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Depression & Squalor: Cleaning up our mental messes.

Many Squalor Survivors have experienced depression. Newcomers to our web-site often introduce themselves like this: "Hi my name is DopeyMopey. I've been depressed for years. I hardly go out except maybe to work. Mostly I just sit around watching tv (surfing the web, sleeping, eating) and vegetating. My house looks like a garbage dump." Sound familiar?

It's helpful to read about the workings of the human mind, the value of medications, the various therapies available. However, when all is said and done, you are still left with the messy house. Someone still has to take out the garbage: this usually means YOU!

Dr. David Burns, MD, offers immediate positive benefits for the depressed Squaloree. His bestseller, Feeling Good, uses the techniques of Cognitive Therapy to combat stinkin' thinkin'—those cognitive distortions which affect our moods. The powerful principle at the heart of cognitive therapy can be summarized in one simple sentence: "Your feelings result from the messages you give yourself." (pg. xviii) Note: All quotations are from Feeling Good: the new mood therapy, revised and updated, 1992, Avon Books, New York.

What messages do Squalorees give themselves? Well, "nearly all depressed people are convinced that they are facing some special awful truth about themselves....and their terrible feelings are absolutely realistic and inevitable." (pg. xix) Squalorous homes are disgusting because Squalorees are lazy stupid pigs. We've always been this way ("I was a messy kid") and no matter what we may have tried in the past, we can never ever conquer the demon of disorder. Or so we think.

Dr. Burns has identified ten common cognitive distortions (Chapter 3: pages 28-43). Here they are, with examples reflecting the Squaloree's unique way of looking at problems with mess.

  1. ALL OR NOTHING THINKING. Dr. Burns observes that a depressed person sees "things in black-and-white categories." In the language of squalor, this translates into: My house is a mess. Therefore everything I do in my life is wrong. I am a total failure.
  2. OVERGENERALIZATION. "You see a single negative event as a never-ending pattern of defeat." The Squaloree laments I didn't do the dishes yesterday, so I'll never be able to keep the kitchen clean. Ever.
  3. MENTAL FILTER. "You pick out a single negative detail and dwell on it exclusively." Here is a squalorous example: My house is a mess. I am a mess. Life is a mess. Repeat 1,000,000 times daily.
  4. DISQUALIFYING THE POSTIVE. Our Squaloree will say I raised 4 kids; I work 3 jobs; I cope with a disability. Big deal. Anyone could do this. Really?
  5. JUMPING TO CONCLUSIONS. Dr. Burns observes, "You arbitrarily conclude that someone is reacting negatively to you." The Squaloree assumes the neighbour didn't talk to me because my house is messy. In reality, the neighbour just didn't feel like talking to anyone.
  6. MAGNIFICATION OR MINIMIZATION. "You exaggerate the importance of things." The Squaloree says I lost the children's school papers. Now the teachers will hate them and their lives will be ruined.
  7. EMOTIONAL REASONING. Our fictional Squalorees assume that their "negative emotions ... reflect the way things really are." Example: I feel like garbage, therefore I am garbage so I might as well be surrounded by garbage.
  8. SHOULD STATEMENTS. Squalorees try to motivate themselves with endless shoulds and musts and have-tos. When they don't get their homes cleaned up, "the emotional consequence is guilt". As in: I have no right to a nice life until I have my whole house, finances, job, files, workplace completely cleaned up.
  9. LABELLING. The squaloree so often says My **** house is a **** mess therefore I am a **** loser. As Dr. Burns notes, Squalorees use language "that is highly colored and emotionally loaded." Especially common is the use of the "L" word: lazy.
  10. PERSONALIZATION. Take note of this wise observation: "You see yourself as the cause of some negative external event." In this way Squalorees blame themselves for everything: It's all my fault. It's always my fault. Always.
[The Mock Turtle, sobbing a little]

... they saw the Mock Turtle in the distance, sitting sad and lonely on a little ledge of rock....Alice could hear him sighing as if his heart would break. She pitied him deeply. "What is his sorrow?" she asked the Gryphon, and the Gryphon answered, very nearly in the same words as before, "It's all his fancy, that: he hasn't got no sorrow, you know." - Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, Lewis Carroll

So what's next?

You may recognize your own patterns of put-downs in the above list. How can you change your thoughts and thus your feelings? Well, a few words can hardly do justice to the compassionate insights found in a whole book. Dr. Burns himself identifies three crucial steps that YOU (yes, YOU!) can take right now (now? Yes, NOW!) to help yourself (yes you can!). This technique is easy to remember: The Z.E.R.O. Method.

