Updated: Sep 11, 2021
“The best thing for being sad," replied Merlin, beginning to puff and blow. "is to learn something. That's the only thing that never fails. You may grow old and trembling in your anatomies, you may lie awake at night listening to the disorder of your veins, you may miss your only love, you may see the world about you devastated by evil lunatics, or know your honour trampled in the sewers of baser minds. There is only one thing for it then — to learn. Learn why the world wags and what wags it. That is the only thing which the mind can never exhaust, never alienate, never be tortured by, never fear or distrust, and never dream of regretting. Learning is the only thing for you. Look what a lot of things there are to learn.”
T.H. White, The Once and Future King
When you are feeling down, even depressed, your perception becomes restricted and you tend to notice only the things that confirm your assumptions. For example, if you believe that no one will ever love you, you will unconsciously focus your attention on situations that make you feel this way (unlovable) and will ignore any instance that disproves this assumption.
The objective facts tend to escape your perception. For example, the mechanism of ignoring positive feedback involves discounting and dismissing all that which does not match your preconceptions. Beliefs are held at an unconscious level and make up your identity. They are formed at a very early age, when you do not have the critical capacity to question the things that happen to you or the motives of others.
As children, we accept what happens to us at face value so if, for example, a meaningful someone in our life consistently behaves poorly in a way that affects our sense of feeling loved, we may interpret the experience as "I am not lovable." As small children, we do not yet understand the separation between us and others and we interpret what others do as the consequence of who we are. Thus, if someone constantly neglects our needs, we experience the neglect as a painful emotion of abandonment that is then held in the body, as a somatic experience. Emotions that are experienced when we are children live in the body, they are somatic in nature, i.e. we have not been able to critically process them so they remain active at an unconscious level. In the case of experiencing chronic neglect, we may make some "conclusions" at an unconscious level. These "conclusions" become core beliefs that make up our identity so we carry with us throughout our adult life, a sense of "I am not worthy", "I don't matter," or "I am not wanted."
Patterns that repeat in our life over and over again reveal that a core belief is at work. For example, getting involved in abusive relationships, feeling let down by people we care about, constantly feeling like a failure and failing in our projects, etc. Whenever there is a pattern in our experiences (the same story repeats with different actors), one or more core beliefs are responsible for creating that experience.
Because core beliefs are the basis of our sense of identity, of how we show up in life, we tend to think that "this is how it's always been for me" or "this is the story of my life" and often feel powerless to change it. Oftentimes, by the time we have had enough experiences in life that we realise there is a pattern, we are most likely beyond our thirties. We may then think that "it is too late to change" or have a feeling that "I wouldn't know how to change, even if I could." We may also feel victimised by our experiences and decide that it is all about other people, not us. "Other people are bad to us" and we don't deserve it. Even if it is true, that other people behave poorly, a question remains: why do we keep investing in close relationships with people that treat us badly? At some point, we need to recognise that there is a common thread to all of our bad choices and that is us.
Core beliefs act as tainted glasses: you become used to “filtering” information and you only “let in” that which confirms what you unconsciously (or sometimes, even consciously) believe.
This filtering process distorts reality. So, for example, if someone you care about makes (what you perceive to be) a critical comment about something you said or did, a core belief becomes activated and you immediately interpret the event in a way that fits your assumptions.
Core belief: I am not loved for who I am
Assumption: If someone criticises me, they don't love me. If they loved me, they would not do that.
Situation: My partner criticised me, this means they don't love me
Behaviour: I shout at them, become hostile, distant, say something cruel, etc.
Consequence: We argue and grow far apart.
A different way to look at this would be from a more critical standpoint.
“What exactly happened that made them say that?”
What are they criticising?: What I said? What I did? Both?
“What is going on with this person that they felt they had to say that to me?”
“How do I choose to be in the face of this perceived rejection of who I am?”
Can I learn to separate what I said or what I did from my inherent value as someone who deserves to be loved?
When you focus too much on *your feelings* and *your thoughts.* you risk missing important information that can eventually lead you to understand the problem better. In a way, you lose the ability to connect to the world around you and begin to lose touch with reality. Little by little you develop a distorted view of yourself, others,, and the world, and the snowball just keeps rolling down the slope.
