Thursday, August 10, 2006

How to Tell What Someone is Thinking, Part 1: Depression

Andrew Millar, Ph.D.
Clinical Psychologist
Santa Maria, CA

(Originally published in the Santa Maria Times and the Lompoc Record)

People, especially people at parties, who learn that I'm a psychologist sometimes ask if I'm reading their minds or if I'm analyzing them. I think most psychologists develop funny lines to deflect the question, ranging from "No, I'm off duty," to "Yes, and I'm very worried about you; come see me in my office on Monday." I've tried that latter line but I don't think I've gotten any business from it.

The truth is that I can't read people's minds, but I can, in fact, make some good educated guesses. In this article and in others to come I will reveal psychologists' secrets so that you can tell what is on another person's mind.

Please keep in your mind that the information I discuss in my articles is based on my own training and experience. My theories are not necessarily shared by therapists from other schools of thought, so their understanding about what is on another person's mind may well be different from mine.

Also please remember that I am making educated guesses about what someone is thinking and feeling. Even though I usually make good guesses, I'm willing to be wrong. I always check with clients to make sure I understand them accurately. You are welcome to try these techniques at home, but please be respectful of other people and don't assume that you know what they think. Do no harm.

Now that we have the ground rules, let's start with understanding the thinking of someone who is depressed.

Depression involves thinking about oneself in unrealistically critical, disparaging ways. Sometimes it's useful to understand depression as self-anger. We can predict that people who are depressed are very down on themselves. We can test that by observing their words and actions for self-criticism and self-destructiveness. (image placeholder)

Look for depressed people to call themselves "stupid," "worthless," "no good," "hopeless," "ugly," "pathetic," and other negative names, especially when something bad happens to them.

Depressed people often expect that they should be better than they really are. They can even be perfectionistic, thinking they should be better than anyone really can be. So, when something goes wrong or they make mistakes or are rejected, they perceive it as evidence to confirm their fears that they are completely inadequate.

Listen for pessimistic predictions, such as "I'll never be any good," "I can't do it, "Nobody will ever love me," and "It's hopeless." Note the absolute quality of these statements: With strong depression there is no sense that a good outcome is at all possible.

The perceptions of people who are depressed are not generally realistic about situations. Even if something happens that is positive and desirable, someone who is depressed will have difficulty perceiving it positively. For example, on a beautiful, sunny day, he or she will think something like, "I'm so screwed up I can't even enjoy a sunny day like everybody else."

That's why it's pretty useless to try to cheer up someone who's depressed. People try anyway, saying things like, "Look at the bright side," or "You have so much to be happy about," or "Smile!" or even, "Just don't be depressed." Depressed thinking in response would be something like, "Sure, that's easy to say when you're not as depressed and screwed up as I am," or even "I must really be hopeless if I can't get happy the way everybody else does."

So, if you know someone who is depressed, you can guess that a person is thinking negatively about self and the future. Similarly, if you hear negative statements from someone, you can hypothesize that the person has some degree of depression.(image placeholder)

In future articles, I'll reveal ways therapists tell what is going on in the minds of people who are having unhealthy levels of anger, guilt, anxiety, and possibly other problem emotions. We will also consider ways of helping people reduce their distress.

Please see the next article: Making Adjustments

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