The following is a transcript of this video.
“I am in that temper that if I were under water I would scarcely kick to come to the top.” (John Keats)
Rare is the individual who goes through life without at some point being afflicted by the anguish to which Keats refers. Sometimes this is triggered by an adverse or tragic event, but often merely reflecting on the discrepancy between how our life is and how it could have been, can cast a shadow over our very existence. For most people these feelings prove temporary, the dark clouds that felt so consuming in the moment lift almost spontaneously, and life resumes on course. But for others these feelings do not abate with time, but only intensify and depression sets in. One comes to view them self as worthless, as an object1 of pity, hate, and anger, and life becomes a burden of the greatest magnitude.
The question as to what leads people into the depths of depression has been debated for millennia. Why can some people recover quickly from adversity, while similar circumstances push others into a prolonged misery? Over the past several decades, there has been an increasing focus on the biological causes of depression. But while our genes and biology may predispose us to depression, there is no denying that how we choose to live, and the patterns of thought and behaviour we cultivate, are also of great importance. Not all ways of life are equal if we wish to avoid the acute suffering associated with depression and in this video we are going to examine one way of life that has repeatedly been identified by philosophers and psychologists as placing one at a great risk for depression. Specifically, we are going to discuss the danger of relying too heavily on a limited number of sources for our feelings of self-worth.
As humans we have a need to feel that our life is of value and that we are here on earth not merely to take up space, consume resources, and ultimately to die. This need to think well of our self, and to have others do the same, is one of the most fundamental shapers of our life. For without feeling that we are an individual of worth, we suffer, and so much of what we do is driven to satisfy this need. The job we take, who we associate with, the status symbols we adopt, and the social issues we champion, are all influenced by whether they help or hinder us in this regard.
The more sources we have from which to obtain our feelings of self-worth the better. But some people, often by virtue of their upbringing, greatly restrict themselves in this regard and in so doing, they predispose themselves to depression. For depression is often the result of a combination of two factors. The loss of a valued object in conjunction with psychological rigidity2, which is the inability to produce variability in our patterns of thought and behaviour, and to creatively adapt to changes in our environment. Our risk for both these factors increases the more we rely on one, or a few objects, for our feelings of self-worth.
In some cases, people rely too heavily on another person. Such are the individuals in constant need of the praise of a parent or a spouse to feel good about themselves. Rather than believing they can imbue their life with meaning and become an individual of worth through self-directed action such people always seek assurance, direction, and validation from what can be called their dominant other.3
But while those who live like this may have good reasons for having slipped into such an existence, unfortunately this way of life never cures what ails them. For the more we rely on another person to validate our worth, the more psychologically rigid we will become. We will never cultivate the crucial ability to attain self-esteem through our own efforts. And discovering how to feel like an individual of worth without the constant praise of another, is a necessary life skill. For if one’s dominant other dies, or abandons them, the lack of this ability will quickly take its toll and depression, and sometimes of a severe nature, may result. Or as Ernest Becker aptly put it, such a person
“. . .has lost the only audience for whom the plot in which he was performing was valid. He is left in the hopeless despair of the actor who knows only one set of lines and loses the one audience who wants to hear it”. (Ernest Becker, The Revolution in Psychiatry)
In other cases, rather than relying on a dominant other, some people adopt grandiose life goals and the hope that one day they will achieve such goals, becomes the primary source of their self-worth. This tactic is often resorted to by individuals who lack satisfying interpersonal relationships. Perhaps such a person grew up with emotionally distant parents, was ostracized by his or her peers, or experienced too much rejection later in life. But whatever the case, if one repeatedly fails to find the acceptance of others, eventually he is likely to believe that there is something fundamentally wrong with him. He must become someone else if he is ever to become worthy of the love and respect of others. And what better way to do this than by accomplishing a magnificent feat such as becoming a famous musician, a best-selling author, a successful entrepreneur, or something else of a grandiose nature. Believing that one day he will accomplish his goal and therefore find the acceptance he so desires, can imbue his life with meaning and help him feel that he is an individual of worth, or at least on the path in that direction.
