Last Sunday a young woman asked to talk with me after sacrament meeting. As she talked, I heard her sharing feelings that have troubled literally hundreds of individuals I’ve talked to as a branch president and institute director. The individuals, the situations, and the words may be different, but the feelings are the same.
“I feel so worthless.”
“No matter how hard I try to perfect my life, I’m becoming more and more aware of how weak I am. I fail at everything I try.”
“I feel so out of place at church. Everyone there but me seems to have his life in order.”
“There is so much to be done, so many people depending on me, and I always let them down.”
Feeling discouraged and inadequate happens to all of us, but when these feelings become a way of life, or even frequent visitors, they’re signs of trouble. And especially if they become clinical states of depression. (See “When you Feel Down.”)
As I remember my own experiences of being trapped in the web of discouragement, the worst part was the feeling that I was helpless to get free. Working on a “positive mental attitude” seemed like only kidding myself. Fasting and prayer brought specific guidance, and over time my struggles produced what may perhaps be the long-term answer to my prayers—some concepts and skills that have helped me pull myself out of these depressions. In the hope that they might also be helpful to you, let me share them in the form of a dialogue with that fine young woman who came into my office:
I don’t even know where to start working on these feelings. Everything seems hopeless.
Basically there are two approaches. The first way to attack depression and feelings of inadequacy is to try to change what you’re doing so that you’ll feel better about yourself. The second way is to try to change your feelings about yourself so that it will be easier for you to do things differently. Both approaches are interrelated and both are important, but let’s talk about the second one mainly. It’s the one that gets overlooked.
How does it help to start with feelings? Don’t I need to change what I’m doing before I’ll feel any better?
Not necessarily. Maxwell Maltz describes people who have gone through drastic plastic surgery to improve their appearance but who still, after the operation, feel ugly.1 I’ve talked to people who have made significant positive changes—like giving up drinking and smoking—but they still feel discouraged about themselves.
I am impressed by the description of the Nephite multitude after King Benjamin’s sermon: “The Spirit of the Lord came upon them, and they were filled with joy, having received a remission of their sins, and having peace of conscience, because of the exceeding faith which they had in Jesus Christ.” (Mosiah 4:3; italics added.) I’m aware, from my experience with people, that they can change their lifestyle and take the steps of repentance without having peace of conscience. Many times the Spirit of the Lord has spoken to repentant and worthy persons, but like the Lamanites converted by Nephi and Lehi, “they knew it not.” (3 Ne. 9:20.)
But why not? Surely the Holy Ghost can get through anything.
It’s not the Holy Ghost’s problem but ours. Each of us has many voices within, criticizing and praising, encouraging and discouraging, desiring and warning, reasoning and disregarding. We’ve all wondered at some time which voices were from the Lord and which were from Satan, which came with us from premortal life and which we’ve acquired since birth. Fortunately, some good clues to discerning the source of these voices are given in Moro. 7:16: “Every thing which inviteth to do good, and to persuade to believe in Christ, is sent … of Christ.”
Let’s talk about the mortal origin of some voices. As children, we learn to listen to the messages from our parents as absolute truth: “Don’t take candy from a stranger.” “Look both ways before crossing a street.” “Always say your prayers when you go to bed.”
But some of these “truths” are true in only some situations—for instance, “only bad people smoke.” And some are simply not true at all: “Walking under ladders brings bad luck.”
Some of the messages that we each learn as children are about ourselves. We learn what other people think of us by the things they say and the way they act toward us—and that can’t help but affect out self-concept. If a parent always criticizes a child for being undependable, he will see himself that way. Teachers and friends have an influence too; and if you usually hear bad messages about yourself, you will usually perceive them as the truth.
But if my self-doubts and discouragements come from my childhood, is there anything I can do about them?
Of course! Otherwise the principle of free agency would mean nothing. But it’s difficult. For years your personality may have been growing in one direction. Now you must help it grow in another direction. You cannot easily erase those destructive voices from the past, but you can recognize what they do to you and turn them off. You can rid yourself of these voices by replacing them with positive feedback and experiences that will build self-esteem. The Lord has promised that our weaknesses can become strengths and that “all things shall work together for [our] good” if we search and pray. (Ether 12:27, D&C 90:24.)
I think I see what you mean. But how do you shut out the negative voices?
