Listening to Depression

Those of us who suffer from depression tend to think of this state of mind (and being) as an obstacle to moving forward.  Is there a useful purpose to be found when we are depressed?

listening to depression

Lara Honos-Webb, Ph.D., thinks so.  Her book, Listening to Depression, is full of stories and examples of showing that depression is not only not a mistake, but can yield powerful messages that unlock our life purpose.  The central themes she explores are: Depression symptoms are communications to you from yourself, about yourself. 
Depression is a time-out to re-vision and re-figure your life. 
Depression is a signal that something new has to come into your life. 

 I met Lara almost three years ago, when she came for coaching.  At that time she was working as a clinical psychologist and professor.  Since then she has added author and mother to her resume.

Lara’s passion for this subject was fueled by her own struggle with depression in college—which led to getting back on track with her life’s work. “I came from a family which was not at all stable financially.  Because of that I wanted to choose a career that would be sure to give me financial security, so I was planning to major in business.  However, before long I started feeling very depressed.  I had lost interest in business very quickly. Luckily, I decided to take some psychology classes.  I found psychology is where my real interests lie, and this is my life path.  I still thank God for that depression, which I now see as a signal of being out of alignment.”


After developing her own clinical practice and supervising hundreds of cases on depression, Lara’s skills and mission came together.  She says, “A lot of the time, clinical psychologists don’t take into consideration that depression may be an accurate reflection of what’s going on with a person.  Ironically, a person’s friends can easily point out why they are depressed, but clinicians sometimes miss the obvious!  In most cases, I believe that depression is not a mental disorder, but a reflection of choices that people are making that don’t fit.”

Lara makes it clear that, in cases where depression is severe or the person is suicidal, he or she must be stabilized before addressing the roots of their depression. Similarly, anyone dealing with depression resulting from external problems and situations, such as addictions, on-going physical or emotional abuse, debilitating ethnic or gender discrimination, or poverty and homelessness must first address these conditions. Depression is a Wake-up Call About How You Are Living your Purpose
. According to Lara, our feelings of depression are a call to bring our life into alignment with our own needs, values and desires.  How do people get off track in the first place?

Operating from a sense of loyalty.

While loyalty allows people to belong and feel connected, it could hamper our individual choices.  Think of people who just slide into a family business because it’s there.   If you are depressed, notice where you might be conforming in order not to rock the boat. To get back on track, differentiate between how you genuinely agree with your family or social milieu, and where your dreams and interests are different.

Not believing in yourself

Many people feel they are not “good enough” to go for their dreams.   For example, someone may want to be a doctor, but comes from a working class family.  The message from their parents and milieu might be, ‘Who do you think you are?’  Adding unconscious loyalty to self-doubt builds a powerful justification for not going further than their parents or friends.

Lack of reflection

If we never take time to ask ourselves what we really want, or to notice how we may be different from those in our upbringing, we never take time to get on track.
 Need for security.   Is our choice of career based solely on the financial reward?  We build real security by investing in ourselves, learning new things, and being willing to take on new challenges.

Fear of the unknown

To move past fear, we have to have a compelling reason to move forward—such as, a creative urge that won’t go away, a desire to have our own business, or an urge to live according to our own values.  If those compelling urges are suppressed, depression follows.  If we don’t listen to our inner voice, we sink deeper into depression, or even find that we have an accident or illness that amplifies the message that something has to change. Lara quotes the philosopher, Heiddegger, “‘Breakdown is always in the service of breakthrough.’”

When It’s Dark Outside Follow the Inner Light of Life Purpose

Lara writes in her book, “Depression feels like all the lights have gone out.  When the lights are out, the only thing you can see is that which is lit from within.  And that which is lit from within is your life purpose.”
One story describes Jamie, a young man who is married with children, thirty-five, and deeply depressed–almost suicidal. Through counseling (though not with Lara), he came to recognize that the only thing truly lighting his path was his desire to be a comic-book artist—though he had experienced no success so far, and did not believe that he could support his family from his creativity. He got the idea to start an on-line comic book, and was the first one to start such a site (

His is a good example of translating one’s personal pain into creative channels that help others. The site became a success, and is not only entertaining, but healing. His topics have individually and socially inspiring messages–the gift, so to speak, of his depression.  “His original issue was being indiscriminately loyal,” says Lara, “Jamie had to learn to separate himself from what others think, and set boundaries that allowed him to do what he could do best”

Use The Four P’s to Heal Depression

According to Lara, depression can be healed by letting your life be guided by pleasure, presence, power and permission.

