Dear Ms. Curtiss,
in the process of reading your book, Depression is a Choice, and
I love what you have to say. It is such a refreshing point of view,
as compared with all the other depression literature I have seen.
you have some time, I was hoping you could take a stab at a question
a good friend of a young man in his 20's who has been battling depression.
We are good friends largely due to my own initiatives, but we have
developed a very real bond. I have read A LOT about depression and
have applied what I've learned to try to help him, with some success,
it appears. He still has bad days, but no longer exclusively bad
days, and he says that he has hope now (he was suicidal at one time).
He is such a beautiful person, especially on his good days.
my friend is also pretty self-absorbed person. At the same time,
he is also possibly the kindest and most gentle and principled person
I have ever met. So his gentle nature and his desire to help people
are my avenues to get through to him.
he believes that something is an obligation, he is excellent at
getting himself to do it, and he never whines or complains. He doesn't
skip work, he always returns calls promptly, he always shows up
on time, etc. He is very dependable and will do just about anything
I ask. I believe that he is self-absorbed because he just doesn't
know any better. His mother is mentally ill, and she is the one
that raised him. I am guessing he grew up with some really bad examples
on which to model his behavior.
is very obvious that my friend wants very badly to always do the
right thing. If he knew that he was self-absorbed beyond the norm
and that his behavior was "unprincipled", I know he would
try to change it. He is not the least bit mean-spirited, and I believe
if he understood that it was an obligation for him to look at others'
needs without being asked, he would make every effort to do so.
He is very open to improving himself when I take an approach that
registers with him. I can see that he tries hard, but he doesn't
always seem to understand what's required.
my question is: How can I help him understand
he is exceedingly self-absorbed, and
to change that behavior to be more outwardly-focused--and all
this without hurting his feelings or putting him down. I want
to be as encouraging as possible.
theory, it seems such a simple thing to do to pay attention to others,
but it isn't simple. When I try to figure out how to break that
down into smaller steps, I realize that it is a skill that I take
for granted. I really don't know how to explain it to him. If I
try to explain it, he may not understand what I mean or what it
is exactly that he should do differently. I don't want him to get
frustrated with himself just because I'm not able to explain what
is required and why. I know that if I find a good way to explain
it to him, he will do everything he can to change his behavior,
once he understands this as an obligation.
if you have any ideas. By the way, he also just started reading
your book, upon my suggestion. He takes most of my suggestions and
ideas very seriously. He really is trying hard, and if there is
anything I can do to help him, I'll absolutely do it.
you. J.D. 7/2/02
best regards to you! I think you are an amazing woman.
question is how does one tell another person about their faults.
Very Carefully. It is the hardest thing in the world to see one's
own "stuff." So first, how does one do that? One thing
that helps is to see other people's "stuff" and then look
for it in your own life. For instance. It is hard to see yourself
as constantly interrupting people in conversation, or always talking
about yourself instead of listening. But you can see it easily when
it happens in other people. So if you are ready to assume that you
probably do some of it, and look for it, you may find you do more
of it than you think.
see our own stuff is hard. To get someone else to see their stuff
is even harder. But friends are supposed to help each other. Perhaps
you could do it in a similar way. It takes a bit of patience. Point
to other people displaying a particular behavior and talk about
what the other person is doing. Do this several times for each trait.
Tell your friend that the person has no idea what they are doing
and you wonder if maybe you do some
of that and if your friend ever notices it to please call you on
it. This may elicit a similar response from your friend that you
should tell him as well if he shows those traits.
when you see your friend doing the same thing, and it seems appropriate,
you can delicately and deftly relate his behavior to the other person's
behavior which you have already discussed. "Hey for a minute
there you almost sounded like Joe Blow just now, you know how self-focused
he is. ("That's better than saying "you know how self-focused
you are.") And, by the way, when your friend calls you on your
stuff, you'll be surprised how annoying it is. Who me?
thing you could do is decide to improve your own conversational
skills and decide to be less self-focused yourself (nobody is perfect,
we can all improve ourselves) and ask your friend if he would like
to join you in your own efforts to improve yourself. You could both
join Toastmaster's International for instance. It's in most cities
and is very inexpensive. I would recommend this to anyone. It is
a great way to get in touch with your fear. Most people are afraid
of public speaking and to get over that fear is a life-changing
experience for people. And seeing how other people shake in their
boots with fear is helpful as well. You know you are not alone.
