How to overcome mind numbing depression

My post How to survive a job you absolutely hate  really hit the note. I went from 10 visits a day to 10,000. And then my server crashed (what do you mean that using the cheapest shared hosting can’t handle the whole of HN and Reddit kicking my door in? Is this why I pay you $4.99 a month for?). And the thing is, people are still finding the page, even though I’ve stopped promoting it.

One of the common comments was, “I face this exact problem, and am really deep in depression.” The other most common comment was, “You wussies. You are such sissy girls. Deal with it like a Real Man™.”

Since this dirty ‘D’ word has been having such a strong reaction, I decided to write the next blog on this topic.

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The Dirty D word

If I were to come by your office, and tell you that you may have a sexually transmitted disease; and that you need to drop your pants and let a person of the opposite sex jab you with a needle, many of you would be okay with that.

But if I came by and told you that might be depressed, and that’s it quite normal, and you need to talk about it, most of you would walk away in anger. You’d call me gay, and other homophobic insults.

Depression is the dirty secret of society. Many people feel depressed, but you are supposed to man up, and stop complaining about it. Some people never recover, and you read about them in the news a few days later. And you shrug it off and move on with your life. “I’d never kill myself over such a small thing.” You sure about that?

 The Lost Years

I remember whole years, in which I’d just walk around at lunch time, dreading going back to work. I would find a lonely place and spend my time just staring into the horizon. I didn’t even have an excuse. I wasn’t abused as a child, people weren’t shooting at me or trying to throw me in prison for expressing my rights, my employers weren’t racist or sexist or Geek-ist (a word I just made up, and which means people who discriminate against geeks because…. well just because). I had no excuse to feel depressed. So why did I feel like shit?

Well, actually, I lie. I had a very good excuse. I had a very inflated sense of self. I had topped my university, and thought I had it made. Like a mafia don, where once you join the family, you are made for life. You grow a big moustache and a bigger belly.

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And then you go around rescuing princesses and stuff

But the real world doesn’t work like that. No one told me. You have all these people complaining that no one teaches “real computer science” anymore. But I’d rather have learnt “real life” (in inverted commas, no less). Five minutes after you get a job, your grades stop mattering. And everything you learnt goes to shit. A new set of rules start applying. A game where you get memos like how your CEO “Optimised the strategy to create synergy between competing business units”, and you get told off for wasting company time by not banging code like the code monkey you are.

A world where impressions and playing The Great Game matter more than how good your code is.

It took me too long to learn this game, and partly it was my own fault. Partly because I was full of myself, partly because no one told me.

Anyway, you don’t want to hear me rant about by sad life (but in case you do, I also recite sad poetry at bars. Ask for details). You want to know how to beat depression.

Powerlessness

Most depression is caused by feeling powerless. It’s a case of learned helplessness. A mad scientist called Seligman went around electrocuting dogs randomly (and you think your boss sucks)? Anyway, quoting the article:

In learned helplessness studies, an animal is repeatedly exposed to an aversive stimulus which it cannot escape. Eventually, the animal stops trying to avoid the stimulus and behaves as if it is helpless to change the situation. When opportunities to escape become available, learned helplessness means the animal does not take any action.

The dogs were randomly electrocuted, and later on given a chance to escape. But the dogs had given up, and just kept accepting shocks rather than escaping. They had been trained to become helpless and pathetic. Just like you (just kidding. I’m sure you are a very cultured and refined person, which is why you are reading my blog, instead of partying with the cool kids).

Why do we do that? Continue accepting pain, rather than leaving? One reason is a feeling of powerlessness. If nothing you do matters, what’s the use of doing anything?

That’s how the road to hell starts.

How to beat it – No, don’t listen to Beat it by Michael Jackson. The way to beat the feeling of powerlessness is to start taking initiative in life. Try to take more initiative at work. Offer to look at that bug no one will go near. Offer to investigate better code review systems (but always on company time). If your work doesn’t allow you take leadership/ownership, start your own project. Do something you own completely. A personal project, but a short one you can finish in a few weeks.

If you don’t want to write more code, do something non-technical. Write a novel, learn a musical instrument,  volunteer at a charity. Do anything except watch TV or wasting time on useless websites (except for this one).

Self Esteem

You are constantly negative talking to yourself. Everyone does it. “I’m such a loser. What the fuck have I done to my life?”

You may be surprised that even people you see as cool and successful do this. I was listening to a talk by a therapist, and he was working with a supermodel. Very attractive, very popular. Yet, when he asked her how she felt about herself, she said:

“I’m a fat, ugly, stupid, red headed cunt.”

The therapist knew he had his work cut out then.

And the second lesson from this is that the way we see ourselves may have no basis in reality.

The way we see ourselves is different from how others see us. The problem is, we have been trained to only see the negative in everything we do. Saying you are good at something is considered boasting. Religions teach us to be humble and accept a greater force.