But like the life lived in the service of a dominant other, this way of life also places one at a great risk for depression. The problem, it must be stressed, is not the focusing on a single goal, as often we need to limit our goals so as not to dissipate our resources. Rather the risk for depression arises when we stake too much on the achievement of any single goal – especially if the goal is of a grandiose nature. For while some achieve their grandiose goals, most people do not. And as the years pass and the goal remains nothing but a fantasy, the realization eventually sets in that it is unlikely that success will ever be achieved. And therefore, like the individual whose dominant other dies, so too do those who stake their existence on the achievement of a dominant goal also experience a death – but in this case it is the symbolic death of the individual they hoped to be:
“…when the ambitious man whose slogan is “Either Caesar or nothing” does not get to be Caesar, he despairs over it. But this also means something else: precisely because he did not get to be Caesar, he now cannot bear to be himself.” (Soren Kierkegaard, The Sickness Unto Death)
But no matter how we go about limiting the range of sources from which we attain our feelings of self-worth, the problem is the same. When we lose the object on which we staked our well-being we will be at a loss of where to turn. Or as Silvano Arieti explains in his book Psychotherapy of Severe and Mild Depression:
“The depressed person…sees a big discrepancy between what he aspired to in terms of human relations and life goals and what he can achieve in this meager reality. He cannot solve the conflict. What is available is not acceptable to him, and what would be acceptable he cannot grasp. He experiences the tragic situation of having no choice.” (Silvano Arieti, Psychotherapy of Severe and Mild Depression)
While psychological rigidity, or the foreclosure to alternative ways of living, is especially prevalent in those who live for a dominant other or a dominant goal, we all run the risk of becoming too rigid in our ways. Most people glue themselves a little too tightly to a certain persona, or social mask, and rely too heavily on things such as looks or other status symbols for their feelings of worth. To avoid the pitfalls of psychological rigidity, we should take a page out of the Stoic play book and periodically mediate on the fact that we can, and indeed probably will, lose some of the things we value most.
“The object of your love is mortal; it is not one of your possessions; it has been given to you for the present, not inseparably nor forever.” (Epictetus, The Discourses)
But with that said when we do lose something of great value, it is likely that we will experience at least a temporary descent into the darkness of depression. These periods, however, should not be viewed as wholly without worth, for often it is during these times that we see the world, and our place in it, a little more clearly. Or as Herman Melville put it:
“The intensest light of reason and revelation combined, cannot shed such blazonings upon the deeper truths in man, as will sometimes proceed from his own profoundest gloom. Utter darkness is then his light, and cat-like he distinctly sees all objects through a medium which is mere blindness to common vision.” (Herman Melville, Pierre, Or The Ambiguities)
To avoid descending too deep into the chasm of mental pain that accompanies depression, it should be recognized that there are always alternative sources from which we can attain our feelings of self-worth. But to discover such sources an active approach to life must be taken, we must try new things and experiment with new patterns of thought and behaviour. For while a period of mourning can be beneficial following a loss, a deep depression will set in if we stagnate in such a state for too long.
“The work of changing – indeed, the work of living – cannot be done on one’s behalf by another person…We can learn important lessons from those who have gone before us…But, ultimately, each of us faces a unique configuration of challenges and a very personal responsibility for the choices we make in moving onward with our lives. We have only partial information, limited understanding, and imperfect control. Yet the physical world and our social communities hold us responsible. Such is our shared existential predicament.” (Michael Mahoney, Constructive Psychotherapy)
- Mahoney, M. J. (1996). Human change processes: The scientific foundations of psychotherapy. New York, NY: BasicBooks.
- Young, J. E., Klosko, J. S., & Weishaar, M. E. (2007). Schema therapy: A practitioners guide. New York: Guilford.
- Arieti, S., & Bemporad, J. (1993). Psychotherapy of severe and mild depression. Northvale, NJ: J. Aronson.