On Losing Self-Blame and the Pressure to Feel Joy

This post is from my archives.

motivationImagine you had to take a five-year-old with ADHD with you everywhere you went: to work, in the shower, to the grocery, on your run, out with friends. He was always anxious to leave and get back to his xbox at home. On the way to the store, he’d ask, “How long is this going to take?” As soon as you put one bag of produce into your cart, he’d say, “Can we go home now?”

It’s like that with my death thoughts.

They aren’t necessarily suicidal ideations. There is no plan of action. Just an urgency to be relieved of the chronic pain I feel, a rush to get somewhere that doesn’t require so much effort to get through a day or an hour.

I’ve had this five-year-old following me my whole life, although there have been periods where he occupies himself nicely and isn’t too much of a nuisance. Ever since last summer, though, the bugger has been jacked up on gummy bears. “When can we go? When can we go? I don’t want to stay!” He doesn’t care if I’m in the middle of something. He doesn’t care about anything but getting home, or somewhere other than where he is.

This last past weekend was especially frustrating.

My husband and I were having dinner with friends, without the kids, which we do maybe two or three times a year. It was a beautiful night, we were sitting on Spa Creek which leads into the Chesapeake Bay—a spectacular view. I was trying my best to engage in the conversation, but all I could hear was, “How long? How long until I get to die?” I knew that everything about this moment should have brought me joy, but I just couldn’t feel it. There was nothing there. I was homesick and wanted to get somewhere that I didn’t have to fight my thoughts so hard.

“Listen to her story,” I’d instruct myself.

“Forty-five more years until a natural death?” he’d ask.

“Lean in and concentrate on what she is saying.”

“But no one has lived to be older than 84 in our family so maybe you only have 41 more years.”

The problem with reading oodles of self-help books is that you think you know exactly what you should be doing to relieve yourself of depression and anxiety. For example, the book “Buddha’s Brain” explains the neuroscience behind happiness. Because the brain is plastic, we have the capability to carve neural passageways with our thoughts that will relieve us from despair. We just have to do our best to retrain all the negativity. By thinking good and positive thoughts, we reshape the circuits of our brain.

So when I’m eating or showering or running or working and I hear the repetitive death thoughts, I try my very best to become the Buddha and let them go, while thinking of something positive, firing as many neurons as I can so that they wire together and become part of my memory. According to the authors, “this rebuilding process gives you the opportunity, right down in the micro-circuitry of your new brain, to gradually shift the emotional shadings of your interior landscape.”

Inadvertently, however, I’m feeding my homesick five-year-old another case of gummy bears that makes him more obnoxious than ever. Because the more death thoughts I get, the more I blame myself for them. Applying the logic of this book, you could make the argument that I am creating the death thoughts by cultivating a breeding ground for them. So while I sit there pretending to be having a nice dinner, I’m trying to rework the neural passageways and feel terribly responsible for my depression. The self-bashing goes on for about an hour and a half as we sit there. I make sure to laugh every three minutes or so, enough to seem engaged in what I’m supposed to be doing.

I have always felt terribly guilty about these thoughts. They are a source of great shame for me because I know I am so very blessed. Every day I scribble plenty of things in my gratitude journal. Intellectually I register all things considered good and I thank God for them, but the emotion is inaccessible. I see my ten-year-old hold a lemonade stand with tips going to the SPCA and I smile, but the joy is not there. And the more I try to force it, the faster it escapes. There’s a fried nerve somewhere, and the neurons can’t make it into my heart. This not being able to feel joy makes me hate myself. Because it feels like I’m throwing God’s gift to me back in his face like a spoiled brat, saying I don’t want it. Of course I want it. I just can’t let him know how much I want it because that part of me is, well, occupied by a busy five-year-old.

A few weeks ago I had coffee with a deacon from our church. I shared with him an article I wrote about how I envy elderly people because they are closer to the end.

“Is that horrible? Depressing? Am I a bad person? Am I going to hell?” I asked him. I wanted absolution.

