When I was a little kid I had a very messy room. There’s nothing special about that, I know. My parents would be at me constantly to tidy it, and to keep it tidy, but I never quite managed. It became quite a big deal to the extent that when I felt down or angry or moody, or when I thought my parents were angry or disappointed in me, I would go and tidy my room. It was a kind of atonement. It made me feel like I had worth. “See… I can tidy my room… I’m not really useless.”
There are many things that I’ve linked to my sense of self worth over the years, from college performance to jobseeking, but it’s really the earliest ones that stick with you. When I’m at my worst and the depression is closing in on me and I just can’t see any way out I’ll often go to my room, or the kitchen/bathroom/whatever, and clean. I generally only get these flurries of severe cleaning when I’m completely alone in the house. I guess they’re too embarrassing for me to do when there are other people around. (For those who know me: Yes, these are a different beast altogether to my occasional bouts of “Clean ALL the things!”)
If someone was to come into the house while I was in one of those moods they’d likely find me on my hands and knees frantically scrubbing some hard-to-reach spot behind a cupboard or under the sink as if my life depended on it. If they were really quiet and I didn’t notice them they might even catch me muttering to myself. I’d be saying things like “It’s cleaner now, see?” and “I can make it better”. I would probably also be in tears.
I used to take these moods for granted. I even used to congratulate myself on having such a constructive way of dealing with my depression. It took a long time before I actually stepped back and took a look at what I was doing and why. Now I’m no psychologist but I’m pretty sure that what I’m doing when I get these moods is trying to prove to myself that I’m useful, and helpful, and that I am in some way a worthwhile human being. The train of thought goes something like this:
“People like things to be clean. By making the things clean I am pleasing people, therefore I am a good person. If I am pleasing people by cleaning then I can make up for being a broken human being in other ways (ie. my depression, or whatever it has me paranoid about lately).”
It’s easy to end up thinking this way when you suffer from depression but what this train of thought doesn’t take into account is a point that’s generally obvious to everyone but you: You’re a good person anyway!
I’ve come to realise that what other people base your worth on is often different from what you yourself tend to base your worth on. I’ve also realised that what you base other people’s worth on is often different from what you base your own worth on. See, it’s easy to notice acts of kindness and generosity in others. It’s easy to notice what good friends they are, and to remember how they made you laugh when you thought you’d never be happy again. When it comes to truly seeing how you’ve helped out other people, however, it’s a lot harder (for me at least). I find there’s a little bit of my brain that qualifies my good deeds, and I suspect I’m not the only one that has it. It says things like “That doesn’t count. It’s not as if it was hard to do.” or “Well, what else would I do?” or “I couldn’t not. They’ve always been there for me, of course I’m going to be there for them!” or even “But that was fun. I enjoyed doing it, so it’s hardly a good deed!” But here’s a secret: If you went up and thanked a friend for their good deeds then they’d probably (internally, at least) react the same way. The things that you don’t think count are exactly the things that show you to be a good person. They’re the things that you don’t even have to stop and think about because they’re so obvious to you. And they’re the things least likely to come into your mind when a severe depressive episode leaves you doubting your self worth.
So here’s an exercise for you all:
First deal with the negatives:
-Think of the things that you’ve been feeling guilty about lately. Things like lack of money, or the fact that you haven’t done the dishes, or poor grades, or whatever…
-Now think about your friends. Think about the people closest to you, who mean the most to you. Would you think any less of them if they had less money? Would they suddenly be unworthy of being your friend if they fell behind in doing the dishes? Do you decide who’ll be your friend on the basis of how well they do in exams? I think not!
And then look at the positive side:
-Think of the little things lately that people have said or done that have touched your life for the better. Write them out if you want to but don’t feel you need to.
-Now think of all your interactions with people lately. Think of the little words of encouragement or acts of kindness that you normally take for granted in yourself. Write them out too if you like. If you feel comfortable doing it, ask your friends directly. You might be surprised what means a lot to them. Sometimes just making a cup of tea for someone can make a huge difference to their day!