Meet the Sages (and Get A Free Poster!)

In recent years there’s been a surge of interest in ancient philosophers. Three of my favorite books in this vein are Expect the Unexpected Or You Won’t Find it: A Creativity Tool Based on the Ancient Wisdom of Heraclitus by Roger Van Oech, Breakfast With Socrates: An Extraordinary (Philosophical) Journey Through Your Ordinary Day by Robert Rowland Smith, and The Bed of Procrustes: Philosophical and Practical Aphorisms by Nassim Nicholas Taleb. I’m going to add to this growing body of literature by introducing the ancient writers of Hebrew wisdom literature. These sages said many interesting and often astonishing things, especially given how long ago they wrote. For example, two millennia before Freud and modern psychotherapy the sages wrote, “Many are the purposes of a person’s heart; one with wisdom draws them out.” There are things that go on in a person’s psyche about which we are simply unaware. In 2011 Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman wrote about this in Thinking Fast and Slow (read my summary here). Over one hundred years before that (1902 to be precise) William James said this about consciousness and perception, Our normal waking consciousness is but one special type of consciousness, whilst all about it, parted from it by the flimsiest of screens, there lie potential forms of consciousness entirely different, ” (Varieties of Religious Experience). These are all fancy ways of explaining what we mean when we say…
  • “Perception is reality”
  • “Appearances can be deceiving”
  • “My brain has a mind of it’s own”
  • “There are two sides to every story”
  • “Life is not always as it appears to be”
Woe to the person who doesn’t know that their consciousness can be altered an a variety of ways or that our minds can play weird tricks on us. Even neuro-scientists remind us that feelings of being right are not necessarily right. Click here to read an interview with Robert Burton, author of the fascinating book, On Being Certain. Which brings me to a free gift I have for you. The sages were preternaturally aware that things like emotions, health, hunger, sleep, and other factors trick us. I’ve collected (and drew faces for) thirty of their sage warnings that remind us that we can’t always trust our thoughts. You can download a free 8.5″ x 11″ color printout of this poster by clicking here. (Signed 13″x 19″ color posters are available for $30 (+$4.99 shipping in USA) on Amazon; small size posters are free to readers of this blog). The brilliance of these sage warnings is that being skeptical of our cherished beliefs will lead to open mindedness, mental flexibility, and a willingness to contemplate alternative ideas. This is often our focus when doing mediation or therapy–when emotions or other mood altering factors hi-jack our brains we don’t think rationally or clearly. I hope this handout (poster) will inspire careful self-reflection.

Get Tough If You’re Hypersensitive (1 of 8)


Many marital fights could be avoided if a hypersensitive partner became less sensitive. This means being less touchy and less prone to taking things so personally. In this blog series we’ll describe how a person can overcome hypersensitivity. (In a future blog series we’ll discuss how an emotionally numb person can become more sensitive).

When a hypersensitive person becomes less sensitive they’ll be less:

  • defensive. Hypersensitive people are afraid they’re going to be hurt so they put up their defenses. A resilient person doesn’t have that fear and therefore does feel the need to be defensive.
  • reactionary: Hypersensitive people have a hair trigger, thin skin, and a short fuse. A resilient person doesn’t react but lets things roll off their back. They put a safety on their trigger, get thicker skin, and lengthen their fuse. (Pardon the mixed metaphors).
  • angry: Hypersensitive people want to protect themselves from real and imaginary harm so they put up walls of anger to keep people away. A resilient person doesn’t need to get angry because they know they can handle both real and imaginary hurts.
  • isolated: Hypersensitive people are afraid of being hurt so they limit their social lives, stay home a lot, and withdraw into a tiny world of safety. A resilient person knows life involves risk and socializes anyway.
  • controlling: Hypersensitive people try to control situations, circumstances, and other people in order to feel safe. A resilient person lives and lets live; they don’t feel the need to control others.
  • blaming: Hypersensitive people often use the “You hurt my feelings” ploy to feed a sense of martyrdom, turn arguments away from objective issues to subjective feelings, and make their disputant feel like a cad. Resilient people stay focused on issues.

Ready to learn how to be less sensitive? Sign up for this daily blog post and receive short tips and a cartoon on this important topic for the next seven days.

