Depression and the "Loser" Lens
By Jean Neely
According to the World Health Organization, depression is the leading cause of disability worldwide. This is understandable, given the state of the world and the nature of depression.
Major depression is a whole-body illness. It goes well beyond situational sadness or grief. It's complex and often requires attention from a variety of angles.
Depression is difficult enough to handle on its own, but many Christians stuck in depression face feelings of shame and spiritual anxiety that further add to their mental suffering. In other forms of hardship, people of faith can often find solid comfort in Scripture, communion with Christ, or fellowship with community. But in severe depression, which affects one's perceptions and capacity to hope, thoughts about God can become sources of further distress rather than comfort. If we already have internalized images of God as more wrathful and demanding than compassionate, our depression can bring on a host of other reasons for us to feel as if God is disappointed in us.
In severe depression, which affects one's perceptions and capacity to hope, thoughts about God can become sources of further distress rather than comfort.
My harshest stance toward myself, which used to be my default inner setting, is summed up in the feeling that I'm a "total loser." I used to fear that this stance most accurately reflected how God saw me, too. Friends would tell me I was too hard on myself, but I tended to think that they saw me as better than I knew myself to be. I saw myself as unfruitful, overly anxious, and possibly too faithless to qualify for grace. In my mind, God had certain conditions for grace that I too often failed to meet.
In many ways, I was constitutionally unable to question my dreariest views of myself until my early thirties. In that season of life, I was in the middle of graduate school and constantly compared myself to all the brilliant academics surrounding me. Though I generally thrived in that vibrant space, things got difficult when I hit the dissertation-writing stage. Even while on medication, I wrestled with chronic depression. One part of the problem was that I always had the "I'm such a loser! I'm so stupid!" tape on replay in my mind.
During that time, desperate for some relief, I attended a weekly workshop for women battling depression. We learned about practices to disrupt negative thinking, and at one of our sessions, we discussed the concept of "automatic negative thoughts" or "ANTs." One of the therapists facilitating the group asked for a sample negative thought to write up on the white board, and someone called out, "I'm a loser!"
YES, I immediately thought. That one! ALL the time!
The therapist wrote "I'm a loser" up on the board as we all nodded. I was nodding vigorously when I stopped to consider the animated and unreserved agreement from the women around me. A couple of them repeated, "Yes! 'I'm a loser!'"
I looked around, shocked that every single woman in the room could so whole-heartedly identify with that statement. All of them! We were of varying ages, from a variety of professions and walks of life. Based on our interactions thus far, I saw them as normal, wise, and perhaps kinder than average. And here they were confessing that they saw themselves as "losers"?! That seemed a bit much.
"Geez! They're pretty hard on themselves," I thought. "Probably the depression."
And then: "Wait. —Does that mean maybe I don't see myself objectively?! Maybe people are right that I'm too hard on myself?" It was a paradigm-rattling moment.
Immediately, my inner critic retorted—"Not the same! Of course, they're not losers. They're actually contributing to society. Unlike me, just sitting on my bum reading poetry and ruminating all day!"
Still, the incident gave me something to think about. It jiggled my own depression-lens into view and made a slight crack in my rigidly closed, impenetrable inner dialogue. It helped me to begin to see the all-encompassing impact of depression on the deepest levels of self-perception. For the first time in my life, I began to consider that my self-assessments might be significantly skewed—regardless of how right they felt.
Shedding the "loser" lens is not a simple task, especially for anyone who has lived with that lens and the self-rejecting voices for a long time. Research has shown that long-held habits of negative thinking shape one's neural pathways and make it physiologically more difficult for our brains to break out of negative thoughts. Positive movement in this area can feel impossible, since all of one's cognitive capacities may be affected.
My own patterns of self-rejection haven't been easy to deal with. I still have self-condemning tendencies, though they've lessened with age.
Over the years, I've found that community is essential for any significant inner healing. Prayer helps, too. And many of us may benefit from working with a good, well-trained psychotherapist who can help us deconstruct our inner narratives.
Just because there may be a spiritual component in one's experience with depression, however, does not mean that the problem is purely spiritual. If the doomsday thoughts are debilitating, if there other symptoms, or if depression runs in the family, it may be beneficial to consider medication.
Though it doesn't accomplish lasting inner transformation on its own, what medication can do is alleviate symptoms enough so that we're able to function. It can help us to attain a baseline level of wellness and clarity of mind that allows us to tackle the really tough work—spiritual, emotional, relational or otherwise. Depending on one's condition and circumstances, it can be hard to do any of that work without the aid of medication.
For me, finally opening up to the possibility that I might have a distorted sense of reality was a major step towards healing. Witnessing the extent to which depression could skew self-perception for so many other women opened my eyes to how wrong I might be about myself.
When I was younger, I worried so much about verses like, "Be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect" (Matthew 5:48). I thought it meant that I wasn't allowed to falter in any way. I dwelt on my daily failures and all the ways I so closely resembled the foolish man, the rich young ruler, the wicked servant, the rocky soil, and the fruitless fig tree we read about in the gospels. I always wondered about how God looked upon my infinitesimal speck of faith and complacent life.
Following Christ isn't easy by any means. There is a real call to "lose" our lives, to surrender our ego-driven ambitions and agendas. But like many others haunted by the angry gods of their youth, on my worst days, I tended to take these kinds of exhortations to a distinctly neurotic level of spiritual perfectionism. I was convinced I was the sort of person who would exhaust even God-sized, infinite grace.
…like many others haunted by the angry gods of their youth, on my worst days, I tended to take these kinds of exhortations to a distinctly neurotic level of spiritual perfectionism. I was convinced I was the sort of person who would exhaust even God-sized, infinite grace.
Those of us whose core beliefs about God exacerbate depressive symptoms may need to be more skeptical of our own self-judgments and more open to what other wise people of faith say about us and our intrinsic belovedness. We need to stop giving so much credence to the most hateful voices. We are not necessarily the best judges of our own hearts and minds.
Even for those of us who aren't clinically depressed, growing toward inner freedom in Christ depends on a keen ability to discern the truth about ourselves from all the lies. We're all so prone to error in this area.
It might be true that, like me, you've got a lot of issues to work on—perhaps more than what seems like a humanly fair share of issues. So we do the work. We're not the only ones.
I don't believe God is as stingy or limited in grace as I used to fear, or as some people make God out to be. I no longer believe God is put off by things like depression, or as easily scandalized by our failings and faithlessness as many churchgoers are, or as we ourselves tend to be. I'm still a skeptic and in many ways more a doubter than a believer, but these days I try to question the voices of hate as much as I used to question the voices of love. I'm slowly learning to trust that in God's grace-filled eyes, none of us are "losers."
Dr. Jean Neely is a writer, independent scholar, and Christ-seeker. She currently teaches writing at Azusa Pacific University. Follow her on Twitter @DrJeanNeely.