  1. Zero in—no, not by calling yourself a Zero, but by learning to listen whenever those automatic negatives start playing in your head. Write down your words! Start to challenge yourself! Zero in on every example of stinkin' thinkin' you hear: in your own words and in the words of others.
  2. Educate yourself. Read and re-read: starting with the above list of cognitive distortions. Read books. Read the SS posts. "Bibliotherapy"—reading therapy— "may be as effective as a full course of psychotherapy or treatment with...drugs." (pg. xxiii)
  3. Objective thoughts. Stop hiding behind destructive distortions. Find more positive ways to talk to yourself. Remember the SS mantras: "Baby steps. You can do it. Keep going. Don't quit now. Every little bit helps."

With Z.E.R.O., you too can become your own HERO: with thinking patterns that are hopeful, effective, reasonable, objective. H.E.R.O.

Lack of motivation

Finally Dr. Burns zeros-in to one of the most squalorous habits of depression. He devotes a whole chapter to Do-Nothingism. The symptoms: "[lying] around in bed all day long, staring at the ceiling and courting negative thoughts." (pg. 83) As many of us know all too well, "when you're depressed, you don't feel like doing much." We experience the dead wasteland of Nothingness, the gloom that "paralyzes willpower" and the "lack of productivity" that "aggravates self-hatred, resulting in further isolation and incapacitation." (pg. 81) The less we do, the less we can do, the less we want to do, the more depressed we become. Vicious circle for sure...

What does Dr. Burns advise to combat lack of motivation and self-defeating behavior? Well, the good doctor is nothing if not thorough. Although "it hardly seems to matter what you do as long as you do something with the attitude of self-help," (pg. 82), in fact he offers many positive "self-activation techniques". These include:

  • The Daily Activity Schedule: a plan for what you want to accomplish today. Welcome to ListZilla!
  • Anti-Procrastination Sheet: sounds just like the SS "accountability partners" threads!
  • Daily Record of Dysfunctional Thoughts: writing down the bad, then learning to talk back to yourself. Good!
  • The Pleasure Predicting Sheet: a specific technique for those who find themselves self-condemned to a life of misery.
  • How to Get off your "BUT"—the But Rebuttal: refute all those excuses that pop into your mind "the moment you think of doing something productive." (pg. 107)
  • Learn to Endorse Yourself: a helpful technique to rebuild self-esteem by making "a written or mental list of the things you do each day." Many of our SS members do just that by posting their Daily Triumphs.
  • TIC-TOC Technique: more clever acronyms: Task-Interfering Cognitions and Task-Oriented Cognitions.
  • Little Steps for Little Feet: we call these "baby steps". Turn on the timer: for 30 seconds. 15 minutes. Do whatever you can. "Break the task down into its smallest component parts!" (pg. 114)
  • Motivation without Coercion: when we gently post our "Hope-To's" or "Want To's", Squalorees are learning to treat ourselves with respect.
  • Disarming Technique: how to deal with outsiders who nag, cajole, threaten. What to do with "demand resistance."
  • Visualize Success: get your imagination working! Give yourself rewards! Learn Routines! Build treats into your day: "habit management through the power of positive suggestion." (pg. 121)
  • Count What Counts: a variation on our "Un-List of Triumphs only". This suggestion includes using a wrist counter to clock all accomplishments over one day. Ta-da!
  • Test Your "Can'ts": by putting Science on your side! Perform experiments: on yourself. You say, "I can't do anything today." Prove you are wrong!
  • The "Can't Lose" System: to challenge your "powerful sense of inadequacy and the fear of failure". (pg. 124) List all the possible catastrophes waiting for you if you fail. Check for distortions. Believe that you just might be able to cope in any 'worst-case' scenario. Learn to love and respect yourself in failure.

Blue horizon It is possible to break through the heavy clouds of depression.
Photo courtesy of Script.

The Single Most Important Truth about Motivation

3 million copies of Feeling Good have been sold to depressed and desperate readers. It is the self-help book most frequently recommended by American mental health professionals. In the view of many readers, the single most important insight found in its 700 pages is this one simple observation: "Action comes first, and the motivation comes later on." (pg. 124.)

You have to prime the pump first. So, if you are ready to change the way you think about yourself, if you are ready to become productive and happy again: start with just one thing. "Begin now to experience the joy of Feeling Good."

Other famous words on Motivation: