Friday, November 18, 2011

Concrete Thinking to Combat Depression?

     Do you tend toward abstract thinking? Or do you see yourself more as a concrete thinker?
     If you're not certain, here is a way to decide. Is your self-talk largely thematic, philosophical, and general? Or is it specific, incident-based, and particular?
     New research from the University of Exeter in Great Britain on a process they call Concreteness Training suggests that targeting your thinking style can bring about significant long-term reduction in symptoms of depression. Underpinning this research is the observation that an orientation toward abstraction is typical of depression. For example, a depressed person would be expected to view a single mistake as an indicator that she is a complete failure.
     Have you ever leapt to judgment in such a way? Let's say you miss a deadline, and your whole team takes the heat for it. They move on to the next task, but you are unable to do so. Instead, you stop in your tracks, convinced that you cannot ever do anything right, and that once again you've let everyone down, just the way you always do.
     Another example of this kind of abstract condemnation might be your conviction that you'll never find a job because so far, you haven't been able to do so.
     The University of Exeter research suggests that if you identify this problem as a result of your thinking style, you can work toward changing it. You can learn to identify the false correlations you might otherwise establish between one discrete event and your global sense of mastery,  your sense of who you are. You can learn to distinguish such thinking as you are actively in the process of doing it. You can learn to dismantle such a thought before it gains enough traction to reinforce your depression.
     How do you do this? We hear the word mindfulness tossed around frequently these days. It derives from the  Buddhist tradition of maintaining quiet awareness of things in the present moment. However, mindfulness by itself does not take us far enough. True interior peace comes from mindful awareness processed accurately by clear comprehension. In other words, it isn't enough to be aware. You must also think about things correctly.
     I believe that this is where the idea of Concreteness Training comes in. It is in concrete thinking that we can ground ourselves well enough to avoid leaping to generalizations about our competency and worthiness. For example, instead of deciding you are a complete failure now and forevermore in the example above, you could look at the situation in specifics. What did you do or not do that led to the missed deadline? Which part did you control? And which aspects were out of your hands? What did you learn from this experience?
     I would also suggest that once you run through these questions, you consciously couple your answers to memories of past successes. In doing so,  you will link what you have just learned to what you have done well in the past, which will set you on course for future successes. It will also bypass any abstract thinking that might lead you down the path to disgust or more depression.
     Remember, this is a process. It will take practice and vigilance. But the beauty of such an elegantly simple process is that you can teach yourself to do this on your own. Working with a therapist can help you stay on track, as can the proper assistance from medication, but the project of abstraction upheaval is under your own control. You can develop thinking tools that will influence and dislodge depression.
     The idea of Concreteness Training gives you a task, a goal, and a way to judge the outcome. Look for more on this topic as it becomes more widely known. Maybe someday you'll have an app on your iPhone that has the potential to help you keep your thinking in line with reality.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Ignore the Envy of Others, but Remember It Comes from Pain

The Etiology of Envy
     This drawing came up on Facebook this morning. I've seen it before, but today it suddenly had a new meaning for me.
     If you have ever struggled to understand how someone could be envious of you, and why she has mistreated you as a result, this cartoon might help you see what lies beneath envy.
     Envy is generally indicative of two things:
     1) a person's lack of confidence in her own abilities, skills and accomplishments;
     2) a gross simplification of the process by which you have reached your goals successfully.
     Do you see that neither of these conditions has any factual bearing on you and your accomplishments? When someone is envious of you, she can hurt you. It can be toxic to bear the brunt of someone else's disappointment with herself. But it is not because of your success. It is because of her sense of failure.
     Here is what success looks like to you: You identified a goal, made whatever effort or sacrifices were necessary to reach it, and proceeded until you did so. This is a self-directed, self-monitored experience of working toward something you value, of taking care of your own business. It demonstrates a sense of responsibility toward yourself and respect for the merits of your decisions. It shows persistence, discipline, and focus. We say work toward your goal, not slide toward your goal.
     But an envious person does not acknowledge that distinction.
     An envious person wants to rob you of acknowledgment for your efforts. An envious person believes you were merely in the right place at the right time; you were just lucky to know the right people; anyone could do what you did if they felt like doing so. Envy attempts to undermine not only the process of succeeding but also the value of the success itself. Envy is the voice of someone in great pain, who cannot or will not apply herself in the same disciplined manner. It is the voice, for example, of someone who wants to play the piano but does not want to put in the hours of study necessary in order to learn to play the piano.
     Don't let another person's envy deride your sense of accomplishment. Sly and passive-aggressive comments about your success are meant to debase them, in order for the envious person to make sense of her own failures. If she can make you feel your success was fortuitous, she frees herself from the responsibility of working as hard as you do.
     Remember the great observation made by Louis Pasteur: Fortune favors the prepared mind. The smarter and harder you work, the more likely you are to succeed. Stick with it.
     Try not to let an envious person's inability to come to terms with this reality impede your progress. Compassion is always helpful, as an envious person is not a happy soul. But your successes are duly yours, and they are good.
     Stand tall upon each success you create in your life.