Fighting fire with fire.
I’m sure you’ve heard the age-old advice that when you are feeling sad to think positive thoughts. My mom said it to me all the time. And there are a million memes reminding me to do the same.
Sure, thinking positive works if you can do it. But if you’re like me, it can backfire. For example, recently, I was on the rare and famous pink sand beaches of the Bahamas. It was a challenging place to get to — including a bumpy ride in a plane that felt like it would fall out of the sky — and that made it all the more beautiful. If I were to imagine a happy place, this would be it. However, I also felt strangely detached. It was a combination of “This is too good to be true” and what I call the Buckaroo Banzai Problem, “Wherever I go, there I am.” It’s a fancy way of saying that people tend to carry their problems with them like baggage. In a way, we all live in our heads, and if we are unhappy with ourselves or our perception of reality, it’s hard to escape that. In other words, if you are unhappy with your job or the place you live or your romantic partner, it’s unlikely that changing these things will help. Not for very long anyway.
We all get depressed occasionally. It’s natural. But, if you’re like me, thinking happy thoughts of a beach, or actually being on a beach, and telling myself to be happy — it backfires. Because I take one problem, “I’m not happy,” and layer on another problem, “I should be happy,” and then layer on another problem, “But, I’m not happy, so I must be doing it wrong,” and so on… It’s the classic downward spiral. Eventually, I hit bottom. I am in the pit of despair, and my only companion is the thought, “I’m broken and there’s no fixing that.” And, yes, I’ve been told over and over, “You are perfect just the way you are.” That may be true, but this where logic and emotions collide.
Telling myself to be happy is like doing affirmations in the mirror. On one level, I am saying, “I’m worthwhile. People love me.” But on another level, I’m thinking, “I wouldn’t be standing here in front of a mirror saying these things if I really believed them.”
A reverse psychology trick
Rather than force ourselves to think positive thoughts, here is another approach that I think you will find surprising. Let’s try a trick using reverse psychology on our “bad” emotions, whether that be depression or anything else.
The definition of reverse psychology, according to Merriam-Webster Dictionary,* is: “A method of getting someone to do what one wants by pretending not to want it or by pretending to want something else.” And the reason that it works is because of reactance. That’s a psychological concept that refers to the bad feeling you get when you are threatened and the automatic response to do the opposite of whatever threatens you. Think of it as your inner rebel. Typically, we think of reverse psychology as a trick we use on other people, but is it a trick we can use on ourselves? Let’s give it a try.
Instead of trying to run away from your problems, why not just dive deep into them? If you are going to end up at the bottom of that downward spiral thinking you are broken, why not just jump right in? In other words, I’m asking you to give yourself permission to feel your feelings, think your thoughts and wallow in your misery. The catch is to put a time limit on it. Give yourself five minutes to feel miserable. List every reason why you should feel miserable. If you think you feel bad, tell yourself, “I can do better than that. I can feel twice as bad.” Did you succeed? Go for three times as bad. Let yourself wallow deep in misery for those five minutes. Don’t try to fix it. That will come after the five minutes are up.
I recommend you give this a try right now. Go ahead. Just to clarify: this isn’t an exercise in self-chastisement, but it is an exercise in experiencing your emotions without reservation. Maybe they aren’t as bad as you think.
Go ahead, try it. (When teaching kids, I always incorporate an activity to put their lessons into action right away.) Seriously, this lesson won’t mean anything if you don’t try it.
Okay, you’re back. How did you do? Did you make the full five minutes? How do you feel? I’m betting you couldn’t do it. Or that if you did, you might have even had a good laugh at how ridiculous this made you feel. On some level, did it seem like you were telling yourself a make-believe story about your misery?
Here’s what happened
First) We allowed ourselves to have feelings. We validated the feelings we were having. In a way, we were addressing our feelings like a child who fell down and scraped their knee, “It’s okay. I know it hurts. I wish I could make the pain go away, but I can’t. Trust me, in time, you’ll feel better. No, you didn’t do anything wrong. Accidents happen. All we can do is learn from them.”
Second) We accepted our feeling. We stopped making the feeling a thing to avoid, and we gave the feeling a purpose for being. All feelings have a reason for existing. For example, being afraid of crossing the road without looking is a fear that has saved our lives many times.
Third) We felt the relief of letting go. Like training to be an athlete, we have to exercise our muscles. The resting phase of training is just as important as putting the body under strain. The problem with depression is that it can be a chronic state. We never learn to let go.
For me, this exercise helped teach me the stories I tell myself. And, after further introspection, I’ve learned that I have a nagging doubt of not being good enough, ready to trigger me at any moment. Now, if those feelings arise, I find it a lot easier to allow them long enough to take a good look. It’s like a test. “Is this life event really justify these feelings?” Sometimes the answer is yes. Then you can take action.
Now that you learned a tool to put your feelings into perspective, it will be a lot easier to form a plan of action to get better. Heck, maybe you even realized that you don’t really have a problem. This will sound unbelievable — I find it hard to believe — but it took me about 35 years to learn that being sad wasn’t a problem. It what makes me human. And, if I can work through my sadness quickly, I can come out the other side a better and more compassionate person.
I hope that helped put another tool in your toolbox when it comes to your mental health.
* “Reverse psychology.” Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/reverse%20psychology. Accessed 23 Dec. 2020.