The skills of depression

I have found a lovely resource, a book about depression that is unlike other books about depression.  It is called Undoing Depression: What Therapy Doesn’t Teach You and What Medication Can’t Give You.  Doesn’t that title grab you?  The author is Richard O’Connor, who is a therapist but more importantly, is a person who has depression.

Undoing depression

So what’s so lovely about this book?  Well, first off, he discussed the skills of depression…the particular abilities that being depressed seems to hone in people.  For example, depressed people are good at isolating, or separating feeling from experience, so that we have experiences but we don’t have the emotion you might expect to go with it.   Depressed people are skillful at procrastination:  it keeps us from, as the author says, “ever having to put your best self on the line,” because we always run out of time. (Oh, boy, can I ever relate to that!   Waiting until the last minute meant I never really knew if I would actually get through graduate school).    Depressed people are skillful at negative self-talk, at pessimism, at setting impossible goals or having no goals and lots of guilt.  Depressed people are good at setting themselves up to make sure that a negative view of the world is supported:  that is, undermining ourselves…perhaps before we can be undermined by others.  There are more skills but you probably get the picture.

The great thing about this approach is that skills are something that are learned.  They are not innate characteristics;  they are not who we are.    They are coping methods that we developed to manage our depression. So we had a traumatic childhood, or we were bullied in the workplace, or a parent died or left the family.  Or we have family members with depression, and we both inherited their predispositions and watched and learned from depressed behaviour.    Whatever the story that generated our depression,  we have used these methods to cope.  But they are skills….learned and therefore un-learnable.   If we learned these skills, we can learn other skills.

Aha!  so my tendency to procrastinate and put my job at risk, and isolate myself and put my relationships at risk, and to engage in pessimistic and negative thinking and put my own safety at risk…those are skills I have learned to cope with depression.   They are not character flaws.  They are not immutable parts of my self.  They are SKILLS.

Somehow, that is a tremendously hopeful message.

One of the keys to undoing,  according to O`Connor (and a lot of other people, including researchers) is to cultivate mindfulness.   Mindfulness is practically a buzzword these days;  everyone is being mindful of something, somehow.  But the mindfulness that seems to be particularly useful in retraining people who are skilled in depression is of a particular type.  Mindfulness is “spending time paying attention in a particular way:  on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally,”   according to Jon Kabat-Zinn.  According to O`Connor, it is about  “deliberately trying to attain a new attitude toward your own thoughts, feelings, and everyday experience, a viewing of oneself with compassionate curiosity.”  This practice is embodied by meditation, the content of which is one’s own experience in the moment.


The ability to see oneself, to experience one`s moment by moment being, complete with thoughts, emotions, images, and body sensations, is to free oneself from the anchors of the past and the anxieties of the future.  For a few minutes every day, you can be as free as possible from all of those things that otherwise feel like constraints.   During mindfulness practice, we can learn to defuse from our thinking, those beliefs about ourselves, others, and the world that limit us.   We can be just as we are and see what that is like.


This kind of practice enables a freedom in the world, as well as on the meditation cushion.   I am thinking that perhaps that`s part of O’Connor’s message.   When I create some  space away from the skills of depression, I am aware of being able to make choices in how I will be, how I will respond, how I will live in the world.   And that is a place from which skills for the full experience of living can develop.


Why I hate winter….but not really

I think possibly I have developed some faith.

I have been thinking about winter.  It is hard to NOT think about winter, since we are smack in the middle of it here in Atlantic Canada.  My smarter-than-me phone told me this morning it was ZERO degrees American.   That’s cold, for me.   When you translate to the 19.6 degrees Celsius it is less compelling for someone raised on the Fareinheit system, but zero….whew.  It is winter.

Winter conjures a lot of negative stuff for me.  Old family of origin stuff, of course.  Winters were long and hard in Maine when I was a kid.   My family was fairly poor, but only as poor as most of my classmates, so we all knew what it meant to have the house barely warm enough to keep the pipes from freezing, and that when we went out to play it was wearing extra layers of clothes we already had, not special technical fabrics or down or polyester filling to our coats and pants.  Down was for rich people and polyester hadn’t been invented yet.   So there was a lot of cold and wet involved in winter, and that special, awful, burning feeling in your hands and feet as they start to warm up again after playing outside for hours in the snow.

