Have you ever heard of this thing called depressive realism?
It’s a not uncontroversial theory that I don’t quite feel fully qualified to explain in great detail, so I’m pretty much going to stick to essentials here. And, essentially, what it means is that people who are depressed have a more realistic view of the world, as well as a more realistic set of expectations. This theory is backed up by a study where participants were asked to press a button and determine how much control they believed that button to have over a light that would occasionally go off. People without depression tended to overestimate how much control they had over the light, whereas people with depression tended to be more realistic.
I first heard about this theory when I was eighteen years old, from my philosophy teacher. Depressive realism wasn’t part of the curriculum or anything like that; it was merely something that was mentioned in passing. And pretty much all that he said about it was, “studies have proven that people with depression have a more realistic view of the world.” He didn’t mention the fact that some studies have proven this; not all. In fact, there are plenty of studies that indicate that there are countless different factors that dictate our view of the world, including whether or not you’re discussing your own control or the control of others, whether you’re currently in a public or private sphere, and how much time has passed since the incident occurred (just to name a few). My teacher also failed to mention the fact that this is still a heavily debated theory that has been intensely criticized. All that he said was that “studies have proven”.
And when I was eighteen years old, this was not what I needed to hear.
Because when I was eighteen years old, I was in the process of falling into a deep depression that would stay with me for the next two or three years, and the last thing that I needed was to be told that my depression was true. Valid, yes. Recognized, of course. But true?
I didn’t want to hear that my view of the world was, in fact, reality. That when I thought that I was worthless, incapable, weak, and stupid, I was actually telling myself the truth. I didn’t want to hear that my fears that the world was corrupted and beyond saving were more than just fears. I wanted to be able to tell myself that these were all lies that my mind was telling me because my mind was sick.
But, of course, my depression grabbed onto this idea of depressive realism and it ran with it. Of course I was worthless and stupid; anyone who thought otherwise were delusional because they didn’t want to face the truth. Of course the world was going to burn to the ground; anyone trying to save it was fighting a losing battle. Of course. This was truth; other people were just too happy to see it.
Time has passed since I was eighteen years old. I have done more research on depressive realism, sure, but I’ve also done more research on depression. It’s been a long, uphill battle, but I like to think that I’m in a much healthier place with it now. That isn’t to say that I never have my depressed days, or even weeks, but I recognize it better now, and I know how to deal with it.
And I no longer accept that depression gives us a more realistic view of the world.
Because I’ve seen both sides of the spectrum. Hell, I’ve been on both sides of the spectrum. I have been depressed, and I have seen the world as a terrible, awful place, full of terrible, awful people – and of those people, I was included. And when I was depressed, this, to me, was truth. In these moments, I had more than enough evidence to back up what I believed.
I have also been happier, and I have seen the world as flawed, and yet I have known, in my heart of hearts, that change is possible. I have seen the evidence of that myself, in every young girl who identifies, proudly, as a feminist, in every marginalized person who demands to be recognized and respected. I have told myself and believed, fully, that these voices cannot be ignored forever. I have also seen change in myself; I have noticed my own successes, I have proven to myself that I am not stupid, that I am capable. I have come to the conclusion that people are, generally, good, and they try to the best they can with the information they have at the time. And when I have seen the world this way, this was also truth.
End of day, truth is, quite simply, what you believe. There is no way that depressed people can see the world more realistically than non-depressed people, because there is no one set standard for reality. The world is what you see it to be. You can see it as a terrible, ugly place, because it can be; or you can see it as a beautiful, loving place, because it can be.
What you focus on becomes what is.
And, of course, that isn’t to say that people who are depressed can just wake up one day and decide to start seeing the world better; depression doesn’t work that way, and that isn’t what I’m trying to say here. But what I am trying to say is, quite simply, the way that depression makes us see ourselves, the people around us, and the world at large, is not real. Telling ourselves that we are terrible, worthless human beings is no more or less realistic than telling ourselves that we are magnificent, glorious gods with no flaw whatsoever.
The views that depression tries to give us are lies, and more importantly, they are not constructive lies. Nobody feels good when they think they are worthless. Nobody is inspired to try their hardest in a world that they believe to be beyond saving. So if this is the case, then why not fight to convince yourself of a better lie? Why not identify your depressive thoughts for what they are, and remind yourself of what they are every time that they rear their ugly head?
So even if the more positive thoughts feel like lies, even if they feel completely unnatural to you at first, keep trying to tell them to yourself. Because even if they are lies, they are no more or less lies than the opposite. And, most importantly, forcing yourself to think these thoughts might eventually make you believe them (fake it until you make it, am I right?). Thinking these thoughts could, quite literally, change the way that you perceive your entire world.