2  Get Tough by Learning How We Get So Sensitive
3  Get Tough by Not Taking Things Personally
4  Get Tough by Avoiding The Attribution Error
5  Get Tough by Distinguishing Real from Perceived Danger
6  Get Tough with Twelve Quick Mental Images
7  Get Tough by Responding Not Reacting
8  Get Tough by Getting Tough

Concluding Thoughts About Depression and Energy (7 of 8)


depression and energy

Everyday we wake up with 100 points of energy. As the day progresses we spend those points on traffic jams, cranky co workers, financial stress, chronic problems, and demanding obligations. By day’s end we hopefully have some energy points left over to invest in family and friends.

But energy buckets spring leaks. Or we don’t make enough deposits into our energy buckets. Or there’s a lid on the bucket and we don’t let anyone fill it. When the energy bucket is empty depression sneaks in.

This overly simple illustration describes depression. Depressed people lack energy. The solution? Figure out where our energy points are spent and spend less, plug the leaks in our energy bucket, and find a way to replenish energy levels by doing things that energize us.

Holes in our energy buckets that need plugging

  1. unprocessed anger
  2. guilt
  3. bitterness
  4. shame
  5. untreated trauma
  6. unrealistic expectations (on spouses, jobs, neighbors, kids, the universe)
  7. low self esteem

If you don’t feel loved it might NOT be because others aren’t loving; it could be because your bucket is leaky.

Ways we squander emotional energy

  1. Unrealistic expectations
  2. Garbled priorities
  3. Poor time management
  4. Saying “Yes” to every invitation
  5. debilitating addictions
  6. Pretending to be happy
  7. Biting our tongues when we’re tempted to lash out at others

Energy replenishing activities

  1. Enjoyable hobbies
  2. Spiritual disciplines
  3. Healthy friendships
  4. Loving relationships
  5. Creative endeavors
  6. Clear thinking (no distortions, assumptions, or presumptions)
  7. Improving family connections

Tomorrow: A Free Gift to Increase Energy, Joy and Resiliency

Three Observations about Depression (6 of 8)


It’s November, 2013. I’m sitting in a Burger King in Washington DC eating oatmeal for breakfast and Percy Sledge comes on the radio singing, “When a Man Loves a Woman.”

A wave of depression comes over me. It wasn’t the location, even though I was staying in a flea bag motel and eating in fast food joints. It wasn’t the meal; I love oatmeal. And it wasn’t the fact that I was away from home; I was visiting museums checking out the world’s most beautiful art.

The depression was due to traveling alone after 36 years of happy marriage. The lingering grief from my wife’s funeral ten weeks earlier was super-sized when Percy Sledge sang, “When a man loves a woman he can’t keep his mind on nothing else, he’ll trade the world for the good thing he’s found.” And I lost it.

Three observations about depression that morning in the Burger King:

  1. Music has the power to enthrall and the power to demolish. Some songs are guaranteed to put us in a funk so we do well to ignore certain songs.
  2. I had much to be grateful for. Even though my “no star” motel was sub-standard, to get to it I walked past homeless men sleeping in open shipping trucks trying to stay warm and dry. Gratitude is analgesic, therapeutic, and medicinal.
  3. That song would have depressed me even if I was staying in a “5 star” hotel. It’s not what goes into a person (environment) but what comes out of them (heart attitude) that determines mood. I clung to the promise, “This too shall pass.”

That wave of depression did subside though it still lingers in the wings ready to pounce unannounced. And I still avoid Percy Sledge.

It’s now a year later and I make it my ambition to find in the sea of discontent islands of satisfaction with family, friends, faith, creativity, service, humor, gratitude, good music, relishing great memories, and living one day at a time.

Tomorrow: Concluding Thoughts About Depression

Living with a Depressed Person (5 of 8)

depression, living with a depressed person

Even though it goes without saying I’ll say it anyway, living with a depressed person can be difficult. Here are some of the pointers my clients have suggested.

These sayings are not helpful:

  • “Buck up.”
  • “Snap out of it.”
  • “Cheer up.”
  • “You’ve got nothing to be depressed about.”
  • “It’s all in your head.”
  • “You should be better by now.”
  • “You’ve got me, isn’t that enough?”
  • “You need more faith.”