“No, not at all,” he replied. “I know several people who feel the same way.”

“If not feeling joy produces guilt and feelings of failure, then maybe we have turned the experience of joy into an obligation,” wrote a very wise man on the online depression support group I participate in. I didn’t even realize the boatload of self-blame that was going on in my noggin—the pressure I was putting on myself to operate like a Buddhist monk without a psychiatric diagnosis and cure myself of my illness—until I described my intense guilt this past weekend to these seasoned warriors who have fought similar battles.

I told the group that by repeating a Buddhist aspiration, “May my life be of benefit to all beings,” that Tara Brach mentions in her book “Radical Acceptance” (which is basically the same sentiment I express when praying the Prayer of St. Francis several times a day), I feel relieved of the pressure to enjoy life. According to this wisdom, I don’t have to feel or enjoy, or form any positive neural passageway. I just have to be of benefit to someone somehow. That, more than any other nugget I’ve gleaned in the 10 self-help books I’ve read this month, quiets the five-year-old.

They got it. They understood exactly what I was struggling with, which is why I think anyone who has conversations like this in their noggin needs a support group or people in their life who understand what it’s like to be having one conversation with a friend at dinner while conducting another one with the ADHD five-year-old inside your head that is incapable of joy.

One woman in the group said to me, “Here is another prayer Tara Brach shares in that book: ‘May I love and accept myself just as I am.’”

I suppose that even includes the homesick little boy and his gummy bears.

Originally published on Sanity Break at Everyday Health.

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13 thoughts on “On Losing Self-Blame and the Pressure to Feel Joy

  1. I’ve been hoping for a while that I die of a heart attack around age 50 due to unbearable anxiety and depression. Can’t tell anyone this except for my psychologist for very obvious reasons.

  2. Bless you. I was told by a psychologist the other month how the brain is plastic and can be changed. I have lost count of the all the help books and ideas I have tried or pyscychtrists seen.
    Maybe our plastic brains have melted like a vinyl record left in hot sun and how ever hard we try we cannot mould it to its oringanal shape. And sometimes it plays part of the song
    We love to hear and then gets stuck in the groove and the record is stuck playing the same bit over and over agin until it drives us mad.
    Maybe one day a cure will be found.New bits for our brains can be replaced – stem cell research or new neurotansmitters implanted.
    Death thoughts are so infuriating, they tease and scare and are unpredictable. There are no easy ways to commit suicide either as if you are anxious there is always this doubt it may not work. And you will be left worse off.
    It’s hard to be in the moment and practice mindful meditation when the moment you are having is not the one you would choose to be in.
    Or to practice when your brain resists. The plastic brain – maybe we can mould it like play dough – drill a hole in our heads and remould it. Maybe that’s a thought for the future. LIzzie

    1. Yeah, talking to me is like “talking to a wall” right now. I keep being told to think of the good things I’m doing and the fact that I’m taking some steps to take care of myself, but it’s all in one ear and out the other. It is exactly like a broken record. I’m 35 years old, my brain is not malleable anymore, I’m pretty much set in my ways and outlook. CBT was always useless because they tell you “well, just stop thinking that way because it makes you feel worse.” I have a very high IQ and I have good arguments for why I am the way I am (and these are not delusions or grandiose thoughts that sometimes set off signals for a different psychiatric diagnosis).

  3. I so very much resonate with Therese’s article and the comments shared.

    Last night, just after my shower, I stood in the bathtub realizing that I didn’t want to live past 50. (I’ll be 50 this month.) I stood there silently sobbing and feeling angry at the powers that be that we’re not allowed a culturally and/or “religiously” acceptable exit plan from these mortal bodies and their history except for natural death, fatal disease, fatal accident or getting murdered.

    I know some will consider this self-pity, weakness, dramatizing, etc. But right now I could give a $!#% because they’re not standing in my being.

    Standing in solidarity with all who feel this way and are tired of being told to “pull ourselves up by our bootstraps”.

    1. A close loved one suffered from chronic treatment resistant depression and anxiety. We went to see Karen Swartz MD at the women’s mood disorder clinic in John Hopkins’s. She saved her life and made her enjoy life again. There is hope, medicine can make a HUGE difference! Good luck!

  4. This is exactly what I am going through and having those around you essentially berate you and put you down for them (being called a b*tch, a$$hole and jerk for being bed ridden or not being able to shower from depression along with the 24/7 death thoughts even when they “shouldn’t” be there or you haven’t been through enough trauma to have x, y, z) makes the guilt, shame, humiliation, worthlessesness worse.

    If only I could love and accept myself. Don’t even know what that concept is.

    Thanks for being an open book of what you experience as it helps us know we aren’t the only ones that feel or endure these very emotions or thinking.

  5. Doing What I Can I feel in unison as you do and know all too well what you are saying and have had parallel thoughts or if there was a higher power why haven’t my requests, prayers, petitions to die been answered?

    Then I feel so much guilt for having those feelings or asking if we can make decisions or have free will with everything else pertaining to life why not choosing when we can exit our physical bodies as death as this is a part of life. But then I often question is death random because so many who are happy, beautiful, healthy, good, decent not mentally ill or have physical illnesses pass from violent acts of crime, cancer, tragic accidents etc. It seems so unbalanced although I wonder if there are hidden blessings to uncover when these occur. I would trade my life for theirs so they could live as I often feel that I fight to live (if you could even call it that) or even get through a half hour and they would he able to do more than I and they should live or be alive over me. (now I am portraying the role of a God type figure or judge with my opinion of who is of more value or worthy to life but I am sure you get what I am referring to.)

    There is a book “Why Bad Things Happen to Good People” but I have yet to read it.

    Sometimes death seems like such a welcome invitation when you feel as we can.

    1. Lee,

      OMGosh, there must be “something in the air” because I’m very much resonating with all you share here. Also, I know of two other people close to me who are experiencing almost the same exact feelings.

      Also, I understand you in regards to knowing what the concept of loving and accepting yourself really means. I thought I had a hold of the concept. Speaking for myself and my own current experience, I came to find out that I really didn’t understand it but instead was “parroting” what some really wonderful and well-meaning self-help people were sharing online. It wasn’t until I had a recent breakdown (which started last month and culminated last night) that I had been squashing down my pain, grief, trauma, etc. all because I was trying not to be in “victim” mode. Most of the online self-help people I truly admire have been on a kick that seems to put the blame on people who see themselves as victims. That rather, we’re not really victims, instead, it’s our “wrong” thinking or “remaining staying stuck”, etc.

      Being the type of “you can do it” personality that I have, I got fast and hard to work on not being in “victim mode”. I set off to work on changing my thoughts, saying affirmations, eating not only healthier but “right”, recalling the “law of attraction” to keep myself in “alignment”, etc. I was ON A ROLL. LIFE SEEMED TO BE LOOKING AWESOME.

      Then…I started to see cracks in my beautiful pottery (me) – the new “me” I was desperately trying to create. Then one less-than-5-minute interaction blew my pottery to tiny shards. That’s when I found myself standing in the tub again crying trying to figure out what the heck “I DID WRONG.”.

      One thing led to another and through a friend, I came across an article that dealt with survivors (aka victims) of a certain type of abuse that I experienced for several years that landed me with Complex PTSD. Many of the internet searches I came across, especially in the self-help arena (and the New Age arena) didn’t seem very understanding of the victim/survivor. “VICTIM” has apparently become the “No no…let’s not go there word.”. No wonder why I was interogated by the police when I was sexually assaulted some time ago. (This is separate from the abuse I experienced years of.). “Victims” seem to be the one to be blamed.

