Understanding Shame as the Source of Depression: How Learned Hopefulness Can Backfire

With great power comes great responsibility, the degree of which most of us can’t handle.

Kennon Sheldon, one of the founders of positive psychology, maintains that free will is the well-spring of well-being, specifically the belief that you have control over your life and choices. His research is a testament to his philosophy. And, being in agreement with it for the most part, much of my work in treatment focuses on helping people overcome their sense of learned helplessness – the belief that their lives are determined by external sources, including mental illness. But, what happens when you take too much responsibility, when you personalize your depression, solely finding blame internally? Feeling in control and still feeling sad inevitably entails only one culprit.

Depression is more often than not based on the shame accompanying negative feelings and experiences, rather than on terrible circumstances. Shame ensues when we blame ourselves for not being grateful enough or worthy enough or for wasting time and/or money, or for even having unmet needs. The understanding is: this is your fault. Therefore, anticipated dissatisfaction becomes calcified and, thus, pathologized.

I see as many patients with a sense of learned helplessness as those who tend to personalize. “Why can’t I just be happy?” they ask, looking to me to tell them how to fix their fundamental, and fatal, flaw. The belief that some are just miserable, expecting and wanting too much, invalidates their perspectives, giving them the impression that their unhappiness merely stems from character defects, as opposed to the innate darkness of human experience. Essentially, the constructs of free will and learned hopefulness (by extension) are double-edged swords, giving as much as taking.

We learn to gaslight ourselves.

Why can’t I just be happy?

Happiness, in the ideal, is an all encompassing state, marked by feelings of ecstacy, and notable for its purity of form. Most of our lives aren’t lived in that state, as most circumstances don’t present us with opportunities to foster it. We’re, more often than not, haunted by past events and nagged by the holes of the present ones. Personally, most of my life is okay, sufficient in its provision of some semblance of joy. I’ve given up on trying to force myself to enjoy and be grateful for things and experiences that are merely mundane. And, I stopped blaming myself for feeling somewhat unhappy.

In time, my patients learn that being ungrateful really is code for creating discomfort. As children, their so-called negative feelings constituted intolerable problems for their caregivers. In turn, they learned to always appear happy. Displeasure was burdensome. And, in some cases, viewed as a sin. In their homes, the concept of free will was used to bludgeon and shame. “Pick yourself up.” “You have so much.” The implicit message being: this is your problem. Not knowing how to manage their feelings, these children developed chronic depression, lives marred by intense shame.

Psychoanalyst Nancy McWilliams posits, “Those who suffer most in childhood usually suffer most as adults, and in scenarios that uncannily mirror their childhood circumstances. To add insult to injury, the adult situations seem to observers to be of the sufferer’s own making, though that is hardly the conscious experience of that person.” Therefore, as you can imagine, people who tend to blame themselves for their suffering find significant others who blame them as well, especially for each relational struggle. And the cycle continues until they either perfect themselves or jump off of the treadmill.

Clinical depression isn’t the same as sadness, the latter being a fleeting feeling. The former, usually, springs from a bleak understanding of who one is and what she’s capable of. I’m not arguing against the notion of free will, although I’m a determinist; I’m only noting that in its extreme form, where we cultivate the belief that we can will ourselves to become wholly acceptable, free will – via shame – contributes to depression as much as it helps to quell it. In time, many of my clients learn to just live in their experiences, discovering that judging themselves for judging them makes them feel worse. Much of life, unfortunately, just isn’t that great. And acknowledging that doesn’t make you a bad person. Nor does doing so make me, or most others, uncomfortable.

Check out our interview with Kennon below:

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