Even ancient wisdom literature advises, “Do not sing songs to a heavy heart.”

This self talk is not helpful:

  • “I am responsible to cheer this person up.”
  • “If they stay unhappy I have failed as a person.”
  • “It’s my fault this person is depressed.”
  • “If they’re going to be incapacitated I’ll become incapacitated with them.”

These sayings can be helpful:

  • “I am concerned about you.”
  • “I’ve noticed some changes in you recently….”
  • “You seem down. Want to talk about it?”
  • “I’d like to help; what can I do?”
  • “No matter how bad things look, feelings change.”
  • “Want me to set up an appointment for you with a doctor?”
  • “You’re not alone in this. I’m here for you.”

People can’t be involuntarily hospitalized unless they are a danger to themselves or others. If your depressed loved one refuses to get help we suggest you find support for yourself and practice self care.

Tomorrow: Three Observations about Depression

Twelve Treatments for Depression (4 of 8)

depression, depressed

There is no singular, universal cure for depression. So let’s approach treatments pragmatically and find something that works. Here in no particular order are twelve interventions for depression.

  1. De-clutter your garage (or a closet, a drawer, a purse, or a wallet). When we feel like we’re drowning in unwanted thoughts there is something highly therapeutic in de-junking our lives of unwanted stuff. This approach doesn’t work with hoarders but it does for the rest of us. Pick a tiny area (start small) and clean it up. Don’t just rearrange stuff, get rid of stuff (recycle, trash, donate, return to rightful owner). Depression feels overwhelming; clutter feels overwhelming. If you can’t purge your brain, purge your closet. It’s liberating!
  2. Cognitive therapy. Identify your depression triggers and evaluate the story you tell yourself about those triggers. What happens to us is not as important as how we think about what happens to us. The nice thing about this approach: if you can’t change the trigger you can change your perception of the trigger.
  3. Spiritual resources. Noisy New Atheists pooh-pooh the human need for meaning saying, “Life is pointless; deal with it.” For those who find this approach unhelpful there is a rich and vibrant world beyond the test tube and telescope. The religion I’m most familiar with, Christianity, has grappled with the problem of depression for two millennia and we overlook its approach to the “dark night of the soul” to our peril. A good place for skeptics, agnostics, and unbelievers to start, “God, if there is a god, save my soul, if I have a soul.”
  4. Medication. Marathoners replenish depleted carbs with pasta. Shift workers replenish depleted energy with coffee. Diabetics replenish diminished insulin with injections. Sun-deprived Washingtonians replenish vitamin D with supplements. And depressed folks replenish diminished serotonin, dopamine, noradrenaline, and norepinephrine with anti-depressants.
  5. Personify your depression. Give your depression a name and talk to it, interview it, and debate it. One client named her depression, “Bear” and said many times a day, “Bear, I think you’re full of #$%^. You have no right to beat me up with these ridiculous accusations, fears, and despairing thoughts. You’re a liar and a cheat and you’re not the boss of me so beat it!”
  6. Humor therapy. Anne Frank wrote in her diary, “I swallow Valerian pills every day against worry and depression, but it doesn’t prevent me from being even more miserable the next day. A good hearty laugh would help me more than ten Valerian pills, but we’ve almost forgotten how to laugh. I feel afraid sometimes that from having to be so serious I’ll grow a long face and my mouth will droop at the corners.” The depressed person who never opens the drapes, who marinates their brain in depressing music, and who ruminates about their trials and tribulations is not doing themselves any favors. The good news: there are many humorous writers, film makers, and comedians; you’re bound to find one that tickles your funny bone.
  7. Guided introspection. I say “guided” because the depressed person is already introspective. A trusted guide helps us navigate our interior world, a strange and scary place for many. Talking about one’s past, stuffed emotions, hurts, guilt, shame, trauma, grief, loneliness, anger, and self image is like shining light on mushrooms. They won’t grow when brought into the open. Or to change goofy metaphors, our inner world is like a swamp which is a breeding ground for the mosquitoes of depression … so drain the swamp.
  8. Mediation. Humans are hardwired from birth to be in healthy relationships with others. Broken bonds, estranged loved ones, and strained family get-togethers can contribute to depression. Mediation is the process where a third party facilitates difficult conversations between disputants and helps them reconcile, craft a peace treaty, and get along better.
  9. Put the On/Off Switch for happiness inside us. If we believe our moods are determined by external circumstances we’ll be at their mercy. But if our moods are determined by what goes on inside us we then have leverage, hope, and something to work on. It replaces unhelpful attempts to control others with the helpful trait of self control. Click here for more info.
  10. Walk. Exercise unleashes positive brain drugs. If you’re extra ambitious walk fast. If you can, break into a trot once in a while. I’ve seen depressed folks perk up with fresh air, increased heart rate, and brisk walking. Kierkegaard wrote, “Above all, do not loose your desire to walk. Every day I walk myself into a state of well-being and walk away from every illness. I have walked myself into my best thoughts, and I know of no thought so burdensome that one cannot walk away from it.
  11. Treat addictions. Since depression is a painful mood disorder sufferers become clever at medicating their pain with numbing substances (alcohol, drugs), or behaviors (video games, shopping, gambling). Treating depression without first treating addiction is very difficult. One can’t do difficult interior work and go through withdrawal at the same time. Once a measure of sobriety is achieved (via groups, therapy, AA, etc.) the depressed person then has the ability to get to the root of the depression.
  12. Fight helplessness. List all of the areas over which you do have control. Circumstances vary for each individual but most of us can choose WHAT to wear, eat, read, think, write, draw, join, celebrate, WHERE to go, shop, worship, hang out, WHEN to walk, sit, sleep, WHO to befriend, call, help, text, send cards to, express gratitude to, ignore, and HOW MUCH to spend, eat, socialize. A depressed person often clings to the mistaken notion that they have no choices. This simply isn’t the case. Even something as simple as choosing a radio station is empowering and dispels the notion “I can’t do anything.”

Tomorrow: Living With a Depressed Person

Can Anything Good Come from the Blues? (3 of 8)

Depression, melancholia, blues

Much of the literature about “the blues” (depression, not twelve bar soul music) suggests that depressed individuals simply have a negative view of the world. Certainly cognitive distortions, flawed attitudes, and “stinkin’ thinkin'” aren’t helpful.

But there’s a controversial new spin on depression floating around. Some researchers suggest that depressed people actually see the world more clearly than others. Depressed people are not suffering from distorted thinking, they say, but see the world more accurately. One client said to me, “If you’re not pessimistic you’re not thinking clearly.”

I’m not convinced this new “depressive realism” theory is right or even helpful but it does get me thinking. Glib “Pollyanna, positive thinking, chirpy glass half full, rose colored glasses” folk may be in denial about the plight of the world. So the first possible benefit of the blues is realistic thinking.

A second possible benefit of the blues is creativity. Without depression we’d have less art, music, literature, poetry, and film. Writers, musicians, inventors, dancers, scientists, architects, students and teachers have above average incidences of depression. Another mildly depressed person once told me they didn’t want to get “cured” because moodiness inspired his artiness.

A third benefit of depression is philosophical. If we never felt down we’d never feel up. The darker the night sky the brighter stars appear, the blacker the jeweler’s velvet the brighter diamonds appear, and if we never felt sadness we’d never feel joy. We all want seesaws that only go up, but it’s not possible.

I mention possible benefits of depression to inspire hope. As serious and debilitating as “the blues” can be, it is not entirely without merit. We certainly don’t want people to stay in a depressed state but putting a positive spin on it helps people cope better. The goal: blend cautious realism with optimism, escape depressed paralysis and naive vulnerability, and face each day with resiliency, poise, and purpose.

Tomorrow: Twelve Treatments for Depression


Symptoms of Positive Psychology (2 of 8)


Positive psychology? I’m not crazy about labels. I’m even less enthusiastic about self diagnosing a serious emotional disorder like depression. At the same time we need a vocabulary when discussing a condition that afflicts lots (millions?) of people. In this blog series I want to help readers reduce the following symptoms.

  • Pessimism
  • Hopelessness
  • Lethargy
  • Gloomy outlook on life
  • Withdrawal, isolation, retreating into the a world of personal pain
  • Thoughts of self harm
  • Negative self evaluations
  • Substance abuse

It’s less important to me what we call a person’s negative symptoms as it is in making them go away. But since it’s easier to use the word “depression” than itemizing each person’s negative symptoms, I’ll use that short hand term.

