck, regretful, or apathetic (not caring about anything). Paradoxically, emotionally numbness can be painful, too.
And if that wasn’t enough, depression even tries to control your actions. It convinces you to stay in bed, just a few more hours. It tells you to eat more, or less. It talks you out of showering or doing housework.
Or, maybe not. Maybe you just go about your daily life, with a smile on your face, and no one knows how you feel inside. You feel like your depression isn’t “bad enough” to warrant help.*
(*Truth is, everyone who wants help, deserves help. You don’t have to “earn” it or have it “worse off” than other people).
Your depression may try to convince you that you’re lazy, or stupid, or boring. That’s where self-compassion comes in.
In my work with clients and in my own experience, what helps people with depression above all else is practicing self-compassion.
Self-compassion is the practice of being gentle and kind to yourself.
To practice self-compassion, imagine talking to yourself like you would talk to your best friend. If your best friend told you they were depressed, would you say they’re just lazy and tell them to go to hell? Of course not! So why do we* treat ourselves like that?
(*I said “why do WE” rather than “why do you” because being much harder on yourself than on others is a very normal phenomenon. It happens to myself, my clients, and humans in general. That said, people with depression are often even harsher on themselves than the general public).
With practice, we can absolutely unlearn the ways we are harsh with ourselves, and increase our self-compassion.
That doesn’t mean you have to be a Pollyanna. Neutral thoughts work just as well as positive ones – in some cases, better. In the list below, I’ve tried to include a mix of both.
- Things are really tough for me right now.
- I feel _____________________________ (fill in the blank with an emotion word – sad, upset, trapped, scared).
- Everyone has probably felt how I feel right now at some point in their life – even people who really seem like they have it together.
- It’s important for me to take care of myself when I’m depressed, the same way I would take care of myself when I have a cold or flu.
- I’m learning and growing a little more every day, even when it doesn’t feel like it.
- I am my harshest critic, and my reviews aren’t always fair to me.
- Depression is part of my life, but it isn’t my whole life.
- I can’t get rid of my depression, but I can control ____________________ (my behaviors, my attitude, the way the throw pillows sit on the couch, etc.)
- Despite how hard it is to get anything done with depression, today I accomplished _____________________.
- One thing I am good at is ____________________.
- I like _____________________ about my appearance.
- Many people compliment me on ______________________.
- A value that I live by consistently is __________________________.
How can I practice self-compassion if I don’t believe what I’m saying?
Yep, I hear you. It can feel silly or embarrassing to tell yourself things that you don’t believe.
Here’s the thing: The more you practice self-compassion, the more you will actually start to believe what you’re telling yourself.
Think about it: The first time that someone told you brussel sprouts were delicious, did you believe them? I certainly didn’t. They’re green, they smell like farts… no thanks.
For me, it wasn’t until multiple people in my life told me how much they loved brussel sprouts, and I tried eating them several times, prepared several ways… that I actually realized I LOVE brussel sprouts!
So yes, you are brussel sprouts. Right now, you might not understand why anyone would want to be compassionate to you. But in time and with practice, I think you’ll really start to get it.
Okay, if that metaphor didn’t resonate, here’s another: Practicing self-compassion is kind of like working out. After the first time you do 50 crunches, you aren’t going to have washboard abs (if only!). You have to work out regularly in order to see the results. It’s the same with self-compassion.
What if I can’t remember or think of self-compassionate thoughts?
Funny you ask. Did you know that depression can actually cause difficulties with memory and retention? Well, it can.
If you have problems remembering self-compassionate thoughts, print out the list above and put it on your nightstand. Read it every night before you go to bed.
Better yet, write your own Self-Compassionate Thoughts! Put them on brightly colored sticky notes. Put one on the mirror, one on the fridge, one on your computer…
Or, start a Self-Compassionate Thoughts journal. Write one new sentence in it every night.
Try a few of these ideas, and see what works best for you!
Rebecca Ogle is a licensed therapist who practices online counseling in Illinois. Rebecca empowers millennials to cope with anxiety, depression, self-esteem, and relationship problems using their strengths and inner wisdom.