Black & White Thinking in Depression

The following blog is Part 5 in the Black & White Thinking Series.  Click on the links for Part 1 (Introduction), Part 1b (Introduction)Part 2 (Biblical Lens), Part 3 (Grace), and Part 4 (Mental Illness?).

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According to the Mayo Clinic, depression is “a mood disorder that causes a persistent feeling of sadness and loss of interest.”  It is characterized by low energy or fatigue, change in appetite and sleep, low self-esteem, poor concentration or inability to make decisions, and feelings of hopelessness.  Feelings of guilt, shame, being unloved, and numb feelings can be oppressive and lead to inactivity and loneliness.  The more severe the depression is, the more likely the oppression seems to control you (thoughts, actions, mood, etc.), which means the more you feel powerless to control yourself.

Some of the writings about depression state that the depression itself causes thought patterns.  Though I am unsure as to whether depression itself causes negative thought patterns, I can certainly say that they are present in depression.  One of the common thought patterns found in depression is Black & White Thinking.

b_w-diagram-1If we take a look at the diagram on the left, we see the green ball which represents the actions or words of another, or events that take place.  The Black & White Thinker hears the words (green ball) and they are interpreted (fall all the way down the triangle) as either “all or nothing” or “black & white.”  There is no stopping the interpretation until it reaches the bottom. For example, a student who is depressed will tell herself after receiving a “B” on a test: “I failed it.  I’m stupid.”  A father who did not handle a situation well will tell himself, “I’m a lousy father.  I’m a failure.”  The event happened and the interpretation of themselves goes to one side or the other.  But a “B” certainly is not failing, but far from it! The father may not have handled a situation well, but that does not mean that he is a horrible father as he has probably done many things well!  In Black & White Thinking, the simple conclusion is that it has to be one or the other.  To conclude that a “B” is not stupid or that a good father can make poor decisions is difficult to comprehend, let alone believe.

People struggling with depression make similar conclusions about themselves.  “I am unloved.”  “No one really cares.” “I am a failure.”  “All is hopeless.” “Nothing will help me.”  When Black & White Thinking is present and its conclusions are believed, the depression gets worse.

We not only feel oppressed by our depression, but we also participate in our depression.  In other words, we not only feel it, but we do it.  We actively (or passively) engage in our depression.  We may wear dark clothes, think depressive thoughts, remain in bed, and basically obey our feelings.  At times, we may not feel as though we have a choice, even though we do.

In order to combat the Black & White Thinking in Depression (or in general), new conclusions based on a different Truth needs to be introduced.  This new Truth is not based on one’s own flawed interpretation, but it is a Truth based on God’s Word.

Take a look at the second Diagram to the right.  Here, wb_w-diagram-2e see that with the intervention of God’s Truth, the green ball does not fall to the previous Black & White conclusion, but instead falls a shorter distance.  And what are these new conclusions based on God’s Truth? Let’s go back to the examples.  In both cases, the Truth of God’s Word (based on Rom 2:8, 3:23, 8:1; Jn 3:16) is the following, “I may not have done as well as I would have liked, or maybe even failed, yet I can expect to do poorly at times as ‘All have sinned and fall short.’ But who I am is based on Christ’s actions for me, not on my own actions (grace).  Therefore,  I may have failed, but I am not a failure.  I am loved, worthwhile, blessed, cherished, and adored by Him…not because of what I have or have not done, but because of who He is.”  Or perhaps these Truths may be better for others: “I know I failed or did poorly.  My failures were taken to the cross by Jesus.  Therefore, I do not need to punish myself any further, as my punishment fell on Christ.”  When these Truths become more important than personal truths and conclusions, and when they are trusted and believed more than one’s own truths, there is progress made for those who struggle with Depression.

It sounds simple enough, yet it is difficult for someone who is depressed to think differently as they have been thinking this way for a long period of time.  At times, medication may be necessary to lift the person up to be able to challenge their own thinking successfully.  Other times, medication is not necessary at all.  It may be necessary only having accountability and a list of God’s truths available to rehearse, repeat, and challenge the Black  & White Thinking.

What are some other examples of Black & White Thinking found in Depression?  How about truths that have helped?

Black & White Thinking is not only found in Depression, but it is also found in Anxiety as well.  Next week, we will take a look at Black & White Thinking found in Anxiety Disorders and God’s Truths that will help!