At the same time we want to increase “positive psychology”:

  • Hope
  • Joy
  • Optimism
  • Zest
  • Vim/vigor
  • Happiness
  • Enthusiasm
  • Energy

Here’s a witty and entertaining 23 minute TED talk by Martin Seligman on the subject. If you’re crunched for time, he shares a humorous anecdote in the first two minutes. Seligman is considered the father of the movement. He turned counseling upside down. Instead of helping miserable people be less miserable he advocates helping people become happier.

Instead of simply making negative symptoms go away we want positive traits to flourish. My goal in the posts that remain is to offer readers ways to feel less depressed and to enjoy positive psychology.

Tomorrow: Can Anything Good Come from the Blues Beside the Blues?

The Vexing Problem of Depression (1 of 8)


When a car runs out of gas there is one solution: fill ‘er up! When a person runs out of joy a person has depression and there are many possible solutions: mend broken relationships, change negative thinking, get on anti-depressants, drain the swamp of anger (or guilt, or bitterness, or low self esteem), exercise, increase faith, de-clutter your closets, and more. The problem with treating depression is finding the solution that works!

The best summary I’ve read of how vexing it is to understand the causes of depression, and how many possible cures a depressed person can explore, is by Elizabeth Gilbert in Eat, Pray, Love.

“I became a student of my own depressed experience, trying to unthread its causes. What was the root of all this despair? Was it psychological? (Was it Mom and Dad’s fault?) Was it just temporal, a ‘bad time’ in my life? (When the divorce ends will the depression end with it?) Was it genetic? (Melancholy, called by many names, has run through my family for generations, along with its sad bride, Alcoholism). Was it cultural? (Is this just the fallout of post-feminist American career girl trying to find balance in an increasingly stressful alienating urban world?) Was it astrological? (Am I so sad because I’m a thin-skinned Cancer whose major signs are all ruled by unstable Gemini?) Was it artistic? (Don’t creative people always suffer from depression because we’re so supersensitive and special?) Was it evolutionary? (Do I carry in me the residual panic that comes after millennia of my species’ attempting to survive a brutal world?) Was it karmic? (Are all these spasms of grief just the consequences of bad behavior in previous lifetimes, the last obstacles before liberation?) Was it hormonal? Dietary? Philosophical? Seasonal? Environmental? Was I tapping into a universal yearning for God? Did I have a chemical imbalance? Or….”

For the next seven days I’ll give brief descriptions of the unpleasant and vexing world of depression, and offer some tips on dealing with it. Topics include:

Day 2: Symptoms of Depression
Day 3: Can Anything Good Come from the Blues Beside the Blues?
Day 4: Twelve Treatments for Depression
Day 5: Living with a Depressed Person
Day 6: Three Observations about Depression
Day 7: Concluding Thoughts About Depression
Day 8: A Free Gift to Increase Joy and Resiliency

In Praise of Emotions


What do “tiny tots with eyes all aglow” and the Grinch have in common? Several things.

  1. Both are experiencing emotions, one positive, one negative.
  2. Both are experiencing color. Emotions are the palette that “tints” life. The tot’s emotions paints her world cheery, the Grinch’s dour outlook paints his world gloomy.
  3. Both experience the same trigger, Christmas, but respond differently because of different core beliefs.
  4. Both arrive at their mood through a combination of genetics–people are predisposed to be filled with either wonder or grumpiness, family of origin–our history influences our moods, and personal choice–we have more influence over our moods than we realize.
  5. Both are of interest to counselors. Emotional coaches want Grinches to experience positive emotions and tots to maintain positive emotions.
  6. Both are experiencing non verbal barometers. Moods tell us without words what our world is like.

I mention these similarities to dispel the myth that emotions are not important. We’ve all got emotions, we all need emotions, and hopefully we all want positive emotions. Christmas triggers in many a curmudgeonly harrumph. But with a little effort I trust this holiday season will inspire positive emotions in all of us.

And if a Grinch happens to stumble upon this blog I’ve got one more picture to cheer them up.