”Psychotherapy is sought not primarily for enlightenment about the unchangeable past but because of dissatisfaction with the present and a desire to better the future.”
– Milton H. Erickson, M.D.
“What’s the point in trying? I’ve always failed at everything.”
These are the sentiments if not the actual words of many depressed people.
Many of our decisions are based on past experiences. So how we view the past, what we amplify and what we minimize, will impact at least some of our decisions and perceptions.
For example, it’s been found that depressed and anxious people tend to focus on what they believe they did wrong in the past at the expense of all they did right.1 This makes it harder for them to benefit from opportunities in the future. If we come to genuinely feel we have unremittingly failed, then we may start trying to simply avoid threat rather than pursue opportunity.
Selective recall or thinking bias isn’t, of course, uncommon in depression, but it can be valuable to relate it specifically to how the past is viewed. Hindsight bias is the specific tendency to see past events as having been predictable, or inevitable.
And of course you don’t need to be depressed to experience hindsight bias. We may all view the past in ways that happen to suit us (I was devastatingly handsome 30 years ago!), but depressed people have been found to view the past in particular ways. Ways that hurt them in the present.
My personal view is that this propensity among depressed people to view the past in negative ways likely ties in with the way they view themselves and their relationships in the present – that is, their perceived sense of status.
This is an aspect of depression I don’t think we often talk about, but we need only look at the language depressed people tend to use to see it in action. Prepositions such as ‘down’ or ‘up’ tend to imply status, and the word ‘down’ is littered throughout the language we use to talk about depression. Depressed people are ‘feeling down’ and often ‘put themselves down’.
Let’s delve a little deeper into the relationship between depression and sense of status.
Depression and a diminished sense of self
Did you know that lionesses much prefer brunettes over blondes when it comes to mane colour?
It turns out this is because darker manes reflect higher testosterone levels, which in turn confer better strength and fighting ability.2 In human men, it’s something of a similar story: testosterone is correlated with competitiveness and confidence.3
Perhaps it’s not surprising, then, that higher testosterone levels in men (and I suspect this would apply to women, too) are correlated with higher status.4 Higher status in turn correlates with all kinds of mental and physical health benefits.5
When we are depressed and/or anxious, we tend to feel low in status. Accordingly, circulating testosterone has been found to be lower in men who are depressed, and many women as well.6,7 Conversely, cortisol (the ‘stress hormone’) is heightened in depressed people (as well as fleeing wildebeest!).8
If you feel depressed, you may not think you are low in status, but your physiology and psychology behave as though you are. The resulting feelings can filter through to lowered self-esteem.
One aspect of feeling low in status is a fear, even an expectation, of being punished.
Wildebeest are much more nervous and attuned to threat than lions. A depressed person can feel that ‘life is out to get them’, that they are prey to some vicious beast of vicissitude. They are much more attuned to the possibility of threat than that of reward.
Another aspect of depression is an over-focus on the past – specifically on perceived loss, regret, and mistakes.9
So how exactly do many depressed people view their pasts?
An inevitably bad past
Not only do depressed people tend to focus on what they feel they did wrong in the past, they also often feel that anything bad that happened was somehow inevitable – that there was nothing they could have done about it.10
Depressed people tend to feel little control in life. And this is also one aspect of a sense of low status: the feeling of being a plaything of fate, of being totally exposed to the whims of chance or one’s own perceived weaknesses, with little or no say in the matter.
We don’t just get a sense of status from being, say, promoted at work. We also get it from feeling that we have agency, autonomy, and some control over events generally. Paradoxically, we can feel elevated status if we know how to relax with uncertainty and comfortably tolerate not having control for a while.
So how can we help our depressed clients reframe their pasts and thereby feel more able to deal with, survive, and thrive within their present and future lives?
Step one: What are the exceptions and extenuating circumstances?
None of us can change the past, but we can certainly change how we view it: whether we see it through a narrow lens of self-negating bias, or a wider, wiser context of understanding. Humanity extends to the self as well as rippling outwards.We can't change the past, but we can certainly change how we view it: whether we see it through a narrow lens of self-negating bias, or a wider, wiser context of understanding. Humanity extends to the self as well as rippling outwards.Click To Tweet
One client, Paul, told me how his life had been one long “litany of disasters.” Actually, when I drilled into it there had been many positive aspects – the successful business he’d built up singlehandedly, the house he’d helped build for his brother, the way he’d nursed his mother in her final days – yet due to his depressive hindsight bias, he couldn’t really focus on these. The fact that he’d gotten divorced and lost some (but certainly not all) of his money in a side business venture made him feel like his whole life had been a failure.
