Why Self-Help Doesn’t Always Work When You’re Depressed

When you don’t feel up to personal development, focus on cultivating grace instead.

Christiana White
Nov 5 · 8 min read

I get a little tired sometimes of all of the stories on Medium about picking oneself up by one’s bootstraps, being one’s best self, ‘hacking’ life, and such.

At the same time, I gravitate toward and read many of these articles because I, like most of us, want to find a modicum of equilibrium, peace, or what is often called happiness.

Some articles I find inspiring, some redundant. For many of these articles, it’s not necessarily the talent of the writer or the pithiness of the arguments — it’s my own mindset that determines how I feel about the piece.

The problem with depression is that when you’re in the throes of it, it feels permanent. While you can read about what to do to feel better, it rarely helps when you’re in this state. In fact, it can be downright demoralizing.

Why does everyone else seem to know how to pull themselves out of the doldrums but me? Why do some seem to have the power or control to not even land there in the first place?

I know very well what I’m supposed to do when I’m depressed. I know the drill. Go for walks, exercise, eat well, call friends. Start a hobby, get organized, Marie Kondo my home. And yes — these are all great things to do. I’m sure they work.

What people either don’t realize or too often forget is that when you’re in the grips of depression, acts like these are monumental. When I’m depressed, getting out of bed can take more than an hour. Because why? What’s the point? Everything feels useless and meaningless.

When I begin to feel better, it’s simply grace — an act of mercy from the universe rather than some specific or tangible action I took — that has allowed it.

Something gets in. Something finally catches my attention and moves me incrementally away from my pain. The fact that I was able to witness, observe and experience that something is grace. Grace allowed a tiny parting of the clouds, permitted some detail from life to sneak in and touch me.

Bearing this in mind, rather than telling people how to feel better, what they should do, their best morning routine, and all that other jazz, I think what I have to offer is an effort at how to encourage grace. How to encourage the tiny sliver of light that can begin to melt the awful frigidity inside or tame the panic.

The Power of Grace

Of course, life is hard. It’s silly. It’s ludicrous. Ageing is not a picnic. Even if we are blessed by a life free of undue harshness or suffering, we are still visited by old age, sickness, and death. Death of our selves, and death of our loved ones.

The only constant is change, of course, and decay. Incredible, but each day we live brings us closer to our own demise.

What’s so fun or cheerful about that? Well, that very realization can be the key to feeling better, if we let it. Because life can be utterly overwhelming and heavy, and it can be unbearably light (to use a term from Kundera).

Life is, of course, full of annoying minutiae, little and big problems, petty people, financial woes, health scares, aches and pains, social anxiety, a self-esteem in tatters, doubt.

It can feel ridiculous. Why expend all of this effort if we’re just going to slough off our mortal coil in the end, if no one will ever remember us after fifty years? What’s the point?

One of the frustrations and mysteries of life is that we don’t know the point of it. But the truth is, whether we are depressed or ecstatic, death will come, and death doesn’t care either way.

If we can only understand that we are all in the same boat, that we are all teetering on the edges of our own graves, all the time, and that the time we have remaining to us is ours and ours alone to do as we like with, we could perhaps live with a little more levity. Or quietude. Or at least agency.

Our fate is final, inevitable, and unquestioned. How we live while we still have breath, however, isn’t.

Present-Moment Awareness

This is where faiths of all kinds and practices such as meditation or yoga, when you can remember them, are helpful. Focusing on the present moment can bring gifts. In fact, it always does — if you allow it to. Really settling into the present moment and being alive to it, sharpening our awareness of it in the face of awesome terror and stress is powerful.

Choosing what to focus on is key. And patience. Being patient and keeping our eyes open, keeping the window slightly ajar, letting life and the world in, is also critical.

When I am slack-jawed and nearly catatonic, I am sometimes able to remember to ask myself,

‘But, what is really wrong right now? Right now, in this moment?’

Things are wrong all around us. But often, when we feel frightened or hopeless, if we honestly ask ourselves what is wrong in that precise moment, we discover that nothing is actually wrong in that moment, with that moment.

When I do this, more often than not, I must confess that nothing is actually wrong. My life is not being threatened by a predator. My house is not flooding or on fire. I can breathe. I have food, a safe place to be. I slept — even if fitfully, I have a bed, I have water, the sun is shining, and yes while I am too depressed to clean the refrigerator, but at least I have a refrigerator. I have running water.

Counting Blessings

Stoicism can help here too. Most of us (at least those of us with access to a computer and a Medium account) have so much more than humanity ever had, for centuries, aeons. And so much more than most of the world currently has.