I think Nephi was faced with this problem. He had a hard time after his father died and he could see the conflict coming with his brothers. In the beautiful chapter that we call Nephi’s psalm, some of the critical voices within Nephi begin to break through:
“My heart exclaimeth: O wretched man that I am! Yea, my heart sorroweth because of my flesh; my soul grieveth because of mine iniquities.
“I am encompassed about, because of the temptations and the sins which do so easily beset me.
“And when I desire to rejoice, my heart groaneth because of my sins.” (2 Ne. 4:17–19.)
I’ve experienced this myself—seeing that I could and should rejoice, but feeling burdened by my inadequacies. I don’t know if Nephi was discouraged at other times or how long it took him to conquer these feelings, but this same chapter tells us how he did it. First, he remembers the good experiences he has had, the times that he has been so acceptable to the Lord that he has been blessed with wonderful manifestations:
“My God hath been my support; he hath led me through mine afflictions in the wilderness; and he hath preserved me upon the waters of the great deep.
“He hath filled me with his love, even unto the consuming of my flesh.
“He hath confounded mine enemies, unto the causing of them to quake before me.” (2 Ne. 4:20–22.)
In other words, Nephi is reminding himself that his Heavenly Father has trusted him enough and cared enough about him to bless and protect him. He can’t be totally worthless.
Recalling these experiences gives him confidence enough to argue with those negative voices:
“O then, if I have seen so great things, if the Lord in his condescension unto the children of men hath visited men in so much mercy, why should my heart weep and my soul linger in the valley of sorrow, and my flesh waste away, and my strength slacken, because of mine afflictions?
“And why should I yield to sin, because of my flesh? Yea, why should I give way to temptations, that the evil one have place in my heart to destroy my peace and afflict my soul?” (2 Ne. 4:26–27.)
Once we can turn off the negative voices, we can see their source. Discouragement is not the Lord’s method—it’s Satan’s. Satan emphasizes your weaknesses; the Lord, your ability to overcome. Satan urges immediate perfection to make you feel inadequate. The Lord leads you toward perfection. Once we recognize the source, we can cry with Nephi, “Awake, my soul! No longer droop in sin. Rejoice, O my heart, and give place no more for the enemy of my soul.” (2 Ne. 4:28.)
You mean that some of these critical voices are not my conscience or the Spirit of the Lord?
That’s right. Mormon tells us how to distinguish between “good” voices that are helping us to repent and satanic voices that will only entangle us more, when he says, “That which is of God inviteth and enticeth to do good continually; wherefore, every thing which inviteth and enticeth to do good, and to love God, and to serve him, is inspired of God.” On the other hand, Satan “persuadeth no man to do good.” (Moro. 7:13, 17.) Thus, if the voice you hear leaves you feeling weaker, more doubtful about your capability of overcoming sins, if it continues to remind you of past mistakes and sins that you have already repented of, then it is not of the Spirit of the Lord.
The Lord seeks to strengthen you, to give you the power to overcome problems. He wants you to recognize your weaknesses and then do something about them, Jesus didn’t condemn the adulteress. He said, “Go, and sin no more.” (John 8:1–11.) Alma made it very clear to Corianton that he had committed a terrible sin in being unchaste, but he concluded with: “And now, my son, I desire that ye should let these things [Corianton’s doubts about God’s justice] trouble you no more, and only let your sins trouble you, with that trouble which shall bring you down unto repentance.” (Alma 42:29.)
Elder Marion D. Hanks has commented on this passage: “Alma didn’t promise that Corianton would forget. He taught him how to live with his memories, productively, humbly, continually appreciative for the mercy and long-suffering and forgiveness of God.
“‘You’ll remember your sins,’ we can almost hear Alma saying. ‘You probably won’t ever forget. But remember in the right way for the right reasons.’”2
Isn’t it wrong not to face up to our weaknesses?
It’s one thing to face up to our weaknesses and work on them. It’s another thing to dwell on them. The gospel teaches us to take charge of our minds as well as our bodies. Suppose you’re thinking about a mistake you’ve made. Ask yourself: Is this helping me deal with the problems I’m now having or is it making me feel more inadequate? If it’s dragging you down, push it out of your mind or crowd something else in front of it.
The apostle Paul told the Philippians that he knew he wasn’t “already perfect,” but at least did “one thing”: “forgetting those things which are behind, and reaching forth unto those things which are before.