The other problem is, the media constantly shows us images of extreme cases, and ask us why we aren’t like them. Writers are told to emulate JK Rowling, technical founders are asked to look at Jobs and Bezos. But what’s more likely- that you will become the next Steve Jobs, or the next Jeff Atwood or Patrick Mckenzie? That’ll you become the next Rowling, or the next JA Konrath or Kris Rusch? There are thousands of people who make a good living doing what they love (and whom the general population has never heard of), but who are we asked to copy? The statistically extreme corner cases. No wonder we always feel inadequate.

Anyway. Fixing your self esteem is easy, as all you have to do is start to recognize your achievements, and stop harping on your failures. You will be surprised to know that this process does not take longer than two weeks. Rob Kelly, from whom I stole this technique (see references below) has treated people who were sexually abused as children, and it took them two weeks to improve their self esteem. So don’t tell me it won’t work for you, or that you are a special case.

The technique

Get a diary, or use the note feature on your phone. Every day, before going to sleep, write down five things you accomplished. Just five. And they don’t even have to be big. Examples:

“We were running out of milk, so I went and bought it before anyone noticed. At work, I helped a junior engineer fix his code. I remained calm when a customer was abusing me, and helped him fix his problem. I went for a walk/jog after lunch, so that I remain fit.” Etc etc.

All small things, things you do everyday, and wouldn’t even consider accomplishments. But write them down anyway, at least five points. And read the last few days accomplishments daily as well.

Why does this help?

We don’t process our good work, only focussing on the failures. No wonder we feel like shit all the time. By writing down your positive work, you are defeating the self-defeating negative talk, and programming yourself to look at the good things you do. This programming takes no longer than two weeks, but continue it longer if you like it.

In case you didn’t understand, let me repeat it. Your brain is like a computer that has been programmed to do this:

for i = 0 to Forever:

……print “I am shit. I will not accomplish anything in life.”

This isn’t your fault. No one ever taught you how to think. It’s not your parents fault either, as no one told them either. But now that you know, make sure your children are not programmed to hate themselves.

What you want to do is stop that shit program, and replace it with a program that processes your accomplishments. That’s all what self esteem is.

Internal Locus of Control

In my previous article, I made the point that we must accept responsibility for our circumstances. This led to the common criticism that I was blaming people for being bullied etc. Many people wrote something like
“My manager constantly harassed me, till I was forced to quit. How was that my fault?”

Other people said that this was an example of New-Agey thinking, where positive thinking will bring wealth. You know, like that bestselling book The Secret says? If you want to be rich, just think positive thoughts. It sure worked for the author- she became a millionaire!

When I say you should accept responsibility for your life, I mean your locus of control. This is a very clear cut and scientific process, with no wooly New Age interpretations. What’s the locus of control? Before that, answer a few questions, in Yes or No.

Warning: If you are not sure, or if the answer is Maybe, write down Yes. Don’t dick around or try to make excuses. The only acceptable answers are Yes (including maybe/sometimes) and No. Be totally honest with yourself.

  1. I am passing a table, when I see the horoscope lying on it. I have a quick look at it. Not that I believe in it, but just for fun.

  2. I have a lucky color or underwear or day.

  3. I believe that who you know is more important than what you know.

  4. I believe the ghosts of people who died are around us.

  5. I believe that going to the right University is important, if you want to succeed in life.

  6. I believe in past life.

  7. I believe in Karma, ie, a Universal system of justice.

  8. Alternative medicine systems like Homeopathy are viable alternatives to normal medicine.

  9. With all these low cost foreigners entering the market, I can never compete. The future is bleak.

  10. It’s not easy to become rich. People who become rich have something special in them, an “X” factor, as it were.

  11. I believe in conspiracy theories. The world is run by bankers/Jews/Knights Templars/Sponge Bob Squarepants.

 

The Locus of Control

The locus, if you remember you high school geometry, is the point in a circle (or anywhere else, but circle is good enough for us). Imagine your body is a circle. The locus of control specifies how you view the world:

  • People with an Internal locus of control believe they are in control of their lives.
  • People with an external locus believe magical things like astrology, ghosts, or evil bankers and lowly paid foreigners control their life.

Why does it matter? People with an external locus of control are usually the ones always depressed. That’s because they believe that magical forces control their life. Like Silegman’s dogs, they feel that nothing they do matters, so why bother?

If you  answered yes to any of the questions above, your locus of control is external. 1-2 yeses are bad. 4-5 are very bad. More than 5, you need to see a therapist now.

Before you think I’m judging you, I was a score 11 on that chart. I visited astrologers, psychics, crystal therapists, Reiki healers, Angelic Reiki healers (yes, there is such a thing. There is also a Certified Angelic Reiki Healer course. I never understood if it’s the angels who come down to Earth to certify the students). But the more psychics I visited, the more depressed I got. That’s because I was feeling more and more helpless with each person I visited. I was no longer in control of my life.