Increase Pleasure.

So many times depression is a call to re-enter life—instead of just going through the motions.  Instead of focusing all your time on performance demands—which ultimately is one-sided and draining—be sure to give yourself a few simple pleasures, like browsing in bookstores, walking with a friend, playing with your child or bicycling.

Lara notes, “Since I wrote the book, I would add that having more pleasure in your life is actually very practical.  Taking pleasure in something automatically brings its own sense of fulfillment.   You don’t have to wait to “make it someday,” to feel happy.  When in a good mood, you also perform better in everything.  You attract people and opportunities because you are operating at a higher energy level. You have the energy to see more possibilities and take more chances.”

Make a point of being present in the moment each day. It’s the difference between being and doing–performing.  Lara says, “Presence happens when you are just having lunch with your child, just watching him make a mess, and not being concerned about it.  Ironically, the work of depression pushes you into being, not doing.  Some people who survive suicide attempts say that they learn that just being is a great gift.  Therefore, the failure of one of your ‘doing” goals could be the thing that connects you to your being in this moment.”

Power reminds us to be the author of our own life. Lara says, “I call this re-writing the rules.   For example, women often think motherhood has to be a sacrifice, but there’s power in making authentic choices instead of simply conforming to a life that doesn’t work for you.  You can re-write the rules for yourself and say, ‘I don’t have to solve everybody else’s problems.’ Or, ‘I don’t have to make every single choice based on security.’  Re-write the rules about having to get together for toxic family holidays; make taking care of yourself the highest priority. 

Another example is a man who really wanted to work in a pet store. “ His main obstacle between himself and his life purpose,” says Lara, “was that he believed that men didn’t do those sorts of jobs.  He found that he had the power to change his thinking.”


Practice giving yourself permission to see life a different way.  For example, some of us have to learn that life doesn’t have to be a struggle (despite our past experiences.)  The future doesn’t have to be a repeat of the past. Give yourself permission to explore something, or simply to be happy (despite others who want to draw you into the misery-loves-company conversation.).

Healing Tragic Loss

Deep depression from loss takes us on a journey.  How do we ever recover from the loss of a loved one, of losing our home, livelihood, or health?  Lara says, “Finding meaning in a tragic loss is essential if you are to recover.  For example, I have a story about a woman who survived a car crash caused by a drunk driver, in which her parents and sister were killed.  She brought that tragic loss into her life purpose and became a lawyer and an inspiring public speaker about drunk driving.  Sometimes these events are, mysteriously, a stepping stone to revealing a life purpose.”

By Carol Andrienne, Ph.D.


Listening to Depression

Dr. Lara Honos-Webb blogs about her book “Listening to Depression” where she writes that depression isn’t just a disease, it’s a warning signal: it’s a way for our true selves to tell us that our life has gone off track, that we’re not living an authentic life and that we should listen to what our depression is trying to tell us rather than try to eradicate it.  Read the Blog.

Hangin’ With Depression


I’ve been living with depression for the past ten years or so – longer than I’ve known a lot of people! I’ve come to think of depression as a sort of troublesome companion; one I need to keep some distance from and yet, at some other level, recognize as a voice I need to care about and even listen to.

Not Letting Depression Define Who We Are

It’s helpful sometimes to think of depression as not “me,” but an “it.”

It’s so easy to get lost in depression; to wander into a compass-less night with no way home.  During these times we just don’t experience depression, we are depression. We can’t get any traction or relief from its withering pain. It rants and never raves; it’s negative thinking on steroids.

Dr. Richard O’Connor writes:

“Most tragically, this depressive thinking is likely to be turned on yourself. You remember all the times you failed, and all the times the other guy succeeded; you literally can’t remember your successes. You probably think of yourself as different from others: weaker, damaged, shameful, and inadequate. You don’t consider that you can’t get inside another person’s skin: the confidence you envy may be just a front; the skill you wish for is just practice and hard work; the success you covet may be bought at a high price.”

During the peaks and valleys of my depression over the years, I have learned to say to myself “that’s my depression talking.”  I’ve learned to put a little space between me and this formidable foe.

But I know, deep in my bones, that this companion will travel all of life’s pathways with me – it’s here for the long haul.  While it may not define me anymore, it wields a pointy pencil and shades in various features of my character, reality and moods.  There will be days when I’m better at seeing this, at cutting through the clutter of depression as I navigate my day.  And then there are still days when it bogs me done a bit, cuts into my productivity and colors my face a deeper shade of grey.