Dealing With Difficult Emotions

Sequoia

A few weeks ago I went on vacation with my family to California and we had the opportunity to visit Sequoia National Park as well as some other sights that were simply breathtaking.  From all the sites we saw, I was most taken back by the Sequoia trees.  The General Grant Sequoia tree (third largest in the world) was so large, it would take 20 adults holding hands to be able to surround it.  Since I grew up as an East Coast boy, these trees simply fascinated me.

We happened to see a cross section of one of the fallen sequoias, which had numerous scars on it that showed it survived 9 fires in the course of its life.  Apparently, fires were good for the sequoia because it cleared the land of the other trees (allowing more sunlight & rain) and the heat allowed the seeds to expand and to be released in the area.  This provided optimal surroundings for the sequoias to flourish in the area.  Without the fires, the trees would not have grown so large.

Life certainly has its own fires, struggles, griefs, pains, conflicts, and traumas.  Some are minor inconveniences while others are real-life nightmares.  All cause enough grief to know that to experience the fires means getting burned, something to avoid at all costs.

Physical pain is something we try to avoid, but if we know it is for the better, we will be willing to endure it.  We’ll endure a dental filling so we can eat without further pain, surgery to repair our bodies so we can live or function better, or even endure strenuous exercise so we can look better.

Emotional pain, however, is a different story.  Emotional pain cuts to the heart of who we are.  To feel the emotional pain of rejection and worthlessness, or grieve losing someone so close…or to feel the emotional pain of guilt, shame, fear or loneliness…these are the parts of ourselves that we either hate to feel or fear to feel.  So we avoid it.  Perhaps we fear being fully exposed to others or fear that we truly are worthless.  If others truly knew what went on inside of us, we believe we would die.  Perhaps we are afraid of being down so low that we will never recover.  Maybe we are fearful that we will lose everything or believe that to feel such feelings make us less manly (for men) or even human.  These feelings are uncomfortable and we hate to feel them.  So what do we do?  How do we deal with them?

Everyone has their own way, but typically, we deal with our feelings by not directly dealing with them.  Rather than acknowledging what we feel and addressing them based on the circumstances, we act on them. Instead of telling someone we are hurt because of what they said or did, perhaps we will take it out on others or ignore them.  Rather than admit we are depressed and work on the why’s, we will eat ice cream or chocolate, drink alcohol, look at pornography, watch TV, play games, sex, listen to music, anger, etc. etc.  Rather than turn to a loving and actively interested God, we turn to other things to deal with our emotional struggles, and often those things become our go-to vices, some of which are addictive.

The Psalms are excellent examples of men who felt the frustrations of this life who struggled with the difficult emotions amidst the trails of their lives.  In dealing with emotions, David (and other Psalmists) wrote their anguish and struggles down and how they were able to get to the other side of the struggle emotionally.  The emotions written in the Psalms were not considered only positive emotions, such as joy and contentment, but also emotions of frustration and anger, of sadness and distress (22, 1-2; 55:4-8), and of sorrow and guilt (51, 38).  He was willing to talk to God about his complaints (64:1-6), to seek God when life seemed unfair (41:1-2), and even let out some anger and some unwholesome desires for God to smite those who have done evil (58:6-8).  He sought the Lord crying out for mercy (51:1) and sought the Lord when crying out for a savior (69, 70).

In the Psalms, all emotions that are present are worked through, but they are dealt with in relation to God.  As Christians (and an encouragement to those seeking), our emotions (positive and negative) are best dealt with in relation to God.  As we read through the Psalms, we see that ultimately it wasn’t simply the expressions of the emotions to God (though that is the first step), but the promise of His character – His strength, justice, love, mercy, and patience – is what brought the Psalmists through the fires.  As a result, they grew stronger in their lives and in relationship with the Lord, thus being able to “deal” with life’s fires emotionally and physically.

Like the sequoia, life’s fires have the opportunity to help us better grow as we learn how to deal with these fires in relation to God.  If we were to deal with the fires without Him at the center, we may miss valuable opportunities to flourish in Him and in life…and the seeds of our life-changing witness may not take root into other’s lives.  How do you deal with all of life’s fires?  How do you deal with your negative emotions (sadness, anger, guilt, frustrations, shame, grief, anxiousness, distress, and sorrows)?  Don’t simply avoid them, drown them, silence them, or ignore them, but process them…and remind yourself who God is…He is love.  He is good.  He is strong.  He is just.  He is faithful.  He is trustworthy.  He is God.

Encouraging Words

encouragement signOur teen years may have been pretty tough…From internal pressures to being accepted and liked, fears of rejection, hormones, desires, demands, etc…All of it was a bit much…but we got through it.

What helped you get through those years?  Was it academics or sports?  Family or friends?