      I struggled with this all night long and realized, I need to be allowed to grieve what happened to me. In fact, my being has been trying to grieve it for many years, but pop-psychology, many “often well-meaning” self-help gurus, many New Thought or New Agers, have been trying to get me to do otherwise. In their estimation, I’m being a self-centered, wallower, who won’t let go of the past. That is SOOOOO untrue. I want to scream at them and say that and add along with it: “You’re doing more damage than good with that kind of attitude. People need to grieve and get through things in their own way and time. And they need to sometimes claim their victimhood as part of that healing process BECAUSE they were actually the victim of child abuse, rape, sexual abuse, terrorism, cult abuse, etc. All you people want to do is move on and feel all good and gooey inside whilst not having to accept that yes, their is real FRICKEN suffering going on in this world. DEAL WITH IT INSTEAD OF WHITEWASHING IT or SPIRITUALLY BYPASSING IT.”.

      Thanks for letting me vent here.

      Peace to us all!

  6. Therese, thank you for sharing that. It’s probably the most honest thing I’ve ever read. I found my way here by way of a another post you wrote about always saying the wrong thing, which is also something I happened to be lamenting today. Anyway, there is so much “Don’t worry, be happy” going on in the world (I hated that song in the ’80s, although Bobby McFerrin is a great talent), and I’ve partaken of more than my share of the positivity books. They really have helped me a great deal, but I find myself not swallowing the pill in it’s entirety, although I really really want to. Everyday I write in my journal about how I will feel joy, be energetic, and that good things are coming to me. But many days, I just feel like crap. How do other people do it? They make it look so effortless, but for me…I’m like the albino guy flogging himself in The DaVinci code over every little thing. And the older I get, it’s just gets harder and harder to share any of this with anyone. No one really cares. I mean, they care about me, but they don’t want to hear any of this crap. Ya know? Anyway, no idea if you’ll ever see this, but I just wanted to thank you for your candor. It really helps when someone lets you know you are not alone.

    1. Holly, when I read your comment, I completely forgot about that nice, catchy song by Bobby McFerrin. Then I remembered a post Therese wrote some time ago on the movie, “Inside Out”. Have you seen the post and/or the movie? I saw the movie for the first time a few weeks ago. I thought it was very interesting how Joy was constantly trying to rid Sadness of “her job”. But even more interesting was the fact that Joy had the same color hair as Sadness’s. Here’s Therese’s original post: http://thereseborchard.com/2015/08/13/inside-out-why-we-need-sadness/

      Yesterday, I also watched a really interesting YouTube video called, ‘”Positivity Movement” is Psychologicaly Damaging’. In it the speaker also talks about the movie, “Inside Out”. I wasn’t sure about posting it here as I wasn’t sure if it might be triggering for some. But anyone interested in checking it out can find it easily on YouTube under that title. I thought it was really helpful in understanding how I was feeling about the positivity movement. I thought I was the only one feeling that way. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve learned a lot of good, helpful things from some of the self-help people/gurus I listen to at times and even admire, but I’m noticing amongst some of them that it’s like they don’t want to acknowledge that there is real human suffering going on in this world whereby thinking happy thoughts, raising one’s vibration, saying affirmations, etc. is not going to completely put an end to it all. Yes, I do believe that if a person really gets to a place of healing in their life that all these things could be beneficial to some point. But with the way I am seeing and experiencing the “tide turning”, it’s as if this movement is expecting to completely erradicate all ills, suffering, pain, etc. and trying to create heaven on earth. Sorry, but as far as I can tell, we’re in human bodies that apparently right now are destined to get older and eventually die. Being a believer in a type of here-after, especially after having some altered-state experiences upon fainting a few times, I know my soul/consciousness/whatever you want to call it is going to go “somewhere else” when I leave the body. Heck, I know people who’ve had near-death experiences who were in awe of their own personal experience outside of the body. But that’s a whole ‘nother subject.

      My point in my current “rant” is that whilst there are some good things about the positivity movement, if it continues on it’s current course, it’s going to totally alienate humans and humanity, in my personal opinion. Again, Therese’s post on, “Inside Out” is really awesome.

      Peace to us all! And thanks for letting me rant.

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