“I press toward the mark for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus.” (Philip. 3:12–14.)
Isn’t there some value in punishing myself enough that I won’t repeat my sins?
No! Nowhere in the scriptures do I find any license to punish myself. President Kimball tells us that we are punished by our sins.3 That’s punishment enough. It’s much better to reward ourselves for what we do right. This helps us focus on our strengths and moves us more in that direction; punishment focuses on our weaknesses and doesn’t teach us any new behaviors.
If I immediately start tormenting myself for my weakness when I find myself dwelling on an unworthy thought, I don’t have enough strength or determination to resist the next temptation. If, instead, I thank the Lord for showing me that the thought is unwholesome and helping shift my mind away, I leave the situation closer to the Lord, grateful for the strength I have, and praying for greater strength in the future.
President Lorenzo Snow said: “And if we could read in detail the life of Abraham, or the lives of other great and holy men, we would doubtless find that their efforts to be righteous were not always crowned with success. Hence we should not be discouraged if we should be overcome in a weak moment; but, on the contrary, straightway repent of the error or the wrong we may have committed, and as far as possible repair it, and then seek to God for renewed strength to go on and do better.”4
But if I spent much time thinking of my strengths, am I not in danger of becoming proud and conceited?
My experience suggests that pride and conceit are walls people build around fears they dare not face. The conceited person may act superior because he is afraid to face his real limitations. The proud person may be frightened to trust others, even God. Instead, our positive goal is to have “a broken heart and a contrite spirit.” (D&C 59:8.)
The broken heart recognizes mistakes; it recognizes the ideal for which we strive, the strengths we have that will set us on our way toward that ideal, and also the fact that we need outside help to reach it. A proud person refuses to admit that his sin—and his need for help—really exists.
Certainly, being aware of our shortcomings is painful. The people who heard King Benjamin’s sermon were distressed about their spiritual state; but the Spirit of the Lord did not leave them in the dust of depression. Instead, because they had faith in the Savior’s atoning sacrifice, they not only received a remission of their sins but peace of conscience. (See Mosiah 4:3.)
In short, a broken heart not only recognizes sins, but also forgiveness. A humble person, in accepting God’s forgiveness, can also forgive himself. Remember Enos? He said, “And I … knew that God could not lie; wherefore, my guilt was swept away.” (Enos 1:6.)
How do I begin to apply these principles in my life?
1. Be aware of your feelings. Recognize when you begin to feel depressed, discouraged, and uneasy. Many times a person feels down but doesn’t know why. As soon as you recognize depression, trace back the chain of events that led to it.
2. What event cued these feelings? Was it something you did? Something you didn’t do? Something someone else did? Something that disappointed an expectation?
3. Then ask yourself, “What does this event tell me about myself?” If, for instance, you’re depressed after giving a two-and-a-half minute talk that you think turned out poorly, ask what your feelings mean about yourself. Are you worried about what people will think of you? Are you disappointed because you feel you could have done better? Are you feeling guilty because you hadn’t prepared adequately?
4. Then challenge those negative voices. If you really hadn’t prepared, then your failure was a natural consequence. You know what to do to have a better experience next time.
If you had prepared and had reason to expect a good experience, then argue with those voices: Was the talk really that bad? What about the people who said they liked it? Will people really not like me if I give a poor talk? And if someone really does become unfriendly just because I did a bad job, what does that say about his friendship? Am I really a bad person if I don’t give a perfect talk?
But what if I can’t figure out why I’m depressed?
If you can’t identify a cause, then attack in another way. Ask yourself, what are these thoughts and feelings doing to me? Are they helping me improve? Are they leading me to repent? Can I help other people when I feel this way? Are they making me feel weaker and more inadequate?
If the thoughts aren’t productive, then really fight back. Be firm: “Get thee behind me, Satan!” Remember Nephi’s advice to himself after he had remembered all of the blessings the Lord had given him: “Awake, my soul! No longer droop. … Give place no more for the enemy of my soul.” (2 Ne. 4:28.) Instead of being angry at yourself, be angry at those discouraging voices. Satan may disguise them as the voice of conscience, but they’re really his. Turn them off.
You’ll need the Lord’s help in doing it. Pray for strength to cast them out of your mind and lay hold on the Lord’s promise: “If ye will have faith in me ye shall have power to do whatsoever thing is expedient in me.” (Moro. 7:33.)