We can decide to be a good conversationalist, and decide to be not
so self-focused even without studying ourselves to see how bad a
conversationalist and how terribly self-focused we might be.
can, in principle, decide what practices a good conversationalist
would adhere to or what principles an out-ward focused person would
live by and head in that direction. I can forge new neuronal patterns
and just leave the old ones behind. I could make decisions by doing
some research, (for instance,reading Dale Carnegie's book How to
Win Friends and Influence People (A book I heartily recommend and
which talks about self-focus and conversation), by joining Toastmaster's
International or some other speaking group or even starting a formal
speaking group of my own.
I could plan my own self-improvement program. I might decide what
principles a good conversationalist or an outward focused person
might have and adapt them myself. I may decide a good principle
is: I will be a one-story person from now one. So I will discipline
myself to make only one comment, or tell one story and not tell
a second one until every one else in the group has told their story.
And I might ask my friend to check up on this and let me know if
I actually succeed in doing it. Say, for instance, that there are
four people and one person has made a comment, then I make a comment
and there is a silence, I don't fill the silence with my second
story. I let someone else tell one,
or ask the third or fourth person a question they can answer.
I can decide a good principle would be: Able to abstain from telling
a Great story when a lot of other great stories have just been told
and mine would be the same even if a little better. The next time
I think of a story that would be GREAT to tell, I refrain and don't
tell it and let the conversation go on to something else. There,
that didn't hurt too much did it? Maybe it was a great story but
it was only great to me. I would tell my friend about my small triumph
of not telling my story and see if he decides to try that. Probably
everybody else can live without hearing my great story. But notice
how agitated we get when we don't let ourselves burst out with our
great story (It's fear). It is quite invigorating and character
strengthening to learn to refrain from telling a good story when
there are plenty of good stories already "out there."
that is the answer to your specific question. Here's another thought.
People who have difficult childhoods have a lot of repressed fear.
Fear that does not proceed to action or is not felt directly as
fear settles in the body as repressed rage/anger/fear. People either
project their rage on others or turn the rage within. Thus a nice
person who is always nice to people and never is angry or aggressive
may be doing it out of fear (repressed rage). Anything done out
of fear will tend to be inappropriate in some way. The trick is
to get in touch with our fear so that it does not run our lives.
One way to do this is to become aware of what kind of thing we do
that is inappropriate, stop doing the inappropriate thing and feel
the fear. Hope this helps. Good luck and keep in touch.
Dear Ms. Curtiss,
you SO much for your very prompt and very detailed response. Clearly,
I CAN improve my communication skills quite a bit, as I did not
do a very good job of communicating my question. My self-focused
friend is not much of a talker. The last paragraph you wrote applies
most accurately to him. He is "a nice person who is always
nice to people and is never angry or aggressive." One of the
skills he needs to work on is asserting himself, which he almost
self-absorbed, I don't mean self-absorbed in a chatty way, but rather
self-absorbed in that he does not reciprocate. You can call him
and he will always come out, but he will never call you to ask you
to do anything. Likewise, you can get him a gift, but he won't put
much thought into doing anything similar for you. Since he always
tries so hard to do the right thing, it seems that he doesn't understand
that reciprocating is "the right thing." Otherwise, I
know he would do it. It isn't that he tries to monopolize the conversation.
If anything, he tends to just sit in the background. It's that he
doesn't seem to understand that he needs to reach out to people
and do things for people, as almost an obligation to himself and
to them. Obviously, when he does not reciprocate, his friends drift
away, and then, when he is depressed and needs friends the most,
he doesn't have too many who are there for him. In a way, it's almost
again for any insights you can provide.
your friends self-assertiveness. One of the problems with
our society is that we are constantly selling ourselves, through
media, that there is a definite template of what people should be
and if they are not that way, something is terribly wrong with them.
Women are supposed to be beautiful. So young girls who are not tall
and thin with a great figure try their best to push, pull and pummel
their off-template bodies into one that will be more acceptable.
see, much more readily, that some people are not physically beautiful
and no matter what they do they will never have stereotypical "good
looks." But we dont see so easily that this is also true
for the way we behave. There is a psychological template for the
beautiful personality too Men are supposed to be assertive and forceful
as well as sensitive and flexible The fact that men are becoming
more thoughtful, flexible, and more socially aware says more about
todays womans insistence upon them developing these
capacities than that a man who doesnt have them is not normal
are making great progress but sometimes we have become a very unaccepting
society, unaccepting of those on the other side of the bell curve
from us. The truth is that most of us have severe shortcomings,
little crippled up places where we are hunkered down in fear and
who are both physically beautiful and have great personalities are
rare and theyre all on television making us feel inadequate
and thinking that our friends need fixing. We forget that there
is a normal bell curve for male assertiveness as there is a normal
bell curve for womens physical beauty.
for getting your friend to improve himself. You can drag him around
to awareness centers and motivational speakers when you go, and
something might "take" and it will be fun for you. I say
"drag" because most men dont opt for these type
of things. Psychological self-improvement generally is a feminine
thing. Men are not naturally self-questioning the way women are
which is why they are not so adaptable. Of course some men have
developed their feminine side and are very into self-improvement.
Most men only improve themselves out of necessity.
much more difficult for them also as they have a greater fear of
failure. I used to drag my husband to these things and he went begrudgingly
but he will be the first to admit, after the fact, that he always
learned something, But he would never have gone on his own.
used to provide a natural school for psychological self-improvement.
In the past men couldnt get sex unless they married. And after
marriage they needed to learn how to get along with their wives
to continue to get it. So the wife and husband made alterations
in their natural proclivities in order to work things out. We improved
each other by having to get along and needing to moderate our off-the-bell-curve
quirks because our more way-out behavior was met with strong resistance
on the part of our partners.
is the only way to hands-on change behavior in someone else. You
provide negative consequences for behavior you dont like and
positive consequences for behavior you do like. But in earlier years
people adapted themselves to marriage itself, putting up with a
lot of each other's off-beat quirks like everybody else did. Of
course women, being more adaptable, were adapting to more. This
didnt use to be such a problem. Now we are adapting marriage
to us. This leaves less time and opportunity for the process of
a working marriage to improve us. We dont want working marriages.
We want marriages that work.
gift-giving. Men, by nature (unless they have been somewhat feminized
or are natural-born speakers, motivators and leaders) are not "chatty,"
not self-questioning, and are not naturally responsive to the give-and-take
of exchanging gifts (until they can see that it gets them something
they wantlove, sex, etc.). Gift-giving is a woman thing. Its
not naturally fun for men. Just like shopping isnt fun for
men. Men can be taught gift-giving. But in general, if something
works for a man once, hes likely to give that same thing over
and over. I just gave up with my husband and handle gift-giving
for the both of us. He is just too awkward at it. I had the devil
of a time getting my son to give gifts. Finally the idea sunk in
"never go empty handed when you are invited to a party or celebration."
Now that he has a girlfriend, I suspect she is on him about it.
also fear making a mistake much more than women do. They are biologically
scripted that way. Thats why women are quick to apologize
and men hardly ever do a good job of apologizing.
are naturally, biologically programmed to be nurturers and gift-givers
and self-improvers, and women are naturally more inclusive in their
focus because they are the child-bearers and child nurturers. Men
in general are not biologically scripted to be as considerate, nourishing
and thoughtful as women. They are biologically scripted to be self-focused,
single-minded and stubborn. These are the qualities that kept the
cave man alive, his female safe from predators, and these are the
genes that were passed down to modern man. The thoughtful, considerate,
you-go-first cave man didnt make it. Men are naturally and
biologically programmed to be self-focused and uncompromising.
are simply not naturally adaptable as women are. They must be socialized
to be adaptable and compromising, or learn it in business. Men become
adaptable, compromising and gift-givers because they have to, to
get something they want. Thats why you see them in all those
seminars. Something is not working for them and they need to find
a solution. Women do self-improvement to improve themselves. For
are no longer cave-men but we have the same cave-man genes. We are
in a changing society now where technological-society women no longer
tolerate mens self-focus so the men are having to change.
So our standards are changing. Men now have to be sensitive gift-givers
as well as assertive. But people want their mates "finished"
before they marry. And when psychological problems come up they
divorce if they can't change the other person. The new generation
doesnt tolerate relationship frustration for very long, unless
they are coached to do so by counselors or older friends.
my own marriage, my husband has a hot temper and I was a very fearful
person when we first married. I tried marriage counseling for years
to get my husband to changeto negotiate a change. Forget it.
Nothing worked until I decided not to change him but to decide what
I was going to do to take care of myself when he lost his temper.
When I decided that the trouble for me was my fear of his temper
and I became more self-responsible during these times, I became
less fearful, my action became more appropriate and my husbands
behavior changed because he didnt like the consequences of
it. I love my husband but when I told one of my friends about a
recent temper outburst and what my husband said to me, she told
me she wouldnt stay married to him for two seconds. She has
no idea about his other endearing qualities.
son-in-law is terribly shy, introverted, non-assertive and doesnt
say a word unless hes at his own home among close friends.
My daughter laughs and says he is afraid to answer the door when
the pizza boy comes because he doesnt know what to say. She
good-naturedly always answers the door for the pizza boy. My son-in-law
doesnt have men friends the way my daughter has woman friends
who "talk about relationship stuff." He has male acquaintances.
The couple friends they have come from my daughter's friends. He
has a good relationship with his co-workers, he works out in a gym
on his body-building hobby, he has some give-and-take with relatives
that is amicable. He spends most of his time working, being with
his wife and two children, at the gym and pursuing his other hobby
divingthey live in Maui. His closest man friend was originally
my daughters friend and the three dive together. My daughter
is socially fearless and can be at ease and charming in any social
situation. My son-in-law has other endearing and excellent qualities
but my daughter is much more self-assertive out in the world than
my son-in-law although at home he is most often (not always) the
stubborn emotional one and my daughter has learned to adapt to it
and let it ride by rather than cross him in those moments.
know that much about your friend but I do know that you like him
and are willing to go to a great deal of effort because you care
about him. There are many out-going people who have never had one
really good friend. So already I know that your friend is capable
of inspiring friendship in at least one person. That says a lot.
And we can help our friends as long as whatever we do is out of
love for them instead of out of our fear for them or out of our
anger with them. But I dont know of any good way of changing
somebody for their own good (except ones children whom one
is duty bound to socialize.) You can lead a horse to water but you
cant make him drink.
general men who are not sufficiently assertive learn how to be assertive
because they become motivated by somethingbecause it will
get them what they wantthe girl, the job. Im a great
fan of Toastmasters International. It is the best place in
the world to learn how to be more self-assertive and if you can
drag your friend there with you enough times you will learn something
extremely valuable yourself and your friend might get motivated
to improve himself. And read Dale Carnegie's classic book How to
Win Friends and Influence People. I think it is one of the best
books ever written.
last word. In this culture, forbearance is a word not much in fashion.
Not everything that we can see is wrong needs to be fixed by us.
Sometimes we need to learn from it. You are on the right track in
asking questions. And one question we should always ask ourselves
when anticipating any action is: am I doing this out of love for
something or out of fear of something. Life is tricky. Keep in touch.
Dear Ms. Curtiss,
you so much again for your insight. I had never considered it in
that way before.
want to make one final point about my friend, relating to something
you wrote. Whereas most people tend to adjust their behavior in
response to negative feedback, my friend does not always do that.
Instead, there are times when, if he gets negative feedback, he
runs away from the person giving him the feedback and falls off
the face of the earth. If I did not come back to "bug"
him after he did this to me, we would not be friends today, because
he would not have made the effort. I have done a lot of bugging,
because after he ran away, he sank into a depression, and would
not make any initiative to call me--ever, even though he would usually
come out when invited. He says that while he sometimes feels annoyed
that I "bug" him, he also knows I care and appreciates
that a lot. I suppose that his usual modus operandi is based on
fear, due to his very difficult childhood. I hope that with time,
he will learn that negative feedback is not an attack on him as
J. D. 7/11/02
people never do learn the positives of negative feedback and are
barely comfortable with criticism in a formal situation where they
themselves have set it up as a learning tool, or as part of a group
self improvement therapy of some kind. Even some millionaire heads
of corporations are known for "killing the messenger"
who comes with bad news so no one wants to approach the boss with
problems. Which is why those corporate management consultants get
so much money when they point out why a company's real problems
were never addressed. Most men are not "Dr. Phil". Most
men dont take criticism as well as women. And we dont
like it that much ourselves.
low-key example of this is my sister-in-law. We were at an outdoor
summer concert and chatting before it got started. I guess we chatted
too long and didn't quite finish before the conductor appeared on
stage because the woman behind us said to my sister-in-law, "You're
being very rude." I love my sister-in-law. She turned around
to the women and said "Well, that's very rude of you to say
in a way it makes sense. Negative feedback by its very nature is
a psychological "hit." We naturally defend ourselves from
hits. We all want to be hugged not mugged. And,
technically speaking, the seed of any kind of negative feedback
really comes from fear. Some stalwart souls can take it. But most
people take negative feedback personally and receive it as some
kind of a wound from which they either have to recover or from which
they attack, either immediately or later. It's easier to see other
people's mistakes and learn from them which is what makes a therapist's
job so valuable to the therapist.
likes negative criticism really, even me, especially in a context
when I am not ready for it and it comes "out of the blue."
