Friday, June 6, 2014

Coping Mechanisms

Someone posted something on Facebook the other day about feeling guilty, and that got me thinking about the idea of feeling guilty and how to respond to that.

You all know that I deal with depression on a fairly regular basis (though this has been a good week as of writing this -- YAY!). One of the ways my depression shows up is that it makes me feel guilty about everything. It doesn't matter whether something bad is actually my fault or not, if I was in any way involved, I am probably going to feel guilty about it. Actually, it doesn't even matter whether it was something really bad, it could just be a mistake or a misunderstand that didn't cause any long-term damage. I'm still going to feel guilty.

I've discovered lately that one of my methods for coping with this in the moment is to strongly blame someone else. Even if rationally I know it wasn't their fault, even if I share some of the blame, I work hard to tell myself that it was someone else's fault. If I work hard enough, I can usually trick my mind into letting the guilt lift a little, at least enough that I can cope with it. (Also, I only blame people in my own mind -- I don't spread my blameshifting around to other people.)

Generally, after time has passed and the emotions have settled down, I can mentally return to the incident accepting the more accurate view and admitting my fault or my error in the whole situation without it triggering a whole new depressive episode. I don't just go through life blaming everyone else forever -- I just have to let it sit and move into "So this one time I did a stupid thing" territory in my brain instead of "I am doing stupid things right now." Depression can still use past things to attack me, but it doesn't hit me as hard or as deeply as mistakes that I feel like I just made.

So here's the question: Do you think that this method is wrong/unhealthy? And if so... what's a better response?

Refusing to accept blame is one of the things that is A Big Deal in Christianity. A good chunk of evangelical thinking centers around accepting responsibility for your actions, repenting, and changing your ways. Deliberately refusing to accept blame, even with the intention of going back and accepting blame later, would probably not be received well.

Here's the thing, though, I genuinely am not sure I know how to deal with guilt otherwise. Or, well, depression guilt. Regular guilt is easy peasy for me to deal with compared with depression guilt.

I started thinking about what common alternative answers might be, and all I can think about is that people would tell me to rely on God and pray and trust in his forgiveness. Which, obviously, yes, is important to do, and I do try to do that, but in the meantime, I have to be functional in the real world. When depression hits, I use every single little thing I can to attack it and fend off its lies, and sometimes that means lying to myself for a little while until I'm ready to deal with the truth. I can't just wait for God to magically fix things, because sometimes that takes time, and in the meantime I'm missing days of work because I can't focus and I'm miserable to be around because I feel crappy, and I have to do something to keep myself together.

I genuinely don't know yet what I feel about people using negative coping methods to deal with things like this. I even tried mentally comparing it to somebody who uses drugs as a coping method. Although that's obviously not the same thing, I wanted to figure out how I would answer someone who was coping by doing something that I thought was clearly wrong. And that didn't really give me any answers at all, because all I can think is, "Well, it's totally different," but without any helpful comparison to help me figure out what I think.

I'm still mulling this over. Right now, lying to myself seems like the least damaging coping mechanism I can think of for dealing with situations like this, especially if I try to go back and fix it later when I'm coping on my own.

So I'm really curious about you guys' thoughts. I suspect some of you will think, "What? There's nothing wrong with this at all, you're being way too harsh on yourself," while others will think, "Nope, whatever your justification is, that's not right and you need to find a better option," and I'd love to hear from both sides. The more opinions I get, the more I can figure out what I actually think.


  1. Hmm.... that's interesting. I've never really thought of that before. And while I feel like there's probably a reason for it to be wrong, I'm emotionally ok with it and feel like I wouldn't necessarily condemn it. At least not unless I came up with a better solution to present to the person doing it. I feel like it's not such a big deal that I would feel ok taking it away from them without providing a better option. Maybe it's because I feel like someone who's going through that doesn't really need someone attacking them and saying, "You're doing this wrong". Or maybe it's because that's the kind of thing that I could see myself doing and making work.

    For myself? I know I'm not the type of person to hold grudges or blame over someone for a long period of time. I feel like I would eventually, like you say, let the reasonable part of my mind make sense of it. I mean, I don't feel like the blaming would get out of control. I guess my thought is that, eventually, there's got to be a better way than to practice self-deception. But it's not so damaging that I would freak out and say, "No, you have to stop now!" I mean, maybe that's the kind of thing that God will work out in you, or in other individuals practicing it, eventually. I hope that made sense.

