"I am in the temper that, if I were under water, I would scarcely kick to come to the top." John Keats
This feeling is felt by almost everyone at some point in life, either by an event such as the loss of a loved one, or even just from reflection on how our life is, and contrasting it with how it could have been. For most people, these feelings prove temporary, as dark clouds passing. But for others, these feelings don't abandon, but rather intensify with time, and depression sets in.
One comes to view oneself as worthless, as an object of pity, hate and anger, and life becomes a burden of the greatest magnitude.
The origin of our ails
Why can some people recover quickly from adversity, whilst others are lead into a prolonged misery? Over the past couple of decades, there has been an increase in focus on the biological causes of depression. But whilst our genes and biology do play a role, there is no denying the way we live, and the pattens of thought and behavior we cultivate, are also of great importance.
Not all ways of life are equal if we wish to avoid the acute suffering associated with depression.
Specifically, one way of life that has been identified repeatedly by philosophers and psychologist to place one at a great risk of depression. This is the danger of relying too heavily on a limited number of sources for our feelings of self-worth.
Sources of self-worth
As humans, we have a need to feel that our lives are of value, and that we are here on earth, not merely to take up space, consume resources, and ultimately to die. For without feeling that we are an individual of worth, we suffer, and so much of what we do is driven to satisfy this need- The job we take, who we associate with, the status symbols we adopt, and the social issues we champion. All are influenced by whether they help or hinder us in this regard.
The more sources we have from which to obtain our feelings of self-worth, the better. But some people- by virtue of their upbringing greatly restrict themselves in this regard, and in doing so, they predispose themselves to depression.
Depression is often the combination of two factors-
- The loss of a valued object
- Psychological rigidity: which is the inability to produce a variability in our patterns of thought and behavior, and to greatly adapt to changes in our environment
Both these factors increase the more we rely on one or a few objects for our feelings of self-worth.
The Dominant Other
In some cases, individuals depend on the constant praise of a parent, or a spouse, to feel good about themselves, rather than believing they can imbue their life with meaning and become an individual of Worth through self-directed action.
Such people always seek assurance, direction, and validation, from what can be called their dominant other, but while those who live like this way have good reasons for having slipped into such an existence, unfortunately this way of life never cures what ails them, for the more we rely on another person to validate our worth, the more psychologically rigid we will become. We will never cultivate the crucial ability to attain self-esteem through our own efforts, and discovering how to feel like an individual of Worth without the constant praise of another.
The Dominant Goal
In other cases, individuals adopt grandiose life goals in the hope that, one day, they will achieve such goals, becomes the primary source of their self-worth.
This tactic is often resorted to by individuals who lack satisfying interpersonal relationships.
Perhaps such a person grew up with emotionally distant parents, was ostracized by his or her peers, or experienced too much rejection later in life.
But whatever the case, if one repeatedly fails to find the acceptance of others, eventually they will believe that there is something fundamentally wrong with him. He must become someone else if he is ever to become worthy of the love and respect of others, and what better way to do this than by accomplishing a magnificent feat, such as by becoming a famous musician, a best selling author, a successful entrepreneur, or something else of a grandiose nature. Believing that one day he will accomplish his goal, and find the acceptance he so desires.
This feeling can help him feel that he is an individual of worth, or at least, on the path in that direction.
But like the life lived in the service of a dominant other, focusing on a single goal dissipates our resources, and increases psychological rigidity. If the goal is grandiose, most people do not accomplish it, and as the years pass and the goal remains nothing but a fantasy, the realization sets in that success will never be achieve, and such as the individual who's lost their dominant other, those who stake their existence on the achievement of a dominant goal also experience death, but in this case, the symbolic death of the individual they hoped to be.
"Either Caesar or nothing" but in this case, since the person did not get to be Caesar, he cannot bear to be himself.
Avoiding Psychological Rigidity
In both these examples, we see that when we lose the singular, object on which we stake our well-being and self-worth, we will be at a loss of where to turn.
Whilst psychological rigidity, or the foreclosure to alternatives ways of living, is especially prevalent in those who live for a dominant other, or those who live for a dominant goal, we all run the risk of becoming too rigid in our ways.
Most people glue themselves a little too tightly to a certain persona, or social mask, and rely too heavily on things such as looks, or other status symbols for their feelings of self-worth.
To avoid the pitfalls of psychological rigidity we should periodically meditate on the stoic principle that we will lose some of the things we value.
"The Object of your love is mortal; it is none of your possessions, it has been given to you for the present, not inseparably nor forever." Epictetus, The Discourses
When you lose something, accept that you will temporarily descend into the darkness of depression. Those periods, however, should not be viewed as wholly without worth, for often it is during these times that we see the world, and our place in it, a little more clearly.
"The intensest light of reason and revelation combined, cannot shed such blazoning upon the deeper truths of man, as will sometimes proceed from his own profoundest gloom. Utter darkness is then his light..." Herman Melville
Alternative sources from which to attain self worth
To discover alternative sources from which to attain self worth, we must take an active approach to life, and we must be try new things and experiment with new patterns of thought and behavior. For a while a period of mourning can be beneficial following a loss, a deep depression will set in if we stagnate in such a state for too long.
"The work of changing, indeed the work of living cannot be done on one's behalf by another person... We can learn important lessons from those who have gone before us... But, ultimately, each of us faces a unique configuration of challenges and a very personal responsibility for the choices we make in moving onward with our lives. We have only partial information, limited understanding, and imperfect control. Yet the physical world, and our social communities hold us responsible. Such is our shared existential predicament." Michael Mahoney