For example, in the situation described above, you could try to understand where this person is coming from. Perhaps, they, themselves are struggling with the issues brought up and are projecting their own material onto you? Perhaps they are stressed, depressed, have their own mistaken beliefs?
Taking a step back and looking at things from a wider perspective helps us to stabilise our emotional reactions.
So what does this all have to do with sadness or depression, even?
Putting aside the fact that sadness and depression are two different things (a matter for another article), we can distill some things that they may have in common.
Depression is a trap because the more depressed you feel, the more you delete, distort, and generalise external information. The gaps in your awareness are then *filled in* with your assumptions. In this way, you create your own "map of the world" and will generate behaviours that are consistent with that *map*. You live your life in "your own reality", a reality of subjectivities that cut you out from others and leave you isolated.
As you can imagine, the world becomes then a hostile place where you often feel unsafe. This does not help to genuinely connect with other people, who may also be struggling themselves.
A strategy to get out of this trap is to make a conscious effort to focus your attention elsewhere.
Learning to play an instrument, for example, can be very therapeutic.
To learn something helps bring balance to your life by allowing your brain to focus on something else.
Have you noticed how, when you have a headache and focus on the pain, it seems so much worse than it really is? As soon as you get distracted, you "forget" you have a headache. This happens because your attention is re-directed to something else. It’s not that the pain is not real, it is simply that by focusing your attention on it, it is magnified.
When you are distressed, feeling emotional pain, you can choose to acknowledge its presence and accept it as it comes, in order to work towards self-understanding and then let it go or you can choose to feel victimised by it, which leads to feeling hopeless and helpless. The first strategy leads to self-knowledge and to growth whereas the second leads to feeling more depressed and the trap of subjectivity.
The first strategy to deal with emotional pain has been known by mystics and spiritual masters as "conscious suffering." Conscious suffering means to acknowledge that you are suffering as you make a conscious decision to embrace it with self-compassion and self-acceptance. “Embracing” it means that you do not try to push it away with self-calming affirmations, denial or shallow distractions. You do not run away from it or try to anaesthetise it with medication or by engaging in distractions that eventually lead you to a much worse place (i.e drugs, sex, eating, exercise or Netflix binges, self-destructive activities, etc.).
The key is to practise self-compassion and self-acceptance. This means that “only for today” you will acknowledge your suffering and you will treat yourself with the same love and understanding as if you were dealing with the suffering of another. Taking it step by step (“only for today”) makes it easier to deal with and you can say this to yourself every single day if you need to.
Eventually, you can commit to understanding the purpose of your suffering and then let it go.
Emotional distress and pain may be the internal warning signal that it is telling you that you need to pay attention, that something is not quite right in your life or your environment. People do not like to feel pain and run away from it but pain is like death, it can never be deceived and will always meet you and look you in the eye when you least expect it. This is why it is important to confront it and withstand the heat: from the fire comes light.
As you aim to understand yourself and embrace your suffering, you can also choose to learn something about the world. It doesn't matter what it is. It may be a science, an art, a skill or a craft. The important thing is that by learning something new you allow your neurons to create new neuro-pathways in your brain and your brain literally grows and changes as you do so.
You never know where learning something new may lead you. It may result in amazing changes in your life such as meeting like-minded people or a new career path that you would have never considered otherwise.
Learning a craft such as knitting can open the doors of creativity and it is a great way to focus your attention on a highly rewarding activity
People in Western societies are conditioned to dread emotional suffering and tend to view anyone who is going through such an experience with suspicion, bordering on fear. However, suffering can be an opportunity, a call to wake up to a new way of being. Your choice to either answer the call or shy away from it is an important part of the process. In fact, the choice is what will determine the outcome. To choose to act in favour of your growth will never lead you astray. It may make you wander aimlessly for a while but wandering is part of the process; echoing J.R.R.Tolkien, always remember that not all those who wander are lost.
Always choose to learn something about yourself and about the world...as Merlin said, knowledge is light and you can only get lost in the dark.
All that is gold does not glitter, Not all those who wander are lost; The old that is strong does not wither, Deep roots are not reached by the frost.
From the ashes a fire shall be woken, A light from the shadows shall spring; Renewed shall be blade that was broken, The crownless again shall be king.
J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring