The aim of this book is to set you free. But free from what? Free from neurosis. Free from the feeling that you have to obey authority. Free from emotional intimidation. Free from addiction. Free from inhibition.
The key to happiness, mental health and being the most that we can be is absolute and unconditional self-acceptance. The paradox is that many of our problems are caused by trying to improve ourselves, censor our thinking, make up for past misdeeds and struggling with our negative feelings whether of depression or aggression.
But if we consider ourselves in our entirety in this very moment, we know these things :
1. Anything we have done is in the past and cannot be changed, thus it is pointless to do anything else but accept it. No regrets or guilt.
2. While our actions can harm others, our thoughts and emotions, in and of themselves, never can. So we should accept them and allow them to be and go where they will. While emotions sometimes drive actions, those who completely accept their emotions and allow themselves to feel them fully, have more choice over how they act in the light of them.
Self-criticism never made anyone a better person. Anyone who does a “good deed” under pressure from their conscience or to gain the approval of others takes out the frustration involved in some other way. The basis for loving behaviour towards others is the ability to love ourselves. And loving ourselves unconditionally, means loving ourselves exactly as we are at this moment.
This might seem to be complacency, but in fact the natural activity of the individual is healthy growth, and what holds us back from it is fighting with those things we can’t change and the free thought and emotional experience which is the very substance of that growth.
Friday, 29 November 2013
Book Review : A Woman's Courage : Inside Depression by Christina Taylor
I won a copy of this book. It wasn't quite what I expected. The title suggested to me that it was a refined narrative of the author's experience with depression. It is actually a two year diary covering the years 1997-1999, during which she experienced a depressive breakdown.
Diaries are generally not written to be read by anyone other than the diarist. There can be advantages and disadvantages when they are made public. On the plus side, they are often uniquely honest. On the negative side, some of what they contain may not have the kind of interest for others that it does for the individual doing the writing. They may also be poorly written. Christina Taylor's diary comes across as starkly honest, it is mostly interesting and, in places, is well-written. Some of the poems, in particular, are powerful.
The raw honesty here may be a test for some readers. I often found myself horrified. "What a selfish, cruel, dishonest, whiny bitch!" I found myself thinking as she related the ins and outs of her on-again-off-again relationship with her boyfriend Aaron. But I'm glad I kept reading as, when she goes through her breakdown and pours out the troubling story of how she came into the world and how it effected her relationship with her mother, I was able to see her behaviour in a more sympathetic light. It may be an uncomfortable read, kind of like watching a slow motion car wreck, but it can be rewarding.
And I did wonder a bit how some of the other people written about in the diary may have felt about having such intimate aspects of their lives exposed.
The book's title also gave me pause. As a person who suffered a great deal from depression and mental breakdowns from my mid-teens until my mid-forties, I don't think of my survival of those horrible times as a case of courage. Depression brings with it a lack of courage. It filled me with fear. I survived because I had help and because there was no other option except suicide. I made a couple of half-hearted attempts at that. But are those of us who survive more courageous than those who end up killing themselves? I don't think so. I would have ended it if I could have done so with a painless pill, but slashing my wrists would have required more courage than I had at my disposal. When we are depressed, even little things require a great effort. A lot of the people we think of as courageous are people whose psychological character makes it possible for them to do relatively easily things the rest of us might feel were nigh on impossible. Perhaps the author's concept of courage comes from the idea that the depressed individual fights a inner-battle which requires as much strength from them as climbing a mountain does from the mountaineer we call a courageous hero.
Depression is a kind of black hole in the heart arising from a lack of self-acceptance. It doesn't affect only those of us who are diagnosed with it. Each of us tries to fill that black hole with something - drugs, material consumption, sex... During the period covered by this diary, Christina tried to fill it with the sexual or romantic attentions of young men, among other things. But mental health and healthy relationships can't be built on shifting sand. The key to mental health is unconditional self-acceptance. If our acceptance of ourselves is dependent on whether someone else loves us, our school grades, whether we drive a flash car, etc., then it will always be tentative and the black hole of self-doubt will continue to sap our energy, creativity and joy in life. Replacing faulty coping strategies with the habit of accepting ourselves unconditionally can take practice, but it is the long-term cure for depression.
Can this book help those who suffer from depression and those who wish to help someone who does? I think it can, because it provides an example of the kind of thinking which is the substance of the depressed state, and it helps to break the silence about the darkness within. Most of us, whether diagnosed as depressed or not, live lives of quiet desperation but put on a brave face. This means that each of us feels alone with our craziness or our despair or our bitterness. When someone bravely lays themselves bare, it helps to break the ice for the rest of us. And if the selfishness Christina exposes shocks us it may be because we have a blind spot to our own. After all, selfishness is the natural self-directedness of the suffering individual. Hit your thumb with a hammer and it will be hard to think about anything else but your thumb. To blame ourselves for being selfish is to keep the black hole open. We might try to feed the black hole with the thought that we are courageous, but if our courage breaks we will condemn our self as a coward. If we learn to accept ourselves and each other as we are now, warts and all, then we have the basis for mental health and healthy relationships.