For me, it was God blessing me through the encouraging words of others. These encouraging words were, in fact, life changing in many respects. I’d like to highlight two people in my life who spoke encouraging words. This is not to diminish the impact of others who have spoken into my life at all (parents, best friends who have listened and shared, etc.), but as I sit and write, these two come to mind.  Honestly, I don’t think these two know the impact of their words on my life. In fact, they may not even remember their words at all.  But to me, their kind words and words of hope were a part of God’s plan.

The first bits of encouragement I presently recall came from my sister.  It was during a time when I was feeling down and depressed and contemplating taking my life.  To be frank, I don’t remember her words to me exactly and I didn’t share with her all my thoughts.  But I remember her encouragement to me that I will get a girlfriend, grow taller, get thinner, etc. Really, she gave me words of hope that kept me going so I would not give up and hold onto just a little bit longer.  I listened and believed these words of hope…

One other bit of encouragement I received was in the form of a compliment from a fellow youth group member, Kathy.  We were on a youth retreat to Colorado (from Minnesota) and a few fellows and myself decided to serenade some of the girls at the camp. Afterwords, Kathy approached me and told me that I had a good voice.  That is something I never heard from anyone before and it stuck.  From there, I joined the High School choir the next year and earned a solo at one of the concerts.  In college, I joined a barbershop quartet and a travelling singing group in college (Common Bond).  And from the travelling singing group, I met the woman that I would marry at a Christmas party for all of the travelling singing groups.

In looking back, I am amazed at how God’s plans unfolded in my life.  I am also amazed at the impact words of encouragement and the giving of compliments can have on another person’s life, even my own.

So, for those who had given words of encouragement and compliments to me throughout life, I say “thank you.”  Fellow blog readers, do not focus on the negatives in others, but be ready to give the hope of encouragement and praise to others.  It only takes a few seconds to speak into others’ lives (for the positive or negative) and you never know how much small words of encouragement can impact their lives.

“Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their need, that it may benefit those who listen.”                                                                                             Ephesians 4:29

Confessions of a Professional Christian – Going to Church

churchI was about 7 when I was pretty much forced to go to church (this pic is actually where I went to church!). I didn’t want to go. But after a short time, I actually wanted to go. Why? Because I met a friend and we were best friends til I moved away before tenth grade. For some reason, I could always be myself at church, which wasn’t always a good thing. In school, I was a perfect angel. In church, well, I got kicked out of Sunday School a few times. I didn’t always agree with my teachers. The teachers wanted to teach.  I wanted to make people laugh. I know. I know…priorities…

By the time High School came around, going to church was pretty much a habit. I don’t remember much about the services or getting much out of them, but growing more familiar with the Scriptures was pretty much all I remembered in my growth (though I’m sure there was more).  I also remember being released from my duties as a sound tech.  Guess they didn’t like the extra high pitched squeals…

College was different. No parental pressure, though there was an unwritten pressure from Christian peers (I went to a Christian college).  So I went to church sometimes on my own.  My attendance dropped a bit from High School…until I found myself in a singing group that toured the area singing at churches. That kept me in the church.  God knew what He was doing…

But what about now?  Honestly, at times, it is a struggle.  Sometimes, going to church is a way of life.  It is what you do as a Christian.  You go to church.  See people.  Talk. Learn a bit.  Serve.  Then go home.  Done.  Until next Sunday and you repeat the cycle.  Wash.  Rinse.  Repeat. This is what it seems like sometimes.  At least, it does to me as a professional Christian.  Church becomes a Christian tradition, a meaningless Christian activity that should help us in our walk, but doesn’t.  Sermons are fine.  Worship is OK.  People…well….most are pretty good…but going to church isn’t as uplifting as we desire.

Truth is, when church feels this way or it becomes a Christian activity, something is not right in our spirits.  Spiritual growth is stagnant at church because it is stagnant outside of church.  We’re not being fed at church partially because we’re not hungry enough.  Loving people is lacking because loving God is lacking.  Focus is often on the self while others, including God, simply become other characters in the church story life of blah.  Of course, if we stayed in this mental place, going to church would simply become depressing.

Overall, I find this to be true: If church simply becomes a meaningless traditional Christian activity of the week, than the focus of my heart is too small.  The best part about church is this: as a part of the body of Christ, we are part of something bigger than ourselves.  It helps us to redirect our focus on what matters:  1) God & 2) God’s mission.  Going to church helps us to look beyond ourselves and focus on loving others and focus on God.  It helps us to see that we are not the center of our worlds.

