bhapter5 1989 8-149 January 20, 1990

Skip this chapter about the effect of your history upon your depressive tendencies if you are impatient to get on to practical methods for overcoming your sadness. But come back later if you do skip now; this material should help you understand yourself better, and therefore help you deal with yourself better.

Childhood experiences are the colors with which the adult draws pictures of life. A typical case: M.'s father gave M. the impression that he never expected much of M. So M. spent the years until age 50 so hungry for achievement that he kept learning new occupations, and giving chunks of himself to the needy, while at the same time deriding all his achievements as those of an "overachiever".

The child builds patterns of behavior on her experiences as she lives them, even if the childhood experiences are not relevant to adult life. In the lingo of scientific research, the adult sees her latest experience as one observation in her lifetime sample of experiences.

A single traumatic childhood experience can leave a lasting imprint and predispose a person to adult depression. Or, none of the experiences may be traumatic yet their effect may be cumulative.

The early experiences may influence the adult's perceptions and interpretations of the adult's actual situation. Or they may work directly upon the self-comparison mechanism. They may also affect the adult's sense of being competent or helpless to improve her life situation.

Non-traumatic experiences which gain their force by accumulation can be repeated punishments, or parental directions about which self-comparisons the child should make, or which companions to associate with, or--perhaps most deeply rooted in the adult--goals and values implanted in the young child by the parent or other persons, or by his own reactions to people and environment. These matters will now be discussed one by one.


Death or Loss of a Parent

The classical Freudian explanation of depression is the death or disappearance of a parent, or the lack of parental love. Though it is probably incorrect that such an event has occurred to all depressives, it is likely that children who have suffered the loss of a parent are especially predisposed to depression.1

There are several ways that loss of a parent can cause depression. Children whose parents die often believe that they themselves caused the parents to die by some bad behavior or failure. Therefore, bad behavior or failure as an adult brings back the depressing feelings associated with great loss.

A child who loses a parent to death or divorce may re- experience the pain and sadness whenever, as an adult, the person suffers a loss in the widest sense--loss of job, loss of a lover, and so on.

Still another way in which loss of a parent may predispose a person toward depression is by simply making the person sad for a prolonged time after the event. That is, the child continually makes a negative comparison between (a) his present parentless situation, and (b) his former situation when the parent was alive (or to the situation of other children who still have parents.) In this way the child develops a pattern of making neg-comps, and being depressed from time to time, which may simply continue into adulthood.

Another theory of why early separation can cause depression is that attachment to the mother is biologically programmed just as are mating behavior and parenting behavior in animals. If the bond is absent, pain is caused, says this theory.2

What at important for us is that if the attachment is broken by separation, temporary depression may occur immediately, and the chance of adult depression goes up.

Punishment for Failure as a Child

Some parents punish their children severely for actions inside or outside the home which the parents do not approve. The punishment may be straightforward, such as spanking or loss of rights; or the punishment may be more subtle, such as withdrawal of the parent's love. Many children who are severely punished by their parents learn to punish themselves for lack of achievement, and they continue to do so in adulthood. This self-punishment increases the pain suffered from a negative self-comparison, and hence it intensifies a depression. This was my case until I realized what was happening and decided to change: When I was a child my mother would say to me, no matter how well I did in school or other test situations: "That's fine, but you can do better." I then felt (rightly or wrongly) that I was being reprimanded for not doing well enough. And as an adult, I cursed myself for each minor fault, feeling painful sadness at my perennial failure to reach perfection.

It was this pattern which -- after a precipitating event -- kept me in constant depression for thirteen years. One day I realized that there was no good reason why I should punish myself on my mother's behalf, no reason why I should speak her reprimands to myself. This was a major breakthrough in lifting my thirteen-year depression.

Though my sense of well-being came in a sudden rush, there had been hard work going on for weeks and months, along the lines of the program described in this book. And there is nothing miraculous about my continuing to stay free of depression, however; that is a matter of diligent effort which is sometimes so demanding that it seems too much to be worthile. I have trained myself to say, whenever the impulse to do so arises, "Don't criticize." And whenever I catch myself saying to myself "You idiot!", I have trained myself to smile at the nuttiness of the abuse that I heap on myself for the silliest reasons. So even though I am a depressive with a propensity to sadness which I must constantly fight in this and other ways to be described below, I live a life that is free of prolonged sadness and which includes joy and contentment, as described at length in the Epilogue.

My story also points up the importance of building new habits to counter the habits of self-criticism and low self- esteem that have been worn their ways into one's thinking over the years since childhood, the way wheels wear ruts into soft roads.

Childhood punishment for failure may also make you fear failure so much that the threat of failure panics you to the point that you do not think clearly. This may cause you to reach wrong conclusions because you misinterpret relevant information, which can lead to neg-comps and sadness. As one salesman put it, "Every time I was a minute late for an appointment I'd be scared that the customer would think I am irresponsible and lazy, which would make me so nervous that I couldn't sell effectively. And I also immediately reminded myself that I never manage to do anything right."3 This was a fellow whose mother set very high standards of reliability for him even as a four-year-old child, and chided him when he failed to meet those standards.

Childhood-Formed Expectations about Adult Accomplishment

Experiences in childhood and adolescence influence your expectations about professional and personal accomplishments.

