Sara Paules, MA, LPC
One of the most common complaints I hear from clients, friends, family and even IG followers is: “I’m just not happy” as if this is a problem to be solved. The problem with this statement is that we play into the idea that we must be happy. In fact, our culture even insists that happiness should be our default state.
Think about it… How many times have you heard a well-meaning friend ask or say something along the lines of: “Why aren’t you smiling?”, “Just cheer up” or even “Why aren’t you happy?” These subtle messages are clear: Everyone else is happy and I’m not so there must be something wrong with me.
The truth is though that nearly one in five adults will struggle with depression and one in ten adults will attempt suicide in a lifetime. You can truly see how hard it is to be happy when you start to add in difficult life circumstances like divorce, death, sexual difficulties, work stress, life transitions, domestic violence, racism, bullying, and loneliness.
The idea that everyone else around us is happy and there’s something wrong with us if we aren’t happy is a myth that will only get us caught in a trap of feeling worse about ourselves. By trying to get rid of negative emotions or feelings, we just confirm the negative belief that there is something defective or wrong with us for feeling the way we feel. Nearly every experience and everything we value in life will bring both positive and negative feelings. There is no such thing as the perfect job, partner, birthday or parents… By not accepting this fact, we can end up in constant disappointment, or stuck in our growth.
What can we do to combat the happiness trap? Here are 3 rules that can help you recover from the happiness trap.
This is only a short list of ways you can start to combat the false idea that we should be happy at all times and that we are defective if we aren’t. The happiness trap comes from the teachings of my personal favorite approach to therapy, Acceptance Commitment Therapy (ACT). To learn more about ACT, head here.
Sara Paules, MA, LPC
As we reach the final lax days of summer and head straight into the hustle of fall, I’m reminded of the ways in which transitions can take hold of our lives.
Transitions can bring about a sense of uncertainty which, for most of us, can feel uncomfortable and sometimes even scary. At times we may even resist change by creating rigid boundaries, staying up late at night worrying about something that hasn’t happened yet, or fixating on the worst possible scenario.
Up until a few years ago, I was a professional worrier. Things went on this way for years until I went to a workshop for therapists on clinical interventions for anxiety where a presenter shared that 85% of what we worry about never actually happens. Now, for whatever reason, this statistic really stopped me in my tracks. “What do you mean nearly all of what I worry about never actually happens?” I was clinging on hard to my anxiety like an alcoholic to a bottle of booze.
That’s when I realized I had a problem and I needed to challenge myself. Looking back, I can see now that at my core, my fear of change was really just a fear of failure. “What if things change and I can’t handle it or I fail?”
But when I remembered the 85% statistic, I realized that I didn’t really need to worry about whether or not my coworker gave me a dirty look, if I made the right decision in pursuing my Masters or my profession as a therapist, or about getting into an accident with my immediate family living between 200-300 miles away.
I also realized that when it comes to worrying about change, that I had a clear choice to make:
(1) Living in fear and anxiety while spending time worrying about the worst case scenarios or,
(2) Accepting the imperfections and the uncertainties in life.
And while choice #1 can be scary and uncertain, I learned that it can also hold us back from growth and new opportunities. Something that I also had to learn: imperfection doesn't mean that you are a failure. It means you’ve made it through something and have grown as a person because of change, not despite it.
Every new transition faced will be another opportunity to learn more about and challenge yourself to accept your whole, imperfect being for all that it is. Not everyone’s path to getting here will look the same. That;s because we are all different. But because I’ve learned to accept myself as I imperfectly am, I have to say that I’m proud of my ability to face new changes & transitions without spiraling into thoughts about failure (or at least, I catch myself doing it and I can change directions a lot sooner).
Sara Paules, MA, LPC
One of the most common things I see in people who are struggling with their depression is what’s called confirmation bias. This is something we all do to some degree but individuals who struggle with depression can oftentimes struggle with it to such a degree that it can wreck complete havoc on their lives..
Confirmation bias is the tendency to notice what confirms a person’s preexisting beliefs or theories. For example, individuals struggling with depression might believe that they have no control over their depression and that they are powerless to overcoming it. Because of this belief, they look for confirming examples that they will not be able to overcome their depression. This idea comes from Albert Ellis, the founder of RBT, Rational Emotive Therapy, who says that this is because we all have the tendency to distort our experiences until they fit in our worldview.
Another example of this: If you’ve ever been upset with someone or had an unresolved conflict and noticed that your mind suddenly races with all the different examples of why that person royally sucks, you might be noticing confirmation bias.
With depression, thoughts tend to skew towards the side of negative confirmation bias. When you have the thought that your depression will never get better and there’s nothing you can do to overcome it, your mind will start looking for ways to confirm this belief.
For example, you might go to therapy and after a few weeks of things not getting better, assume it’s because therapy doesn’t work for you and things won’t improve.
Or maybe you’ll try medication and it works for a while but then gradually, you start noticing all the symptoms creeping back up again. According to the CBT model (Cognitive Behavioral Therapy) founder, Aaron Beck, these thoughts now make you feel even shittier which then confirms your experience that there's nothing else you can do to overcome your depression (this is also called the self-fulfilling prophecy).
In both of these examples of confirmation bias, the individual's power is being taken away by the negative thoughts. Building awareness around when we are engaging in negative confirmation bias might be enough to break the cycle of irrational thoughts but for most people with long-term depression or anxiety, it also takes a little challenging and replacement in order to notice a difference in mood.
One example of how you can start challenging your negative confirmation bias after bringing awareness to it is to ask questions like:
Challenging negative confirmation bias aka the thoughts that take away your power can feel empowering. However, any time we take away something we previously used as a coping strategy, we must find a new coping strategy to replace it.
Start small. Simply picking up your dirty underwear off the floor is a great way to disprove the thought that you are powerless over your depression. Yes, exercise is great... but don't make a commitment that you might likely not keep. This will only reinforce the negative confirmation bias script in your head. Instead, think about what you're already doing and keep doing that. You mean you're able to take a shower once a week? Damn, girl... you rock! Keep it up! (This is what I call: Awards for Adulting)
One last idea... Since individuals with depression tend to struggle with negative confirmation bias and feelings of unworthiness, you might try noticing 3 things that confirm your worthiness or power on a daily basis.
For example, if you’re struggling with social anxiety, it might be easy to fall in the trap of “I’m such an awkward person” and only paying attention to the behaviors that confirm this belief. A good replacement thoughts to social anxiety might be something along the lines of “I was friendly to that new girl at work today”, “My coworker laughed at my joke today”, etc.
There are many ways you can overcome depression and this is just one place to start from. Try out the Awareness → Challenging → Replacing technique and see if it works. Remember, what works for one person might not work for another which is why I recommend seeing a therapist who specializes in depression and can make a therapeutic plan individualized for you and your specific symptoms.
For more information on depression or to make a free consultation to see if depression therapy is for you, schedule an appointment on the online scheduling page.
Sara Paules, LPC
Mindful Soul Center