For some, like me, it may not be a question of ultimately curing depression, but containing it; of keeping it at the periphery of my life.  When it tries to wander into the center, the wise sentinels – my psychologist, psychiatrist and chums – remind me that it’s time to refocus and employ my self-care stuff to keep depression at bay.

You are not your depression.  It may be a part of your life, but it isn’t your life.

Listening a Little More Closely

Sometimes we fight our depression too hard.  In our attempts to extricate ourselves from its pain, we sometimes chew off a limb like an animal stuck in a steel trap.  Sometimes, we need not squelch the pain of depression, but listen to it because it’s trying to tell us something.  It can be a messenger from somewhere deep inside of us, not just an illness or a psychological malady.

I’ve often thought that part of depression is a lack of love for one’s self, whatever the reason.  This pain, through years of neglect can pathologize into real illness, like depression; it can grow into a giant monster that we’re just too scared to face.  So we hide in our work, our addictions and in all the many fronts we show to the world.  We kick the can down the road, hoping that things will get better, hoping that depression will just leave us alone.

We need to incline our ears to our pain.  As the poet and author Rainer Maria Rilke once wrote:

“Perhaps all the dragons of our lives we fear are princes and princesses who are only waiting to see us once beautiful and brave.  Perhaps everything terrible is in its deepest being something helpless that wants us to help.”

Somewhere in all us is that depression dragon, that part of us long neglected, abandoned and helpless.  We need our hearts to turn and love this part of ourselves that wants help from us, wants to be heard, wants to tell us that for us to heal and have a shot at happiness, we must listen – maybe as we never have before – to all that is truly in us and needs our attention.

Lara Honos-Webb, Ph.D., in her book Listening to Depression, writes:

“We only reflect on those things that break down in our life. For example, if life is going along smoothly you won’t spend time thinking about the meaning of your life. We tend to think deeply about life when something is not working. When we identify a problem, we begin to reflect on what caused the problem and how to fix the problem. If you are disconnected from your deepest feelings and impulses you may still manage to get through life without realizing it.

But if you begin to open to the possibility that there was something fundamentally wrong with your level of functioning before your depression, only then does the idea of depression as a gift begin to make sense. A breakdown can become a gift when it is in the service of increasing reflection on your life which will lead you to ask the fundamentally important questions: What is wrong with my life? What can I do to correct the problem? When you listen to your depression, you can heal your life.”

Depression feels different on different days.  Sometimes, try treating it as an “it.”  And during other times, perhaps when you’re feeling a little better, try listening to what it is trying to tell you.

Listening to Our Depression

Any dialogue about the warp and woof of depression should include something about its value in our lives. That sounds like a bugged out thing for me to say; all the more so when you consider that much of the national dialogue has been dominated by main stream medicine that tells us that depression is an illness – just like diabetes or heart disease.  I have, in fact, been part of this choir at different times.

Leading this charge is psychiatrist, Peter Kramer.  He’s the author the best-seller, Listening to Prozac and followed up recently with, Against Depression.  His conclusion is that we need an all out war, a full fledged armada, against depression which he maintains is “brain damage” which we must stop from occurring in the first place or progressing once it has gotten a foot-hold.  

I think Kramer’s arguments oversimplify the complex malady that is depression.  More than just a biological illness, depression is also a dying of one’s soul.  Indeed, one’s inner self – that which is most vital and true about us – is a casualty of depression.

What if by medicating our depression, or replacing its jagged thoughts with “clearer” or “more constructive thinking habits” (As defined by whom?), we are moved in the wrong direction?   What if medication doesn’t so much result in full remission (i.e. the goal of psychiatry) of depression as a “draw” with the gun-slinging opponent that our melancholy can seem like?

What if we’re not supposed to mute our depression with medication or straighten out our uneven thoughts with a flat iron?  What if we are killing the messenger?

In his book, The Swampland of the Soul, psychologist, James Hollis, sees depression less as a biological phenomenon, than as a psychological one.  Here’s his description of its causes:

“Depression can feel like a well with no bottom, but is a well with a bottom, though we may have to dive very deeply to find it.  Think of what the word means literally, to de-press, to press down.  What is “pressed down”?  Life’s energy, life’s intentionality, life’s teleology is pressed down, thwarted, denied, violated.  While the etiology of such pressing down may or may not be discernible, something in us colludes with it.  We might even say that the quantity and quality of the depression is a function of the quantity and quality of the life force which is being pressed down.  Life is warring against life, and we are the unwilling host.”