I also had the spectre of my mother, who was not a warm, positive influence at the best of times.  She was at her worst in winter;  felt closed in, imprisoned by winter and by being a mother-at-home without a car.   So there are some negative things that just arise for me when it is cold and snowy.


I have worked hard to restructure that part of my brain. In 1994, when I moved from Louisiana to upstate New York, I was determined to make winter my friend.  I got snowshoes.  I got really excellent snow tires, four of them.  None of that “all weather radial” nonsense for me;  after my first accidental 360 with my all weather tires, I replaced them.   I got cross-country skis and taught myself to use them.  (Note:  simply translating my running skills to skis was not a good strategy. It was years later that I had to unlearn a whole pile of bad habits).  I put on extra sweaters, extra blankets, and sucked up the extra expense to have my house warm enough for me to feel okay.

Fast forward to now.  I live in Canada.   As my brother and his wife asked, in all kindness, “What were you thinking?”   They, of course, live in balmy Chicago.   But yes, I live in Canada and suffice it to say that I wasn’t thinking about winter when I made that decision.   I am here now, though, and working through my negativity every single day.   Every winter day, that is.

winter trees
winter trees

I heard on the radio that loveliest of winter expressions from Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons at the very same moment I reflected that in only 12 weeks, or less, actually, we’ll be celebrating the vernal equinox.   And that’s the faith part.   I have learned to have faith in the sun rising and setting, and in the days lengthening and shortening.   Nothing stays the same but this pattern of change is something I can count on.

BUT…and this is a big BUT………I don’t want to spend the next twelve weeks wishing for winter to be over.  That’s not okay with me;  that’s like giving away three months of my life and I don’t have it to spare!   So it isn’t enough to just grit my teeth and wish for spring, resisting what is actually happening in hope that the future will be different, better, a destination.

That’s a hell of a way to live your life, waiting for the next thing to happen.  I think I have had enough of that.

Sun rise in winter
Sun rise in winter

I wonder how much of my childhood self is caught up in my winter blues?   The self that didn’t have any hope for change, that had no capacity to take action on my own behalf, the child who was stuck in a family and home where unhappiness was always the order of the day….that’s who is awake and operating when my negative side starts to dominate.

So I need to reconnect with my faith in the pattern of life on this planet:     because I can count on the sun, I don’t have to give my winter away to negativity and complaining.  I can take care of me.   I can notice how I feel and think about winter.  I can sit quietly with those thoughts and feelings.  I can remember how it was to be a kid in that setting, and also remember that I am no longer that child, no longer in that life.   Now I have choices:    I can ski, and snowshoe, and eat roasted root vegetables, and drink warm comforting drinks and be present to the winter, without wanting it to hurry by to get to spring.   Some days I’ll likely resist the winter, and feel constricted and angry and frustrated by what I perceive as the limits of the season.   Whether I resist or not, though, I know this:  the sun will rise.  The sun will set.  The days will grow longer and then, in June, they’ll begin to grow shorter.  No matter how I feel about any of it, this pattern of change will go on.   On this I can depend.

Days of darkness

Dawn is easy to find this time of year, in New Brunswick.  It happens so late in the day that most people who are not teenagers are likely to up when the sun appears.   By the same token, the sun sets early, too….earlier and earlier for the next six weeks.   I am grateful to be living here on Atlantic time.  When I lived in Bangor, Maine, on Eastern time (but only a wee bit to the west of here), the sun was effectively gone from the sky well before four pm in latest fall.   It always seems hard to me to go to work in the dark and return from work in the dark;  to have all of the daylight hours taken by work, presumably indoor work.  But when I lived in Maine, that four pm darkness was really hard to take.




We exacerbate the body’s struggle with the dark hours by adding a time change to the situation.   The decision-makers don’t live here.   They live in a more moderate, more temperate, more middle place, one where the length of day doesn’t fluctuate as much with the calendar.   They may also live a more indoor life.   When the light your body lives in is generated artificially, internal processes change.   There are concrete, physiological reasons why people feel better in the summer, at least in this climate, and sun exposure is a part of that.    So as the days grow longer, I get out my therapy lightbox and make sure that most days I get some sunlight or some light from the box.   I notice the ways that we as a society create cultural experiences and values to help us get through this darkness.   I carefully consider what I need and want to support me in feeling well and whole while the darkness feels encompassing.  And I actively try to think positive thoughts about the dark days.