I had a friend — a tax attorney friend — who helped me when the IRS came after me (laughably) in an audit. I was overwhelmed and helpless, personally affronted. I was paralyzed.

My friend helped me, and something he said during that time stayed with me. I was lamenting about how we were so financially vulnerable and how dare the IRS come after me, etc. Victimhood par excellence.

He said,

“Look, in general, we have so much more than even our grandparents had, and definitely our great-grandparents. Many of our ancestors lived in one-room huts with dirt floors. They died of the flu. Walk through any graveyard and see all of the children buried. All of the babies. Look at your life now. Look at what you have. It’s incredible how much we’ve progressed, how much wealth we possess, how much we take for granted. How many more years we get to live.”

Again, I realize, I promise you, that remembering this when you’re as low as low gets isn’t helpful and is even annoying. It sounds pollyanna, and no one likes a pollyanna, especially when they’re feeling gloomy. And learning we have more years of struggle and strife than at any other time is not necessarily encouraging either.

But he’s right.

I don’t like the word ‘happiness.’ To me, it’s unstable and vague. I want equilibrium, grounded-ness, freedom from or at least a lightening of anxiety. The ability to notice and enjoy the tiny gifts the world offers me.

For example, in Northern California in early November, we have cold nights, cold mornings, and then a strong, warm sun that rises and heats up everything it touches.

This morning, the house was frigid. I was afraid to get out of bed. But slip out I did, putting on two sweatshirts. I went out to the front yard. The rising sun had already warmed the black chair on the lawn. I sat down, put my arms on the armrests. It began warming me immediately.

This was a blessing. A gift from the universe. Feeling the sun’s rays on my skin, on my face, triggered me to take a deep breath, which I noticed felt good. The sun, the breath, the moment.

Allowing for grace, allowing grace to perform its function. How can we do that?

Cultivating awareness of the world around us can help us remember that there are others who feel as badly as we do, or even worse. Seeing them, acknowledging them, and, even better, reaching out to them, takes us out of ourselves. It reminds us that we are all in this together and that we have the power to impact one another’s lives.

Even if we can’t make our own lives better, we can still help another soul, and that in itself is powerful medicine.

Roy, a homeless man I encountered on Shattuck Avenue in Berkeley last week, reminded me of this. He was a black gentleman of about 60 shuffling along the street carrying a number of belongings including a blue and yellow sleeping bag that dragged behind him and a white styrofoam cup.

As I passed him, I hesitated. He looked at me.

I stopped and gave him a handful of change from my change purse. He lit up. I was going to resume my pace, but something about his smile and demeanour made me match my step to his. He told me he was going to a place on the street where there was sun for when he was cold and shade for when he was warm.

He told me his name was Roy. He called me pretty (something that happens rarely now). He shuffled. He limped. We moved slowly.

When we got to his preferred spot, we wished each other well. And then as I began to turn away, he said, “Always put the creator first.”

I said, “Excuse me? Always put the creative first?”

He said, “Always put the creator first.”

I thought about his advice all the way to the car.

I struggle all the time with work, with trying to fit writing into my life around work, my commute, my family obligations, my dance practice. I struggle with guilt when I write during work hours. Fear rises as I think about what would happen if I lost my job. Weeks and months pass while I try to be ‘good,’ to ‘put my nose to the grindstone’ and abandon my writing practice.

I liked what Roy said. I knew he meant God. God is the creator, the creative, the creative force — the life force. Always put the creator first. I thought he’d said ‘creative.’ But creator is even better. It sounded like a mandate just for me. Put the creator — the creator in me — first.

I had to ask myself, who helped who that day? I gave Roy some spare change.

He gave me wisdom for life — a single sentence I cling to now. Put the Creator first. We are the creators. We are creating our own lives, bit by bit. We are creating our experience, and impacting the lives around us every day. We are more powerful than we know. Far more.

Grace. Letting the little moments in. Let them wiggle in. Open your eyes. Walk outside. And look for opportunities for grace to find a place in your heart and soul and begin to do its work.

They’re there, like little unopened packages, just waiting for your attention.

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Mind Cafe

Relaxed, inspiring essays about happiness.

Thanks to Reed Rawlings

Christiana White

Written by

I write personal essays about food, travel, love, loss — the viscera of life. Currently at work on a memoir. Visit me at ChristianaWhite.com.

Mind Cafe

Mind Cafe

Relaxed, inspiring essays about happiness.

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