The dirty “G” Word

Lets get the G word out of the way. God. This is a very personal and emotive issue, so all I will say is this: You can believe in God, and still have an internal locus of control (I say this as an agnostic).

So there are two ways to look at it.

  1. “I have to do what God/the scriptures say, or I will be punished. Nothing happens without Gods will.”

  2. “God has put me on Earth, so I can be the best person I can. It is my duty to help my fellow humans and bring joy to the world.”

One is an external thinking, one is internal. I’ll let you decide which is which.

If you are an atheist, that doesn’t mean your locus of control is internal. Many atheists believe in conspiracy theories, and are screaming about how all those foreigners are stealing their jobs. They are as much victims of fate.

So, why does the locus of control matter again?

I would like to come back to the criticism that people face bullies in the outside world, and can’t be blamed. My thinking is that we should accept responsibility for our lives. So if we are in a shit situation, it’s partly our fault.

It’s easier to understand why, once you know about the locus of control. People who have an internal locus of control have a very strong emotional strength, that makes them impervious (that’s a nice little Harry Potter word, isn’t it) to attacks.

We live in a world full of bullies, racists, sexists, and all other -ists. You can’t stop being their target. But people with an internal thinking will always think, “What did I do wrong here, and how can I avoid this situation in the future?” While someone external will think, “Why me? What have I done to deserve this? The story of my life.”

As an aside, when I was newly married, my wife burnt some food by mistake. She said “Why does it always happen to me?”

I went crazy, and warned her never to use words like that again. Someone might have thought I was overreacting, but I wasn’t. People who says things like “Why does it happen to me,” have an external locus. They believe that there is an it in the outside world that comes in the window and does things to them. A person with an internal locus would say, “Hey, I was distracted. I won’t watch TV while cooking in the future.” You might still burn your food, but you are not blaming an outside it, rather you are accepting that you are the master of your life, and you have the power to change your future. Watch your language- it betrays you.

For someone with internal thinking, even if they face a shit situation, they will immediately bounce back. Think of it like a marine commando. If you surprise punch a marine, he will go down. But he’ll be back up in  second. And even though he’ll be in pain, he’ll be ready to take you on. You’ll never land a second punch.

As some who went from an extremely external locus to an internal one, trust me when I say this: That’s the sort of strength you get by having an internal locus of control. You will still face tough conditions, but they will never keep you down. Emotionally speaking, would you rather be a fat accountant or a marine commando?

 

Get some therapy, goddamn it

Are you still with me? Boy, you must be desperate.

This is the most important point, but I put it at the end, as if I’d put it earlier, most of you would have left. But if you have been in depression for more than a month, get professional help! People have a lot of misconceptions about therapy. One is that you’ll be lying on a couch, spending five years talking about how your daddy never loved you. But that’s not how it happens. While some therapists will see you as an ATM machine, therapy does not last for years (and should not, for reasons I can’t go into here). I see therapy as surgery. If you get shot, the surgeon will go in and remove the bullet, and then you spend some months healing. That’s how most therapy works: The therapist will fix your core problem, and then you will slowly heal over time. But if your problem has been going on for months (or years), you won’t be able to fix yourself, anymore than you can remove a bullet from your body.

So swallow your ego, overcome your prejudice, and go see a professional. If you are ashamed (and most people are; people will happily talk about having a sexually transmitted disease, but not about depression), do it in secret. But please don’t suffer silently.

To finish you off, I will share this video with you. Do watch it. If you are not moved, you are not a human. Remember, no matter how shit you feel at the moment, someone else has gone through that period and survived. And not just survived, but thrived.

If you liked this post, you might like my book:

Available as eBook and print, on Amazon, Apple iBooks, Kobo and more.

Reading recommendation
After trying everything from past life hypnosis to crystal healing to magical tapping (don’t ask), I found this to be the best resource. It’s a very logical system based on the latest research. The Thrive Programme
The book is available on Amazon, and if you live outside the UK, it might be cheaper to buy from there. You can work through the book yourself, but going through it with a therapist is recommended.

If want to choose your own therapist, please choose someone uses modern scientific methods.

 Other: Cracked.com is a comedy site, but I have found more inspirational stuff there than all the self health books I read. Here are some of the best:

5 Things That Have to Happen Before You Fix Your Crappy Life

6 Harsh Truths That Will Make You a Better Person

5 Things to Remember When Your Life Goes to Hell

2 thoughts on “How to overcome mind numbing depression”

  1. Great blog on mind numbing depression. I wonder if you really can reprogramme yourself or do we always revert to our original settings. I am sitting at my desk with a fuzzy brain wondering if I am ever going to get my act together. I come out of depression occasionally, but always seem to slide back down the hole.

    1. Lois,

      This is caused by a lack of self esteem and lack of internal focus. Fix these 2 things, you won’t slide back. The book Thrive by Rob Kelly is highly recommended, the only self help book I recommend (since it’s based on scientific research and practice, not goody goody thoughts).

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