I saw a meme today. It said:
“Just do what you can today, okay? It will be enough.”
Instantly my brain said, “No, it won’t.”
My brain, uncooperative at all but the very best times, has a habit of telling me bad things when I’m in a depressive episode: “You’re useless.” “You’re pathetic.” “Everything you do fails.”
For some reason, positive thinking memes and slogans bring out the worst in my brain. If a pass-along or a bumper sticker tells me that tomorrow will be brighter, my brain says, “No, it won’t.” If a meme says, ” I hope the situation you worry about favors you in the end,” it says, “Yeah, like that’s gonna happen.”
Is my brain simply cranky and uncooperative? Well, yes. But these intrusive thoughts reinforce and deepen my depression, chip away at what self-esteem I still have, deny my progress in healing, and make me resent the whole happy, smiley world that apparently everyone but me can see.
Is there anything I can do to make my brain shut up, or at least pipe down with all the negativity?
I’ll tell you what doesn’t work for me: daily affirmations. My brain tells me these are lies and that I shouldn’t believe them. I can’t look into a mirror and repeat five times, “I am a good, worthwhile person” or “I deserve happiness” or “I will overcome my problems.” It’s like the problem of seeing cheery, encouraging memes on the internet, only having to inflict them on myself. If anything, they make me feel worse.
If these sorts of things work for you, fine. I’ve no objection. I won’t make fun of you. I’m truly glad you’ve found something that helps you.
They just don’t work for me.
So what can I do?
I have gleaned two helpful hints from my psychotherapist. Both are visualizations, and both are metaphors. And both involve animals. (They are variations on a technique called “thought stopping,” which is simpler and more direct. But I find visualizations easier to remember and do. I love metaphors.)
The first comes from a mindfulness meditation that Dr. B. asked me to try. I’m not much good at meditation, because of both my intrusive thoughts and my anxiety. Sitting still for that long is difficult, and so is emptying my mind of thoughts to concentrate on my breathing, for example.
The narration that guided the meditation had a solution for this. When your mind wanders and your thoughts drift off to somewhere else, think of them as puppies that wander away when you’re trying to teach them something. Gently corral them and nudge them back in the right direction. You don’t have to panic and shout, “There they go!” and run off after them. You just give them a little push toward where you want them to go. If they wander again, do the same thing. “What about the mortgage payment? Come back, little puppy. Over here.”
The other technique is for the kind of bad thoughts that I often get: anti-affirmations or negatives that deny any suggestion of peace or happiness or accomplishment. For these, Dr. B passed along an idea that another client had given her. Imagine that your bad thoughts are naughty cats, who jump on the kitchen table or try to go fishing in your aquarium. Then imagine spraying the bad thought (cat) with a bottle of water to make it stop what it’s doing and scram. “I never do anything right. Psssst! Psssst!”
When I’m profoundly depressed, I doubt even these clever dodges will work, though I’m certainly going to try them. But when I’m just starting on the slide down, I predict they’ll be just the thing to trick my brain into submission.
Take that, brain! Psssst! Psssst!
Comments always welcome!