If you’re like most people with depression, you can really get into the spirit of raking yourself over the coals. That’s the voice of what I call the Inner Critic, and it’s a very big part of depression. It’s the voice that’s constantly judging you and finding you wanting. It’s the voice that gives you all the blame when things go wrong. It doesn’t forget and it can’t forgive. What’s wrong with you? Get yourself together! Why haven’t you gotten to work yet? You’ll never amount to anything! Some people, when they first begin to practice mindfulness, are amazed to discover that this sort of interior monologue is always going on in the background of their minds. It pops up most often when you’re under stress. It’s the voice of fear, looking for a simple explanation for a confusing situation, and it settles quickly on the usual suspect.
There’s another part of you that tries to defend against the attacks of the Inner Critic. I call it the Timid Defender. It can’t be effective because it uses the usual habits of the mind that never work: the same old defense mechanisms, denial, rationalization, dissociation. Distractions like alcohol and drugs, overspending and overeating. It has us trying to escape or forget about the Critic, but that backfires, because while we’re escaping or forgetting, we’re giving the Critic more ammunition. The Critic, it seems, always knows better. You just make a fool of yourself, pretending to be something you're not. Kidding yourself. You can’t fool me that easily!
This is how misery persists. We make ourselves miserable by blaming ourselves, then we make ourselves more miserable by trying to hide or run away from our own consciences. It never works. Therapy works by changing the rules. Therapy doesn’t silence the Inner Critic, nor strengthen that Defender; instead, it helps people detach from this struggle and accept that they are only human. When people are beating themselves up, I suggest they’re being too hard on themselves. When they’re in defensive mode, I help them face what they’re afraid of.
A good friend of mine uses the phrase compassionate curiosity to describe the ideal therapist’s attitude toward the patient. We begin therapy with a much more compassionate, kind, understanding stance toward the patient and his problems than the patient has himself. And we are curious, in a calm, unafraid way—we want to understand how things got to be so bad, and we assume that by fearlessly facing reality we will help the patient find relief from his distress. Compassionate curiosity is the attitude most of us, depressed or not, need to apply to ourselves as well. What a change that would be for almost everyone I know!
That battle between the Inner Critic and the Timid Defender is much like the way inconsistent parents treat their children. When the Defender is in charge we indulge and spoil ourselves; we let ourselves off the moral hook, we make promises to ourselves we know we won't keep. But that Inner Critic is still there, waiting for our defenses to slip—as they always do—ready to condemn us, always finding that we don't measure up. We vacillate between spoiling ourselves and punishing ourselves. And, as with children who are raised that way, we end up frightened and traumatized, with no self-esteem and a lot of self-hate. Compassion replaces all that with patience, gentleness, love, grace, mercy, concern. It suggests giving up judging and replacing it with empathy, a willingness to face the truth and all your feelings about it, without fear but with confident strength.
Curiosity suggests a little cool detachment from the emotional heat, a desire to understand objectively why we feel what we feel, why we do what we do—especially when it’s troublesome or self-defeating. Why did I get angry just then? What’s making me so blue today? We look at ourselves, not to torture ourselves, not to give ammunition to the Critic, not with desperation for a quick fix, but with compassion, sincere interest, and the belief that there are answers that make sense. No matter how nonsensical our behavior, no matter how odd our feelings, there are always reasons—and knowing the truth will help set us free. We look a little deeper than usual, with more objectivity, and we don’t just slap ourselves on the wrist and make an empty promise to do better next time. Why? What’s bothering me? Why am I afraid to look? We understand that our feelings are just human; they won’t destroy us or drive us crazy. Most likely, they are tapping on our shoulder, trying to tell us something important.
When we’re bouncing around between the Inner Critic and the Timid Defender, who’s at the controls? Who’s running our lives, making our decisions? It’s like we have the Three Stooges up in our heads. Moe the brutal sadist, torturing us while the ineffectual Larry whines pathetic excuses. Curly, the id in this metaphor, full of appetites and drives, causes all the trouble in the first place. Nobody’s in charge of our lives, and the plane is yawing and swooping all over the sky, never getting anywhere and always in danger of crashing. We need a wise, calm, resourceful pilot to step in and get rid of these characters. Yet we need to find him within ourselves. That’s where mindfulness comes in.
As I said, we start picking on ourselves because we’re afraid; we have stresses we don’t know how to handle. But no one has a stress-free life. Sickness, loss, financial problems, job problems are things that all of us will have to deal with. Yet in reviewing new cases week after week at our mental health center, I was constantly struck by how often bad luck had played a major part in contributing to people’s psychological problems. I often wonder if I would be coping as well as my patient if I’d had the same string of experiences. Stress is the backdrop to all our lives now; bad luck is often the tipping point. Contemporary society is so different from what our bodies and minds were designed for that we’re in a state of perpetual stress, which constantly floods us with stress hormones, and constantly pushes us back down over that invisible cliff into depression and/or anxiety. It’s very difficult for anyone, but especially anyone with depression, to make the kinds of life changes that will significantly reduce the stress load—changing careers, setting goals and following your priorities, enlivening and enriching your relationships.
Worse still, depression and stress affect our ability to remember, concentrate, and make decisions. For instance, people who are depressed have much greater difficulty remembering random information than people who are not depressed. When given new material, they have more difficulty connecting it with what they know already—the information does not get organized in ways that help it get learned or recalled. The cognitive impairment that depression inflicts is most evident on tasks that require complex processing or independent thinking. Other research has revealed the neurological mechanisms that result in the depressive’s hypersensitivity to errors in simple tasks. It's as if it's not bad enough that depression causes us emotional pain, makes our behavior self-defeating, and drives others away from us; but because our thinking is damaged, when we try new pathways in an effort to recover, we're handicapped at the outset because we have more trouble remembering and absorbing information and we’re distracted by trivial inconsistencies and errors. Cognitive therapy perhaps heals some of this damage, by focusing our attention on our thought processes and making us follow the discipline of logic. But the brain damage caused by depression and stress can be healed more directly through practicing a mindful way of life.