What changes do you notice in your body as the days get shorter?

How do you honour the body’s needs?   Are you able to sit back and reflect on what you need during this time of year?

Can you notice the pull of social demands around the holidays and then choose whether and how to join in?  More on that later….



Fall bounty


I’ve been writing and thinking about darkness, and the lack of light, and how the late fall contributes to my own desire to hibernate.  But here is a lovely little picture of the fruits of the fall;  vegetables at the Boyce Farmer’s Market in early November.   The colours are muted, compared to summer vegetables and fruits, but they are still full of good nutrition and of course the pungent onion may help us to remember that we are, in fact, alive…if we can smell and taste and even tear up due to a vegetable!

The darkness is an opportunity.  It provides us with a chance to slow down, to listen to the still small voice within, to take stock of our lives and our selves.   The holiday season is a last final frantic rush of business before winter;   perhaps a way that we try to distract ourselves from the realities of reflection.   I used to be so busy that I didn’t have time to think, to stop and ponder, to wonder.   I suspect I used to make myself that busy.  Of course social expectations support busyness…do you know anyone who says, oh, I’m not that busy…?   People find being busy to be a status symbol of some sort.   But I think often we want to stay too busy to look at ourselves and look at our lives.  We are too busy to feel our feelings, except superficially.   We like it that way.

The darkness and the cold draw us toward quiet, toward reflection.   Rather than being something to try to escape, perhaps we could see them as opportunities to carefully consider how we are living.   Taking some quiet time in the dark days may help illuminate a path for the future, for a way for life to be different or maybe just for US to be different.

Make sure you take some quiet time this solstice season.  Don’t let the forced gaiety of the holidays overwhelm your need for time for yourself.  Don’t let social expectations flood you so that you can’t feel what you really feel.  Just because “everyone” is happy, you don’t have to pretend.  And know, too, that everyone is NOT happy.   People feel what they feel, and usually that’s a range of feelings.

May the blessings of the season of darkness be yours.

Defensive cleaning….or whatever.

I just got home from a long weekend trip.  The trip involved a celebration with a number of family members whom I don’t see often.  The celebration was wonderful, the visits with adults and children in the family were lovely, and I got to see a part of the world that I haven’t visited for a long time.

NOT the house I was cleaning…

Once home though, I found myself frantically busy:  doing laundry, tidying up my things, looking around the house critically and cleaning, cleaning, cleaning.   I know when I get like that, something is happening that is a lot more than I have a dirty house.  In fact, the house wasn’t particularly dirty but I was particularly wired up…I went out to run five kilometers and came home to vacuum and dust and wash countertops.  At one point during this compulsive vacuuming, I finally asked myself the relevant question:  what is it that I have to clean up?  What untidiness am I fending off?  What messiness am I afraid of?

I stopped in mid stroke of the vacuum as the answer smacked me in the head.  Okay, that didn’t really happen but the metaphor is apt:  I felt like I needed to smack my forehead.  Of course.  I am busying myself so I won’t feel my sadness at leaving my children and grandchild yet again.  I am pushing away the very real and painful longing to stay close and connected to these people to whom I am powerfully attached.   I am displacing those feelings by being irritated at the dog hair and normal untidiness of a lived-in home.

Yeah, so Freud was right.   We DO defend ourselves against our feelings….our sadness, our anger, our longing, our fears.   Do you know what you do when you are trying NOT to feel something?

Drink your water…it makes a difference!

This link goes to an Atlantic article that summarizes a new research study demonstrating a causal relationship between mild dehydration and slowed thinking, poorer concentration, and lowered mood state.  The lesson?  Drink your water even before you feel thirsty!  It can’t hurt and it might help.


Study of the Day: Mild Dehydration Alters Mood, Makes Thinking Hard – Hans Villarica – Health – The Atlantic.

Anger: What’s mine, what’s yours?

