“Depressed people think they know themselves, but maybe they only know depression.” – Mark Epstein
Most of us agree that we don’t “enjoy” feeling miserable. For people dealing with depression, the mere implication that they are choosing their own suffering can be very upsetting. Rather than get caught up in feeling misunderstood, invalidated, or just plain angry at such a suggestion, consider the implications of choosing ”to depress.”
Choice theory tells us that we essentially choose all of our behaviors, even the ones that seem to just “happen.” The idea is that we are always trying to make the best choices that we can come up with in the present moment to best meet our basic needs. When we choose a thought or behavior that is painful, it is only because this is the best choice we could come up with in the moment.
If we remember past times in our lives when choosing self-destructive behaviors (e.g., depression, panic, or substance abuse) provided us with some form of relief from our pain, we are likely to choose these behaviors again in the future. Even when our choices end up causing us much more suffering in the long-term, in the moment we often only see the potential to feel better “now.”
Many people who experience depression will tell you, “This doesn’t feel good! Why would I choose to feel this way? I’m miserable!” This is quite likely… they are miserable. But, within a choice theory framework, they are still choosing to depress because it is a is providing some type of benefit.
Choice Theory: Why People Choose to Depress
In “Choice Theory,” Dr. William Glasser explores three reasons why people choose to depress:
(1) Restrain Anger
Depressing, like all other behaviors that cause painful symptoms, restrains anger. If this anger were to be unleashed in the moment, the consequences would be much worse than the choice to depress. Sometimes we are faced with events in life that are incredibly difficult to handle. For some, rather in respond in anger, they choose to depress instead – bottling up and shutting down their anger until they can process the situation and make a better choice.
(2) Call for Help
Behaviors involved with depression act as a powerful call for help. When someone is spending days on end lying in bed, refusing to see family/friends, withdrawing, refusing to eat, etc., it sends signals to other people that something is wrong. It is a passive way of asking for help from others (and controlling others).
(3) Avoid Failure
Behavioral choices linked to depression act as way to keep us from trying things we fear we may fail at. If someone is “too depressed” to get out of bed or leave the house, of course they can’t be bothered to apply for jobs or try to make friends. While depression is a legitimate emotional experience, it is important to accept the fact that it provides the person experiencing that depression with significant benefits. This is also a form of experiential avoidance.
What reactions do you have to the idea that depression is a choice? Do you find yourself nodding along, thinking that this concept makes sense, or are you experiencing a sense of defensiveness or anger? Whatever response you are having, acknowledge it as real and valid. The suggestion that depression is a choice is not intended to invalidate one’s emotional experience or negate the truth of their very real emotional pain. Depression is painful.
The point of framing depression through a choice theory lens is to encourage you to acknowledge that if you are able to choose to act in ways that a depressed person would act, you can also choose to act in different ways. No one is “making” a depressed person stay in bed or avoid friends and family. They are choosing to do this on their own as a way to deal with their suffering.
Making the choice to act in ways that a non-depressed person would act slowly begins to lift the emotional experience of depression. Often, psychologists encourage severely depressed clients to begin to engage in small behaviors that force them out of a depressed emotional state (e.g., walking around the block or taking daily showers).
These small behavioral changes begin to create new ways of thinking and feeling. I have said it in a previous post, but it bears repeating… If you do not want to feel like a depressed person, then by all means stop acting like a depressed person. Please keep in mind that no part of choice theory is designed to tell people that they don’t “really” feel the way that they do. The subjective emotional experience of depression is very real.
Each small behavioral change that you are able to make towards acting in a way that doesn’t fit with depression is a positive step towards it lifting. As long as you want to be depressed, you will be. Apply the Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) skill of opposite action to your experience of depression. Be prepared to feel differently.
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Glasser, W. (1998). Choice theory: A new psychology of personal freedom. New York, NY: HarperCollins Publishers.
Featured image: Depressed by Sander van der Wel / CC BY-SA 2.0