One thing I ask the Lord, that as He changes me, that I would not implode by my own self-centeredness, but be amazed by His glory, His love, His Majesty, and His Awesomeness. I pray that church does not become a traditional thing to do, but an opportunity to leave my world of me and drink deeply of Him.  I pray that I will cooperate with Him in preparing my heart to hear His by reading His Word and reading other godly books that will draw me to Him.  Why did I write this article?  Because I am a professional Christian.  And the “every Sunday” can become mundane.  So, I, like many others, need to be reminded that I need Him and that I need His people to love and to be loved by…Overall, I need to go to church.

Confessions of a Professional Christian

prayingIf you’ve been around the Christian environment long enough, you’ve probably heard the phrase, “It’s not about religion.  It’s about a relationship.”  This is a true statement. Many people just go to church and “do” the professional Christian thing.  Arrive at church.  Sing. Listen. Leave. And then live their lives with God on the back burner.

There have been times (too many) when I’ve done this very same thing.  In fact, I often find myself going back to this default setting, even though I am a committed follower of Jesus Christ.  Christianity has been a way of life for me for the almost 30 years.  I loved going to youth group and hanging with friends as I was well-known and liked (at least, I believe I was).  I went to a christian college and remained in the culture of Christianity where I made new relationships, found a great Christian woman to marry, was elected as elder and eventually, elected as Associate Pastor.  Why? Maybe because I’m a good Christian and fit the mold.  After all, I speak Christianese very well and listen to Christian radio all the time.

Honestly, it’s been easy for me to live the Christian life.  Not that there haven’t been tough times.  There have been.  But, overall, it’s been easy.  Too easy.  Christianity can become a way of life more than anything, especially for the child being brought up in a Christian home.  I find myself living so much within the culture of Christianity that I sometimes forget to focus on that which really matters…my relationship with Jesus Christ.  I sometimes even believe that I can handle situations with the knowledge I have as a professional Christian. Sad thing is, I know I am not alone.  You may be like that, too.

As a counselor, I challenge people to involve Jesus into their struggles and work on their relationship with Him.  Read a Biblically based book, read Scriptures, pray often, seek Him, etc.  But as a “Professional Christian,” having all the good Christian pat answers are frequently on the tip of the tongue.  I can’t help but ask myself, rather frequently in fact, if I practice what I preach, why I do what I do, whether my fly is down before I preach, and whether my faith is as real as I show it to be.

A few months ago, I was challenged by a friend to make sure my relationship with Jesus is real and I’m not just playing the cultural Christian.  I’ve altered his advice to make it as an acrostic, because that’s what we professional Christians and Pastors do to help us remember (I need all the help I can get!).  So, without further ado, here is one way to keep it real between Jesus and Me:

T — Thoughts – What have I been thinking about today?  What are my worries and concerns?  What keeps popping up in my mind?                         Tell Jesus

H — Heart – What am I feeling? Am I afraid? Worried? Sad? Excited? Depressed? Confused? Anxious?                                                                     Share with Jesus

A — Answer – What does God’s Word say about my concerns and feelings?  What words of His will I need to apply in my life?                                              Listen to Jesus

N — Name – What is the name of God that rings most true for me? “Prince of Peace”? “Jehovah Jireh”? “I Am”? “Alpha & Omega”?                               Trust in Jesus

K — Kingdom – Whose Kingdom will you live in today?  The kingdom of me or the Kingdom of God?  Whom will you serve?                                     Follow Jesus

S — Share – Will you be open and honest with these things with the Lord and share what the Lord is doing in your life with others?                                     Testify about Jesus

Truth be told, I don’t do this as an everyday activity…but it is a challenge to you and to me to make it real with Christ and not just play the cultural Christian game of life.  We need Him more than we need to play the game of Cultural Christianity.  We need Him because our default settings are to turn back to sin and to remain comfortable in being cultural Christians.  My friends, continue to pursue Christ and not Christianity.  After all, it’s not about religion, it’s about a relationship…a real relationship with Jesus.

Tips of Grace

Not too long ago, LeSean McCoy, running back for the Philadelphia Eagles, was singled out by a restaurant owner for leaving a lousy tip.  The receipt was pictured and placed on the web to embarrass and shame him for his action.  According to McCoy, the service was terrible and the low tip ($.20) was all that was deserved.  In tipping poorly, McCoy made the statement that you get what you deserve and waiters & waitresses must earn their tip.
receipt3Another story that reached headlines was about Steven & Makenzie Schultz, who received less than stellar service due to the busyness of the restaurant.  Their wait was longer than most typical Americans would handle well.  In fact, they heard many customers complaining and saw some even walking out.  So, what did they do?  After a long wait and meal time, they gave their waiter way more than what was deserved… a $100 tip.

