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Assertiveness: The Antidote to Depression

(3 minute read)

If you feel sad a lot of the time, or even feel depressed at times, you probably are pretty harsh on yourself. You criticize yourself for your myriad failings and compare yourself unfavorably with your more talented and happy friends and family members. If only you had fewer weaknesses, you believe, you’d be much better off.

Research shows, however, that people who are depressed are just as talented, capable, smart, funny, etc. as other people. The only difference is that people who are not depressed see themselves as more talented, capable, smart, funny etc. than they really are. In other words, being happy means overestimating yourself, while being depressed means seeing yourself clearly. That’s a sobering thought, isn’t it?

This means that if you’re sad or depressed, you’re objectively no better or worse than anyone else. So what’s making you feel this way? In my work with clients, I’ve found that many such people are unaware of how much the world pushes them around and takes advantage of them. And being unaware means they don’t see what they can do about it.

Researchers who have taught dogs that there’s nothing they can do to escape a mild but unpleasant electric shock find that the dogs act a lot like depressed humans: they lie there and whimper, not even trying to find an escape route, even when escape is obviously possible. It’s not hard to see how people, believing there’s nothing they can do to avoid unpleasant things in their lives, might act the same way and become depressed.

Here are some common situations people find themselves in that contribute to feeling down:

  • Your boss gives you yet another project. Even if you work evenings and weekends, you won’t be able to do a good job on everything that’s on your plate. You buckle down and do the best you can since complaining won’t get you anywhere, and brace yourself for the criticism you’re going to get when things don’t get done well.

  • A friend is rude to you, or excludes you from a gathering. You don’t want to make a bad situation worse, so you say nothing, but wonder for days what you did to make them treat you this way. Or perhaps you quietly feel angry at your friend.

  • Your promotion and raise is overdue, but these goodies go to other people. You don’t dare raise this with your boss, so you just keep quiet, or go find another job. You feel that you never were a favorite of your boss anyway.

In each of these cases, you’ve felt unable to fight back or show anger. Doing so would blow up relationships and perhaps lose you your job. But you still feel badly treated, and that is going to result in feeling angry. You’re going to be angry because you’ve been saddled with too much work, or been insulted by a friend, or not recognized for your achievements.

But again, you don’t dare express the anger you feel. So there’s only two things you can do with it: First, you can bottle it up. You know how angry you are, but you force yourself to smile and pretend that everything is fine. Second, you can turn it against yourself. Instead of being angry at the other person, you criticize yourself for having failed them in some way, which justifies their bad treatment of you.

Both of these solutions can lead to sadness or even depression. The first solution — being unable to let another person know they’ve made you angry — leaves you feeling powerless. Others have just done something to you, and you don’t even have the right to point it out to them, let alone fight back. You have to sit there and take it — just like the dogs in the experiment who learned there was nothing they could do to avoid being shocked.

The second solution — criticizing yourself — eliminates anger entirely. You have no right to be angry because it was your own behavior that provoked the other person: YOU haven’t managed your boss right; YOU must have offended your friend; YOU don’t deserve the promotion. People who take this approach usually get along very well with everyone, because they take responsibility for every conflict and hurry to make amends. The cost of this approach, however, is high: Everything that goes wrong must be your fault, which means that you are a very flawed individual. Sadness and depression follow that belief just as night follows day.

In a nutshell then, if we can’t push back when we are pushed around, we either feel powerless, or we blame ourselves. Both of these tactics lead to unhappiness.

What then, is the solution? For people caught in these situations, it lies in one word: assertiveness. In the counselling room, I spend a good deal of time helping people to recognize when they’re feeling pushed around, and helping them discover new ways of coping that don’t involve being powerless or blaming themselves. People caught in these traps often don’t recognize what’s happening and they usually are delighted to find that there’s another way of behaving.

You may ask: What does being assertive involve? There’s no time for that in this post, so I will refer you to one or two of my other articles — or, if you want to really dive in to the topic, trying reading The Assertiveness Workbook by Randy Patterson or Dance of Anger by Harriet Lerner.


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