Trying to figure out anger just doesn’t work.   Mostly we want to “figure out” who is to blame for our anger, who “made me angry?”  Along with that, we have a belief that we can only let go of our anger if some other person changes their behaviour;  apologizes, for example, or starts to pick up their socks, or uncross whatever boundary we think that they have crossed.


Trying to figure it out is a way of trying to give someone else the responsibility for our anger.  Another way we try to avoid taking responsibility is to try to make the anger go away.  We press it down into our bodies somewhere;  squeezed into our tightly held lower backs, or our shoulders and necks.  We hold back the impulse to strike out, to hit or to kick, and we hold it back by creating a chronic tension in the body.  Well, of course we can’t go around hitting and kicking people.  We learned that when we were two years old, at least most of us did.  And when we first tried shoving those impulses into words, we also learned not to use our words as weapons.  (Think of a five year old calling names;  that gets stopped pretty quickly.)

So we learn quickly that we don’t want to be responsible for this feeling of anger, so we can blame someone for it (“the devil made me do it!”) or we can suppress it in our bodies, and if we get really skilful at suppressing, we can actually REPRESS it, so that we are unaware of the feeling at all.  That actually makes it not a feeling.  We have the body sensations that go with anger but we can’t feel it as anger.  We just feel our heart race, our face flush, our shoulders, backs and jaws tense, and we may have an impulse to say something unpleasant or cutting.  But we don’t label that experience as anger and so we don’t think we actually GET angry.

This is a very deep level of denying of the self.  Your self gets angry.  It is an automatic response to other people crossing your boundaries.  But if you don’t feel it, don’t express it, don’t claim it, you are denying  a part of yourself.

Finding your ground

What do you do when the ground you stand on has been swept away from you?  There is a diagnosis….a relationship is breaking apart….a child on the way…..your job has disappeared?

According to Pema Chodron, the moment when the ground has disappeared under our feet is opportunity.  This is when we can notice ourselves scrambling, struggling for a foothold, for anything that feels a little secure when we feel like everything we have counted on is crumbling.  We can make a decision to just sit with the experience, to just notice what is happening and how we are responding.

If we can actually FEEL the ground, literally ground ourselves in our body sensations, we can often take the moment to stop clutching, stop scrambling, and just breathe.  It makes sense to me that we want to feel the ground.  We are not  tree dwellers, nor descended from tree dwellers.  We are not birds, equipped with wings.  We are creatures of the earth, whose feet depend on the earth for support.  When we cannot feel our feet, we cannot feel our support and connection.  The loss of support and connection can be profoundly disorienting.

What to do?   Check in with your feet.  Are they touching the ground right now?  Stand up, and check again.  If your feet are tense, then you will not notice as much contact with the ground.   If you habitually wear shoes that distort your feet, it may be harder to feel that connection, so slip off your shoes.   Now let the weight slide over onto one foot.   Use the other toe to balance, but just let all of your weight down onto one foot.  Soften your knee, even bend it a little, and see if you can drop your shoulders, soften your belly, and let the weight down on that one foot.   Move your toes a little, so that you can be sure they are taking some of that weight.  Stay there, pushing that foot into the floor and letting your weight down, until you start to feel a bit tired.  Now hold it, tired, feel how tired your leg is getting, and then, only then, gently allow the weight onto BOTH feet.

STOP!  Don’t do anything yet…just notice…notice both feet.  How do you experience them?  Do they feel different from one another?  Once you have explored this, then allow the weight to slide to the other foot and repeat the experience.  Work until you are feeling tired, and then wait, going into that tiredness a bit before resting on your two feet.  Then notice the absolute LUXURY of having two feet, and having two feet on the ground.   And notice anything else that is different in your body, or different in your mind.  Do you feel more connected to the ground?  Do you feel more relaxed in your shoulders, or softer in your belly, or more peaceful in your mind?

Resistance is futile….

No, no way.   I’m not doing THAT.  No how, no way am I going to look at THAT issue.  Nope.  You can’t make me. But our issues have a way of wearing us down, wearing us out, as long as we resist them.   What could happen if we just stopped resisting?