  2. Don't know whether it's right or not. I know I wouldn't be able to do it, because my mind is more terrified of becoming an antagonistic person than it is of feeling guilty. But you asked about other methods of dealing with guilt. I deal quite a lot with feeling guilty for nonsensical things (not nearly as much as I used to, though, and I didn't really call it maybe it's different than it is for you, don't know). Not saying this will/won't work for you, but I think it's worked for me so far.

    At one point I discovered that, whenever a particularly strong attack of guilt rose up, I'd find myself (as long as I was alone) mumbling, "I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry" over and over again. But I got the feeling that that would be bad for me in the long run - might just feed the guilt over time rather than get rid of it - but I wanted to have something to physically say to replace it. So, instead, I decided to turn to God and say "Thank You" instead. Even if it *was* something I did wrong; it happened, so God knows exactly how it's going to work out for exactly what He wants. I know it's tricky theologically, and possibly in a way you disagree with. But, when I remember to keep it up, I think it does help.

  3. My overall philosophy with stuff like this is, "Use whatever tool works best in the moment of need; in moments of calm, try to develop better tools." It sounds to me like you do less harm using your blame-shifting tool (since you don't spread it around or actually put the burden on the other person) than you do when the guilt succeeds in sending you into a downward spiral.

    While I am not a Christian, there are some concepts that translate between Christianity as I used to believe it, and my current philosophies. And one of them is: We continually fall short of the people we should be, we think and act and respond in ways that are harmful and not ideal. And trying to achieve perfection by sheer force of will doesn't actually work; we can't just notice our failings and shortcomings and then erase them. The way forward is not to become perfect people, it's to accept that we are loved despite our imperfections, and to let that love lead us toward growth.

    If the best way you've found of coping with a mental illness symptom is imperfect and flawed; well, that's not really surprising, since most of what we do is imperfect and flawed. In my opinion, the important thing is to be seeking and open to that growth moment, when a better coping method opens itself up to you (or is given to you.)

  4. Oh, Depression Guilt. What an effective little tool that is! Sometimes, I can be made to feel guilty for things that don't even have anything directly to do with me at all. Depression can make me feel responsible for not knowing about something when I theoretically "could" have (maybe) done something about it.

    And the thing is, I feel that way all the time - even when Depression is otherwise quiet.

    I can best explain this by pointing to something Henry Ward Beecher said:

    "Hold yourself responsible for a higher standard than anybody expects of you. Never excuse yourself."

    I don't even know when or where I first encountered that philosophy - surely in some other version than his articulation of it - but I immediately adopted it as part of my core set of values. It's so ingrained by now I don't think I could possibly undo it. Whenever I've shared my frustration at failing to meet those higher standards with anyone, they have invariably scoffed ("You're too hard on yourself; you need to lighten up") and of course, all I have ever heard is affirmation that I am at least holding myself to a higher standard than anyone else expects of me.

    I have always had a really hard time with the concept of self-forgiveness. It seems shady to me, like letting someone preside over their own trial. I'm one of those people who keep separate the transgressions of two parties, and I don't believe that if there's an imbalance, that the party with the lesser transgressions is automatically the "good guy" by default.

    Sometimes, I can take some solace in believing that those who know my frustration will have some sort of respect for my commitment to those lofty standards. Since I've had no sleep and a zillion things on my mind anyway, I'm feeling a bit freer than usual right now so I'll go ahead and admit that when my mind turns to suicide, I sometimes daydream about things that might come up in eulogies and I hope "He held himself to high standards" is something everyone agrees on about me.

    Other times, I feel bitter that all I'll have to show for being the way I am may be some minor praise at my funeral. If I felt like any kind of success, maybe I could take comfort believing that my accomplishments could be attributed to those higher standards, but the truth is I'm a nobody and a failure in most respects so I don't even have that to fall back on for comfort.

    Obviously, blame-shifting is incompatible with the Beecher Doctrine, but blame-shifting is a survival skill in my family. Sometimes for a laugh, but mostly for the preservation of ego. Worse: At times, I've seen one family member twist things to make excuses for another who was dead-to-rights wrong about something. In my youth, I engaged in some of that, as much because it let me "fit in" as because it was easy. Inwardly, though, I never believed anything other than that I was a world-class screw-up. I found in later years that the more I did that, the more apt I was to also lash out at others. I can be vicious, even surprising myself at how ugly I can get. It's better all around if I instead claim the blame instead of try to pass it off to someone else.

    I dunno whether your coping mechanism is healthy or not, but your explanation seems pragmatic, at least. You indicated at the end that some will say you're being too hard on yourself. I don't believe in the concept of being "too hard" on oneself, but then I'm also not at all qualified to pass judgment on you (or anyone else!), so I can't say whether you are or aren't. I know my approach to such matters is decidedly not healthy, so there's that.