What is pushing down our life force as attorneys with depression?  Is it just the long hours, stress and adversarial nature of our craft?  No doubt such factors play a role, just like our biology and genetics. But clearly much of the foundation of adult onset depression has been layered, brick by brick, in our childhood experiences for it is here where we learn how much to value ourselves and others.  If we learn to value ourselves in a healthy way early on in life’s journey, there are fewer impediments in the future to de-press our life’s energy which is trying to express itself.

If we have grown up in a dysfunctional home, as the majority of adults with depression have, it will be much harder to feel good about ourselves and build a healthy life without depression.  This is so because we have learned to devalue our inner experiences and give too much weight to what others expect and think about our life’s value and future course.  After all, all parents are giants to small children.  In a child’s world of magical thinking, there is no way of filtering out parents’ toxic messages about a child; no way of seeing these voices as a reflection of the parent and not a child’s fledging sense of identity.

This was certainly the case with me.  My alcoholic father, who had gaping holes in his psyche and soul, couldn’t nurture himself let alone his five children.  The eldest of five children himself in an era of WWII veterans, his feelings were alien to him.  As time went by, he crumbled under the weight of his disease and growing awareness, on some level, that he was a failure at work and home.  My mother, an equally damaged person who grew up with an alcoholic father, never learned the basic law of reciprocity in love and nurturance. 

No wonder I ended up as a young man after a successful undergraduate career; without an internal sense of who I was or what I wanted to be.  Like many others without a deep relationship to self and my feelings, I “chose” the law because of one thing I could be sure of – it was a chance to serve others, be a professional and make money.  This is, to be sure, why many young people go into this strange business we call the legal profession.

I was estranged from something essential in me for many years, so powerful was the pushing down of my own inner instincts and life force.  I felt defined and limited by who I had been in my rocky childhood, whether I was aware of it or not.  I always felt a gnawing sense that something was missing – that piece turned out to be nothing less than my essential self. 

Dr. Hollis frames the developmental task before us after we have come to sense this elemental truth:

“The task implicit in this particular swampland is to become conscious enough to discern the difference between what has happened to us in the past and who we are in the present.  No one can move forward, psychologically, who cannot say, “I am not what happened to me: I am what I choose to become.”  Such a person can come to recognize that the early deficit was not inherent in the child, but the result of circumstances beyond the child’s control.  One can then begin to tap the energy for life that was previously walled off.”

And so begins the journey out of the well of depression for all of us.  We must learn to regain our inner authority – regardless of our biology.  This doesn’t mean one needs to quit the law – though some may need to do so to follow their true path.  It may be a more modest shift in perspective or a reshuffling of our life’s deck. 

Hollis has a great analogy that captures the value of modest changes.  He writes that steering our lives is like a pilot using his navigation instruments while flying.  A one degree shift here or there will determine where he ends up landing; in Africa or in Europe.  

In Listening to Depression, psychologist, Lara Honos-Webb writes that depression is trying to tell us something: that we are on the wrong track in life.  In this sense, depression can be a teacher if we would only listen to it. In one interview, she summarizes the five greatest gifts as follows:

–         It propels you on a search for the meaning of life

–         It’s nature way of pushing you out of your comfort zone. Depression reminds you that you are losing your life while not risking

–         It’s a breakdown in the service of offering you an opportunity for a breakthrough

–         It means it’s time to reclaim your power to author your own life

–         It alerts you when you have gotten off course and guides you towards self-healing.

How do we come to see these truths?  Honos-Webb says:

“Depression can be seen as a break-down in the service of offering the person an opportunity for a break-through.  In this way, depression can be a corrective feedback to a life with little reflection.  We only reflect on those things that break down in life.  For example, if life is going along smoothly you won’t spend time thinking about the meaning of life.  We tend to think deeply about life when something is not working.  When we identify a problem, we begin to reflect on what caused the problem and how to fix the problem.  If you are disconnected from your deepest feelings and impulses you may still manage to get through life without realizing it.”

I admit that it’s hard to see depression’s value when in the thick of it, the swamp through which we slog without relief.  But there’s much to be said for seeing depression not just as a disease, but as a diminishment of self which makes our world too small.  We don’t have to keep colluding in our own victimization.  And remember this:

You are not what happened to you – You are what you choose to become.

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