I remember reading something years ago that struck a chord with me.  It was a statement that we most resist that which we most need to look at.  I have tried to keep that in mind as I move through my life, and take notice of those things that I avoid doing, or that I procrastinate on, or that I “hate” or that I try to palm off on other people.   Those things are the things that I really need to look at.

How to do, it, though, when resistance is peaking?    Usually resistance is just felt as “I don’t want to…” and often you can feel it in your body as well.    Try it:  think of some conversation you don’t want to have, or some issue in your life that you don’t want to deal with, and say “I don’t want to…” and notice what your body does.  Perhaps you find tightness in your jaw.  Maybe your upper body pulls back.  Maybe you find your breath getting more shallow.   Whatever your response is, notice how your body mirrors your thought of resistance.

Sometimes just noticing is enough and we can soften and move through the resistance and do what needs to be done.  But sometimes it works better to actually go INTO the resistance and act it out.  If your body wants to pull back, then really pull back.  If you find yourself making fists, well, then, use them to hit a pillow or shake them…saying, with emphasis,  “I don’t want to!”   Or lie down on your mattress and kick your legs, using your whole leg and shouting, “I don’t want to do that!  I won’t!  I won’t!”

Can you imagine being able to do that?    Maybe you can go and try it (or maybe just try it out in your mind, first) and then let us know what you find out.

Getting your money’s worth

Money, like our other resources, is important...make sure you get your money's worth out of therapy.


Why do people GO to therapy?

Generally, people begin because they are suffering.   They are experiencing emotional distress and would like some help with it.   Often, though,  once people start, they learn that therapy is a productive way to learn a lot about yourself.    The more you know yourself, know your thinking, feeling and behaviour patterns, know your emotional stuck points and your hot buttons, the more freedom  you have in your life.   If I don’t know about my tendencies, about my defenses, about my patterns, then I am doomed to keep repeating and repeating them.   It is only through self-knowledge that I have any chance at all for creating a new life for myself.

You could argue that you don’t need a therapist to develop self awareness, and I would agree.  In fact, there would be no argument there!  But for many of us, we have a pattern of isolation and independence (“I can do this myself…I don’t need any help!”) that can lead to a lack of intimacy in relationships, or can be related to problems trusting other people.   Sometimes allowing ourselves to accept the support and the disinterested perspective of a therapist is a way to break out of a pattern in itself.

But suppose you have decided to start therapy.  What can you do to make the most of the experience?   Therapy isn’t like medicine;  you don’t just go for the hour every week and wait for it to work.     The more actively you involve yourself in your therapy, the more you’ll get from it.

Usually therapy helps you to see things in a different light.   This can be because of the experience of relating to another person in a different way, or because of hearing yourself say something in the presence of a caring other, or because of other experiential processes that happen during the therapy hour.  You can extend this shift by continuing to “process” during the week or weeks between sessions.  The following suggestions might be helpful to you.

  • Reflect on your session.  What have you heard or seen or done that was different for you?  Are there ways that you can bring this difference into your everyday life?  Even if you are not ready to make such a change, can you think about what it might be like if you were ready to do this?
  • Work on body awareness.
    •    Several times each day, take a moment to “check in” with your body.   Notice your energy level, your body sensations, any “felt sense” that arises in your awareness.  Notice any thoughts that are persisting.
    • Use body movement to help you identify what’s going on in your body.  Try grounding exercises,  or alternating vigorous movement with stillness to just see what’s up right now.
    • Journaling.   Handwrite about your thoughts, feelings, and experiences. Do this without allowing your inner editor to have a voice.  Just write.  This is for you, not for anyone else.
    • Process emotional material.  When you have an emotional response to something, take time to notice it, notice what you do with that response, and watch the consequences.   What was actually happening?   What can you know about how you felt, what you did or said?  Would you like to be able to think, feel, or behave differently in the future?
    • Accept that you are a work in progress, and so is everyone else.   See how close you can get to accepting things as they are, including other people just as they are, and yourself, just as you are.   Acceptance isn’t condoning and it also isn’t necessarily forgiveness, but it is a step that can allow you to relax into reality rather than struggling in resistance.

So…that’s a short list of some ways that you can get your money’s worth out of therapy.   What other tips do you have?



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