With the New Year comes new choices; we can choose to leave behind ways of being in the world that cause and maintain our depression and embrace healthier and saner approaches to our days. Or we can simply do nothing.
Why do lawyers with depression keep repeating behaviors that prevent them from feeling good about themselves? Why do they relentlessly drive, isolate and unmercifully think of themselves as the biggest piece of crap this side of the Mississippi?
In his revised and updated book Undoing Depression: What Therapy Doesn’t Teach You and Medication Can’t Give You, Dr. Richard O’Connor offers this insight: “People persist in self-destructive behavior because they don’t know how to do anything else. I’m convinced that the major reason why people with depression stay depressed despite therapy, medication, and support from loved ones is that we are simply unable to imagine an alternative. We know how to ‘do’ depression. We are experts at it.”
Lawyers can’t envision healthier alternatives because depression shuts down their capacity to creatively imagine themselves productively engaged in the world. We simply have no reference point for that. So we stay in our offices with the doors closed looking out the window as the birds fly by and one season changes into another.
Our brains love habits — even when they stink and hurt us. It’s a more predictable way to go through life because we don’t have to rethink everything and change. We become used to depressive habits as we cruise through life on auto-pilot. Many lawyers with depression usually view their jobs as the sole source of their depression; surviving “it” becomes the focus of their lives. They use depression habits at their jobs that might work for awhile, but at a very high cost to their physical and emotional well-being. These aren’t stupid people; they just can’t imagine doing their jobs any differently. As educatior Parker Palmer once wrote about his depression, “It wasn’t so much that I was in the darkness as I became the darkness.”
Dr. O’Connor writes:
“We depressives become shaped by our disease as well; the skills that we develop with depression in a vain effort to save ourselves pain – skills like swallowing our anger, isolating ourselves, putting others first, being over-responsible – prevent our recovery. We have to give up the depressed habits that keep us down and make us vulnerable to relapse.”
Deepak Chopra wrote: “A habit is a frozen interpretation from the past that is applied to the present.” I think that’s why depression can have such a deadening sensation associated with it. In a sense, depression warps our perceptions about events happening in real time and pulls us under the frozen river of our past. People and events happening in real time trigger old interpretations of how life works. Since most people with depression come from dysfunctional or abusive childhoods, a current conflict with others becomes a ride back to their traumatic past.
For me, this distortion has often revolved around anger. I not alone on this one; how we handle anger is a big issue for most lawyers. As lawyer and psychologist Andy Benjamin wrote and studies have concluded, there is a strong connection between hostility and depression. Anger seems to be situational, while hostility is an overarching and aggressive approach to life. Anger that is repeatedly stuffed or inappropriately expressed becomes hostility. Many lawyers don’t want to be assholes, but feel they have to do so to survive in the shark tank of the law. Most lawyers I’ve known feel deeply conflicted about this and if they’ve had problems with depression, it just compounds it all.
In my childhood home, my alcoholic father had a volcanic temper – you knew to scram when you saw lava cresting at the rim. I learned that anger was painful, “bad” and always unjustified. As such, I used to avoid conflict and stuff my own anger because it was dangerous. Instead, I became a people pleaser. I developed exquisite antennae to read clients, colleagues, opposing counsel and judges’ reactions for any signs of aggression, anger or conflict. I molded my behavior to their behavior rather than living out of a core of my own reality. This distortion gave others too much power and myself too little. It is, as psychologist James Hollis once wrote, an emotional conclusion in which we tell ourselves “the world is big and I am small.” Most depressives think this way and feel overpowered by the events of their world and lapse into a state of helplessness.
As we enter a new year, let’s start leaving some depressive habits behind and embrace some new ones. This will take work on your part. No one is going to save you from your depression. While you are not to blame for your depression, you are responsible for getting better. Dr. O’Connor writes:
“Overcoming depression requires a new set of skills from us. But now we are recognizing happiness is a skill, willpower is a skill, health is a skill, successful relationships require skills, emotional intelligence is a skill. We know this because practice not only leads to improvement but also to changes in the brain. This is a much more empowering and adaptive way of understanding life than assuming that these qualities are doled out form birth in fixed quantities and that there’s nothing we can do to change our fate. The skills required to undo depression will permeate your entire life, and if you keep practicing, you can go far beyond mere recovery.”
Happy New Year!