It is a source of continual amazement and delight to me, the way we manage to find the light.
How do you help yourself feel better when darkness strikes? How do you lift yourself out of the mire?
I have received the grace of, by this time in my life, discovering many ways to navigate through darkness back to the light. Many of these ways overlap or are very closely related to each other. Sometimes one simply needs that slight variance for it to click into your brain and work, to really speak to you and do the trick.
- The 10% rule: A friend once taught me to ask: What can you do right now that will make you feel 10% better? It can be something as simple as listening to a song, or gaining back a sense of control by doing the dishes, or making a gratitude list, or going for a walk. There are billions of little things you can do right now to feel 10% better. And then 10% more…and 10% more, until you have bootstrapped yourself out of the pit. It is often easier to sneak your way into feeling better than to aim for an all-or-nothing victory. Conquer the darkness by stealth!
- The smile rule: Moving the facial muscles into a smile is the most direct way to affect the brain. You can enhance your brain chemistry by smiling. Or by walking. Or by meditating where you focus on cultivating an inner smile: smiling with your eyes, the inside of your mouth, your heart … until you smile with your entire chest, opening up to the world … and on, and on, and on. Softening your whole body into a smile … I know of few other things that can so quickly bring as profound a sense of contentment as this.
- The enlarged container rule: There are times when all we need is to be taken out of ourselves for a while. We get so wound up and tied into knots dealing with a problem that it can overpower our entire existence. It is good to sometimes do something that will completely distract us from the war. And I’m not referring here to the numbing things we are so good at, like eating or watching television or over-working. I am talking about things that will enlarge our container so that we can view the world with perspective again. Visiting friends, going out into the world, walking or exercise, listening to a sermon, podcast or TED Talk, doing something deliberately engaging or delightful. Whatever it is, just do it to show your brain that there is more to life than this current challenge.
- The bottom rule: Sometimes it helps to stop fighting the darkness and simply accept it, stop thrashing about as you fall into the pit and quietly settle to the bottom where you know you can’t go any deeper. It sounds immensely counter-intuitive but it’s not. There is incredible relief in knowing you can’t fall any deeper – this is as bad as it’s going to get. From this point onwards, the only way is up. Just this quiet acceptance, this falling, can help conserve vital energy you need for climbing back out instead of burning it up through resistance. Saying to yourself, ‘Okay, here I am. It’s that time of darkness again. I have dealt with it before. I can deal with it again.’
- The observer rule: Step outside yourself and observe the darkness as if it were a completely separate person. Look into yourself with compassion and childlike curiosity. Treat it as if this were a story and the main character – you – has just been required by the author to undergo a serious spurt of character growth. How would she grow through this challenge the author threw at her? How would he become the hero in his story, however reluctantly and falteringly? Because take my word for it: we are all the heroes in our stories. And the good stories are the ones in which challenges are overcome. We have such immense worth that we are never written into boring stories! Of course we are going to face challenges! Lift yourself out of this immediate experience and look down onto your life as a compassionate observer. Lovingly, always lovingly. And curious, always curious. Whispering to yourself, ‘Oh, how fascinating! I do wonder what is going to happen next?’
- The therapist rule: Healing from depression might be as straightforward as finding a good therapist and talking things out. I have immense respect for my therapist – because she knows what questions to ask. And I don’t always know. People say they can figure out their own minds; they don’t need to pay hundreds or thousands of dollars for someone else to peer into their lives. And that might be so, but only if you know what questions to ask. Only if you stand back far enough to see the patterns. And it doesn’t happen easily or automatically. You have to search. It took me hitting two blanks before I was the third time lucky and came to someone who just opened up my mind like a flower. Words can’t describe my gratitude for how much she has helped me this past year, how much she has empowered me.
- The inner therapist rule: And then there is this almost opposite approach: be your own therapist. If you were your own patient and in need of help, what advice would you give you in this situation? We carry an amazing treasury of wisdom within. If only we will become still and ask and listen. It can be a small thing, an inner knowing that what you really need right now to get out of this hole is simply the security of a dependable bedtime, as if you are a child that is loved and put to bed at 21:00 every night by parents that know she will be less cranky in the morning if she sleeps enough. Or your inner therapist can tell you to this week go do one thing that will make you feel treated, that will remind you that you are cherished. What advice would you give yourself? What homework for inner healing? What support?
- The purpose rule: When you accept that nothing happens without a purpose, life starts to make more sense. And as Viktor Frankl and many others point out, knowing this gives meaning to suffering. If you know that – no matter how senseless this suffering feels right now – a day will come when you will see the purpose in it, and will use it for good, then you can get through it. Imagine how you can one day help someone else who wrestles with the black dog. Or how your example may save a life one day. Imagine what rock solid tested-by-experience advice you can one day give to a fellow human being in need, because you went through something similar. And you may very well be the only person who can help them because of your unique experience. Why is this strategy so powerful? Because it changes us from victims into leaders. It empowers us. And I believe when we realize that we are leaders and that we have something to give, it imparts a true sense of nobility to us that enables us to move mountains.
- The wheel rule: This is the first bit of advice that ever helped me navigate depression. I read it as Burt Reynolds quoting Clint Eastwood, who said: ‘The wheel always turns again.’ Meaning that sooner or later, the wheel will turn you out of darkness into light, out of misery into joy. And after that, it will turn you out of light back into darkness again. And once more back into the light. All you have to do is trust the process. Stay on the wheel. Whatever this is, it will pass. Depression can pass through you. You can pass through depression. There is always something greater up ahead. If only you will stay the course. Knowing this helps me navigate through the challenges of life a lot more evenly because it diminishes the darkness (which, let’s face it, can be quite egotistical in its belief that it is absolute – a lie!) and it expands the light. What a comfort!
- The true name rule: The word is powerful. Name it like it is. In Ursula K. Le Guin’s Earthsea novels, to know the true name of a thing or a person is to have power over it or them. That is how magic works in that fictional realm, but it is not far-fetched even in real life. Our words have power. These days ‘depression’ has become such a huge blanket-word that even children use it (!) But often it does not serve us well. When I say I am depressed, it brings with it an immediate and overpowering sense of helplessness. I suspect in you, too. But what if we are wrong? What if we could be more specific in identifying what ails us? Test this for yourself and see if it does not make a world of a difference! Change ‘I am depressed,’ into ‘I am sad,’ ‘I am too tired,’ ‘I am disappointed,’ ‘I feel insecure.’ Finding the true name of what we’re dealing with empowers us! I can deal with sadness, with disappointment, with not knowing what to do in a difficult situation … far, far better than with depression! Don’t let the darkness fool you into using that word unless it is the absolute truth. I would even go as far as to say that you have the power to not use that word at all – that there is always a better, healthier choice!
In time, those bouts of blackness lose their grip on you. They cease to be the nightmarish monsters that completely paralyze you with fear. Because you know from experience that they are not as big and scary as they make themselves out to be. They are simply a natural part of this life for those of us who are sensitive to light and dark. They are real, yes, but the light is real, too! And that is the perspective that empowers you.