Even when I get negative feedback when I ask for it, unless it is
a pretty specific answer to something in particular, it is more
annoying than enlightening. And it's only human to have to get over
the annoyance part before we can get to the enlightening part. Our
psychological defense mechanism is just set up that way. It may
be that most people set up their whole lives very cleverly to avoid
negative feedback like the plague.
be one of those people myself. Certainly I realize that I generally
look for negative feedback very carefully. Like, how do you like
this sentence rather than how do you like this book.
general, it's better to give positive feedback in the context of
one's normal relationships, especially if it's not asked for at
that moment, and inspire rather than criticize. But you have to
get creative to do that. And it takes a whole lot more energy out
of you. To criticize someone is very easy. To inspire someone is
much harder. Nevertheless, the old saying is still true no matter
how sophisticated we get and can cite diagnoses and symptoms right
out of the DSMIV, "you really can catch more flies with honey
than you can with vinegar."
you have to criticize someone make it very specific and "in
the moment.". It's all right to be emotional, maybe even better
than clinical. Like: "I love you madly, but I hate it when
you clank your teeth together when you eat oatmeal as if you are
attacking it, enough already!" Instead of : "I'm just
telling you this for your own good, you really need to improve your
table manners." The main thing is that there is no "right
thing to say." The most appropriate responses come from love
rather than from fear so check out your gut now and then. How enraged
are you? If highly enraged, best to remain silent.
advice is that if you are heading in a good way, invite somebody
along rather than tell them they are going in the wrong direction.
Invite a fat person for a walk in the park rather than criticize
them for not exercising. Invite an introverted person to join a
speaker's group with you rather than tell them that they need to
be more outgoing. Books are a sneaky way to get things across that
you can't come right out and tell people. Books tell us about other's
people mistakes and what they did to fix them. We're all just people
here on planet Earth. We have to jolly each other along. It's more
fun, less desperate. Arline Curtiss 7/17/02
another question. There is a lot of literature (maybe too much)
about the feeling of depression, and considerably less literature
about the feeling of happiness and fulfillment (though there is
still plenty). But there seems to be almost no literature on the
transitional phase that must undoubtedly occur when one is emerging
from a long period of depression. I can't imagine that someone who
has been depressed for years can suddenly adapt to resuming life
as "normal" as soon as they are no longer weighed down
by the depression. This seems like common sense. Someone who has
been in prison for years won't just be immediately able to jump
back into society even though they are suddenly free to do what
they want. I wonder if you can comment on how best to support someone
who is in that unsettling place--in the territory between depression
and normalcy. Thanks.
are right about getting familiar with living the depressive life.
It is like living the prison life. If you have been there a long
time, prison seems like home and the world "out there"
seems strange and unnatural when your time is up and you are set
free. It takes a while to make the transition for long-timers. And
some people never do make the transition; they insist on getting
back to prison as soon as possible.
is a prison of sorts. It is not a normal state, it is a state of
alarm. The body is in the fight-or-flight mode, the sympathetic
mode of intense anxiety. When depression lifts the body reverts
to its normal at-rest mode, the para-sympathetic mode. So there
is some emotional sub-cortical support for the after-depression
life. But unless neo-cortical effort is made, old thought patterns
in the neocortex can reverse the emotional balance. But here again,
it is education rather than medication that helps the most.
the thought processes during depression can make neuronal patterns
in the brain very entrenched, entrenched is not the same thing as
havingabsolute power over us; new neuronal patterns of thought can
be committed to as an act of will, adhered to by exercising them,
and the old patterns, though still existent, will take a back seat.
It is a matter of discipline to adhere to new thought patterns.
It takes an effort and unless you know it takes effort, you will
believe that it is your basic nature to think the old depressive
thought patterns and that you are helpless to do anything about
is much easier to slide back to old thought patterns. So very ,
very, easy. This is the addictive nature of depression. It is hard
to insist on more positive thought patterns at first. The new thought
patterns seem a little foreign, don't seem "like us."
And indeed, they are not "us;" we are making a new life
and a new us by literally changing the neuronal patterns in our
brain brain by changing our thought patterns.
are, as adults, doing work which could have been done much more
easily and happily as children by our loving relationship with our
parents. Now we are parenting ourselves, birthing the enhanced emotional
self which was stunted in our earlier lives for whatever reason.
But if we know that, if we understand the process, and are forearmed,
we can be successful. And of course, with practice, the new thought
patterns themselves become habitual after a time and grow to become
more and more "like us." How about the old depressive
thinking patterns? The old patterns will still be there and we will
tap into them sometimes, but they will seem less and less powerful
and compulsive. Ultimately when they pop up we will just scurry
away from them and get on to other thinking. Ultimately they will
just remind us of something we no longer have to do because we have
other alternatives. You are asking good questions. Arline Curtiss