Because some things had gone wrong, everything had gone wrong!
I wanted to know not just about the exceptions to all the “disasters”, but also about any extenuating circumstances.
“Paul, what caused this – in your words – ‘litany of disasters’?”
He hung his head a little. “My stupidity.”
“And was it also stupidity that built up your business, helped you build that house, and nursed your mother and eased her passing?”
He said nothing, but I could see something was happening inside of him.
I moved along. “And was the divorce all your fault?”
“Yes,” he replied unequivocally.
“Were there no pressures on you during the lead up to the divorce?”
He thought hard. “Well, yes, I was working 16 hours a day, 6 days a week. My mother got sick in the months leading up to my divorce, and eventually I had to nurse her more and more and keep the business going…”
I didn’t push any further, or even suggest that this somehow let him off the hook. I didn’t need to, because he told me on his own that, weird as it was, he’d never looked at it that way.
Always look for exceptions and extenuating causes.
Sometimes I’ll ask questions like “Is it fair to say you did your best back then, given who you were at the time?”
Notice how a question like this widens context and gives the client a chance to make new connections for themselves without us necessarily directly contradicting their biases.
Next, we can ask the client what they learned from the past.
Step two: What did they learn from the past (other than that life was out to get them!)?
My client Sally, after spending a long time telling me of the myriad regrets, failures and general ways in which she’d “always ruined everything,” looked stunned when I asked her a simple question.
“Thank you for giving me such detailed information. Can I ask, what are the most important lessons you learned from your past, which will help you live more happily in the future?”
She gaped at me and eventually smiled.
“In all the years of therapy I’ve had, can you believe no one has ever asked me that before!” No, I couldn’t quite believe that, but I kept my incredulity under wraps!
I persisted and repeated my question.
At last she replied: “That life doesn’t have to be like that. That I don’t have to be like that!”
So now we were starting to move from what life had done to her and the inevitability of her screwing everything up to how she could use the past as a series of lessons to better inform her choices in the future. This, in turn, carried the strong implication that she could be more of an active participant in her future – a bit more lion, a little less wildebeest.
Of course, your client might answer the question “What have you learned from that past time?” with “That life sucks!” or “That I can’t make anything work!” But if we add to our question the adjunct “… that will help you live more happily in the future?” we may be able to circumvent that particular depressive bias.
Finally, we can explore the depressed client’s past in such a way that we can begin to develop strategies for staying out of depression in the future.
Step three: How can they apply these new learnings?
One question I sometimes ask a client after having looked at what they might have learned from their past is: “Knowing what you know now, how might you have handled that time differently?” Notice this implies they have grown as a person. By exploring this, we can help the client build their sense of autonomy and personal agency.
To frame it a slightly different way, we could ask: “Knowing what you know now, how would you handle that situation if it happened again? Or “How might you avoid it happening in the future?”
We could further add: “What skills have you developed, or might you need to develop, in order to avoid that kind of thing happening?”
When we start to see the past less as a burden and more as a teacher, then we can grow from it.
The huge caveat here, of course, is that we may need to help our depressed clients overcome trauma and other emotional conditionings – but even in these cases, once the client has processed such experiences they too can use the past to improve their future.
Which brings us neatly to the nature of life itself.
Life ain’t what it used to be
Life, of course, isn’t just about what we do. Stuff does just happen to us sometimes. Nor is life just about what happens to us – we never need just be victims. Some of what we receive in life depends on what we do and some depends simply on good or bad luck, but generally it’s a combination.
No one merits winning the lottery (except to the extent that they bought a ticket!) or being maltreated as a child. These things happen to us.
But the warping effects of depression can make us forget, or fail to learn, that we can make a difference – perhaps not always to the events themselves, but at the very least to how they affect us and what we do with them.
And depressed people can learn to relate to their past in new and better ways which help them discover more happiness in their futures.
The narrative of the past can, to some extent, be re-written to help guide our clients into their futures.
The past can sometimes be a lacerating source of pain, but it can always be a rich resource for learning.
Learn How to Treat Depression Fast with Mark Tyrrell
Join fellow practitioners in our online platform Uncommon U to discover Mark’s specific process for treating depression. Read more here.
Read more therapy techniques »