These two stories show two different approaches to similar experiences of poor service (though most likely not identical).  One approach is that a reward (tip) is based on earning it.  The other is giving a reward regardless of whether it was earned – which is based in mercy.

Whether they knew it or not, the Schultz’s demonstrated grace, that is, unearned favor. This tip of grace was given to the waiter, even though he was unable to perform to the standards of the customers.  The Schultz’s were aware of the waiter’s inability to measure up to these standards.  Their patience combined with their concern for his well-being led them to act with their grace-filled gift.

This act is an illustration of the grace that God gives to us…His unmerited favor for those He loves…us.  We know we will never be able to measure up to His standards of being righteous on our own.  It is impossible.  Yet, though we are incapable of measuring up to these standards, He is patient with us, and His great love for us led Him to act with giving us an unmerited gift of Jesus Christ.

Just as the waiter accepted the gift of the tip (though he knew that he hadn’t earned it), we are also given the choice of accepting the gift of Jesus Christ.  When we accept (believe in) Him (His death for our sins), we are stating that we cannot earn our way to heaven and we accept His sacrifice for us.  Jesus earned which we could not – eternal life in heaven through meeting the standard of sinlessness.  And we are given the gift of eternal life based on His merits and not on our own.  This is what it means to be “saved by grace” (Eph 2:8-9).

May we accept this grace given to us by God through Christ and may we demonstrate this same grace to others who have not earned our respect, love, tips, or our favor.

Considering Suicide (Part 2)

national suicide preventionThe following blog is Part 2 of “Considering Suicide.”  (Please read Part 1, (click here) first.)

OK. Let’s get caught up: The jailer was ready to kill himself, but he stopped midway through his actions and listened to Paul’s words of hope, “We are still here!”  Immediately the jailer put down his weapon of self-destruction to check on the truth of Paul’s statement.  When he saw that Paul spoke the truth and the situation wasn’t as dire as he perceived it to be, he recognized the rashness of his actions and the fact that Paul had just saved his life. Let’s continue to listen in to this account in Acts 16…

The jailer called for lights, rushed in and fell trembling before Paul and Silas. He then brought them out and asked, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?”

After the jailer looked around, a sense of urgency came as he rushed into Paul & Silas’ cell and was trembling before them.  He was actually trembling.  We can only get a glimpse of the emotional state he was in.  The awe, the wonder, the fear, the curiosity, and the realization of what he almost did manifested itself in his trembling.  

Next, the jailer brought them out of the jail cell.  It was then, I believe, that the jailer realized that he was the one who was in a cell – the cell of his own making.  The jailer recognized that Paul & Silas were not the ones who needed saving, but that he was.  “What must I do to be saved?”  The jailer recognized that they had something he wanted.  No, something that he needed in his life.

They replied, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved—you and your household.” Then they spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all the others in his house.  At that hour of the night the jailer took them and washed their wounds; then immediately he and all his household were baptized.  The jailer brought them into his house and set a meal before them; he was filled with joy because he had come to believe in God—he and his whole household.

Paul & Silas spoke about the hope of the Gospel…that Jesus died for their sins.  All his failures were remembered no more.  His worth as an individual was found through God’s love for him and Jesus Christ’s death on the cross.  Jesus defeated death and gave hope for a new life.  Whoever believes in Him will live eternally with God, and without sin, forever.

By listening to Paul, the jailer, who was once hopeless, found hope.  He who would act under his own perspective acted upon Truth.  He who thought his failure defined him found a new definition of his worth.  He who was about to end his life chose to live, and by living, his whole family was impacted and saved.

In Jeremiah 29:11, God said, “‘For I know the plans  I have for you,’ declares the Lord, ‘plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.‘”  In the life of the jailer, a life that seemed insignificant, we see how God worked in his life and brought the message of Christ to his heart, and in doing so, he was saved – not only him alone, but his whole family.

Readers, God has a plan for you.  In Him there is hope.  In Him there is a good future.  If you have been considering suicide, learn from the jailer and follow his path. Listen to that voice that tells you to “Stop” and turn to Him for your worth and for direction. God is not done yet. The future is promising.  Do not act on your own perspective. Now you see in darkness, but God’s truth found in Christ will shed light on your heartaches and will give hope for your future…in this world, and the next.

If you would like this presentation to be given at your church or youth group, please contact us at info@foundchristcounsel. org or by calling 570-402-5088 (ext 1).