You may feel impressed to seek a blessing from the priesthood. Remember that the Lord can and does work through the priesthood. You may feel impressed to counsel with your bishop or branch president. Sometimes the bishop refers people to qualified counselors in the community through the Church Personal Welfare Services program. These people can help you sort out the destructive voices and stand up to them. Behavior and feeling are interrelated. As feelings about yourself improve, positive, service-oriented behavior will reinforce those feelings.
Search for your good qualities, your strengths. Think of the good things you have done and those times when the Spirit has whispered peace to your soul. (Fight off that satanic reflex that says, “Yes, but you didn’t do …”) Enjoy the good that you are. Express your gratitude to the Lord for these good things. As he helps you cast out evil, defeating thoughts, fill the vacuum with productive memories.
You will not change overnight. It will take time and effort. But if you have faith in the Lord and follow the counsel of his servants, you will be guided to people and into situations that can help make the “weak things” become strengths in your life.
At bedtime, you can’t sleep. In the morning, you can’t wake up. Dishes, laundry, cleaning go undone. You feel helpless, hopeless, sad. For weeks, months, or even years nothing seems to go right. You feel like a burden to your family. You cry uncontrollably over little things.
You blame yourself for being unhappy. Your sympathetic family takes over your duties, but friends begin to avoid you. You stay home more. Your favorite activities go flat—it’s been a long time since you went for a walk, skied, or played the piano.
You are depressed, and you don’t know what to do about it. Worse, because the gospel promises happinesses, you feel terribly guilty.
Something, however, can be done, says Eugene Mead, a Brigham Young University professor affiliated with the BYU Marriage and Family Counseling Clinic. All types of depression can be helped, and Church resources stand ready.
First, stop feeling guilty. Depression afflicts persons of all ages and both sexes. Statistically, married women with children at home are most subject to depression, single women least. The proportion of depressed married women has risen in the last ten to fifteen years, according to a study taken in the United States, Canada, and Great Britain. Women in general are somewhat more prone to depression than are men.
Depression is a high-risk condition. National statistics show that the suicide rate among depressed people is one in 100, compared to one in 10,000 for the general population.
Second, ask what caused the depression. It may be mostly chemistry, a physiological condition that your physician can prescribe medication for. People forty and over are particularly susceptible to this kind of chemical imbalance. Counseling can help too, sometimes.
Usually, though, depression follows some event—the birth of a baby, the death of a loved one, the loss of a job, separation, children leaving home. This kind of depression is in your mind, not your body, and may last two to three months, with some effects continuing up to a year to two.
“People can do something about this themselves, if they know what to do,” says Dr. Mead. He suggests a combination of disciplined attitudes and disciplined behavior:
1. Consider how you’re looking at the world. You may think everything is going wrong, but usually a lot is going right, too. Are you being rational? Match your picture against reality. Get help doing this; see your bishop, who can draw upon Welfare Services professional help, if necessary.
2. Set a workable schedule. Get enough sleep. Eat enough.
3. A depressed person usually punishes himself by doing few things he enjoys. Try new things, but also make a list of things you used to like doing: rearranging your furniture, making fancy snacks, washing your hair, eating out, visiting friends, discussing politics, playing ping-pong, telling someone you love him, going shopping, doing favors for people, and those all-important spiritual things—meditating, praying, reading scriptures.
Then, every day make yourself do some of these things; increase the number and increase the amount of time you spend.
4. Do your duties. If the floor is filthy, scrub it, or you will feel guilty. Go visiting teaching whether you want to or not. Count simple things, such as answering the phone, as real personal victories. Start to notice how often you win each day.
Dr. Mead also has some suggestions for the depressed person’s family. Be understanding, but not too sympathetic. The more sympathy he gets, the more he may talk about his depression. But the more he talks about it, the less family and friends will want to be with him.
Instead, acknowledge the depressed feelings but expect the depressed person to function—to do his own work, to serve others, to participate in group activities. “If you do his work, you may reinforce his feelings of uselessness.” Also, the backlash may come when family members feel burdened and angry.
Family members can best help by telling the depressed person that he is capable and competent, even if he is not yet able to do all he did before his depression. “Show that any little improvement is appreciated,” Dr. Mead says, “and it will continue.” If the depression persists, help the depressed person see his bishop, who can draw upon Welfare Services professional help.