Each violinist in any [symphony orchestra's] second chair started out as a prodigy in velvet knickers who expected one day to solo exquisitely amid flowers flung by dazzled devotees. The 45-year-old violinist with spectacles on his nose and a bald spot in the middle of his hair is the most disappointed man on earth.4

Sometimes changes in one's capacities trigger the depression. A thirty-nine-year-old amateur athlete's present expectations were formed both by his relative excellence as a youth and by his absolute excellence as an adult. And when age curbed his performance and he compared his performance with those expectations, he began to feel sad and depressed.

The "normal" person revises his expectations so that they fit his possible accomplishment reasonably well. The middle-aged violinist may reassess his abilities and arrive at a more realistic assessment of the future. The aging athlete chooses to play in an over-forty tennis league. But some adults do not respond to a gap between expectations and performance by revising their expectations. This may result from heavy parental emphasis on certain expectations such as "Of course you'll win a Nobel prize if you work hard." Such a person carries expectations beyond actual possibilities, and depression ensues.

An interesting but troublesome set of expectations that many of us form as children concerns "happiness." As young people we get the idea that we can hope for (and even expect) a life of care-free ecstatic bliss, a perennial walking on air, as seen in movies and magazine articles about celebrities. Then, when in our youth or young adulthood we do not attain golden bliss--and at the same time we think that other people have attained it--we feel let-down and suffer depression. We must learn that continued bliss is not an attainable goal for anyone, and instead aim at the best that one can realistically expect from life as a human being.

Persistent Criticism by Parents

If your parents continually tell you that your acts are clumsy, foolish, or naughty, you are likely to draw the general conclusion that you are clumsy, foolish, or naughty. Hence as an adult you may have the habit of making negative self- comparisons. For example, a social act that may or may not be clumsy immediately evokes the inner response, "I'm an idiot," or "I'm a klutz." This habit acts like a prejudiced judge who always finds the person guilty, and hence produces frequent negative self-comparisons and consequent prevailing sadness.

The habit of comparing oneself negatively and thinking "I'm a klutz" arises from some combination of experiences in early childhood and throughout the rest of one's life. Each event in one's adult past is probably less important the longer ago it occurred, so that it is not only the sum of such experiences but also their recent timing which matters; if one has recently been down-and-out and unsuccessful, this probably matters more than being down-and-out for a similar length of time ten years earlier. In contrast, childhood experiences may have relatively heavy weight because the events involved interpretation by the parent. That is, if every time a child does poorly in school the parent says, "See, you'll never be smart like your big brother," the effect is likely to be greater than a school failure after the child has left the house.

Furthermore, the habit of comparing oneself negatively is strengthened by each additional negative self-comparison the person makes.

In addition to directly biasing the person's self- comparisons, this habit of self-criticism may act cumulatively to produce the sort of "bio-chemical scar" mentioned in Chapter 4. Or, such a biochemical scar may result from the feedback effect of negative self-comparisons and the sadness itself upon the nervous system.


If a child strives unsuccessfully, and hence develops a record of failure to achieve encouragement and affection, this record is likely to leave a heavy mark on the adult. A special case is the infant or young child who had no parent to respond to the child's strivings. One can view the lack of a parent as a separation or deprivation which by itself predisposes the adult to depression. Alternately, one may see this as the child not being able to successfully induce its environment to respond positively to its efforts to obtain the gratifications it seeks, leading to a sense of being helpless.

Such unsuccessful striving evokes the emotion of sadness. It also may produce the general conclusion about one's life that there is a negative balance between what one seeks and what one gets. It is reasonable that this leads to the disposition to evaluate oneself negatively relative to one's aspirations, hopes, and obligations.

Rigid Goal-Setting in Childhood

By `goal' I mean an aim that is broad and deep. For example, it is a goal to be the greatest tennis player in the world or to win a Nobel prize. And a goal often is abstract - for example, to make a contribution to humanity or to contribute something important to culture. Goals can be fixed rigidly in childhood in at least three ways: 1) Parents may stress that the child can and must make great achievements, and the parents may suggest to the child that the parents' love depends upon the child accepting those goals. 2) Children who lack love during their childhood may conclude that by achieving great successes as adults they can win the admiration and love from the world that they do not receive as children. (3) Children may decide on their own that they must achieve greatly or else they are worthless.

Goals and goal-setting are very complex. If your goals are too high, you will fail to reach them; negative self-comparisons and sadness will ensue. But if your goals are not high enough, you may not stretch your capacities to the fullest and thereby deny yourself full and satisfying self-realization. But you cannot know in advance which goals are reasonable and which are not. Furthermore, your goals are interwoven with your values and beliefs, which -- if they are really values and beliefs-- are not chosen simply on the basis of what will be most comfortable for you. We can be sure, however, that parents who press high goals on their children, and condition their love on the achievement of those goals--thereby creating a situation in which the adult cannot alter his goals to fit his capacities--may predispose the child both to adult depression and to significant accomplishment. That's complex! One more complication: Some people will, as adults, more frequently be in the coping-evaluating mode than will others because of more competitiveness and pressure applied to them as children.

Values, which are closely related to goals, get special treatment in the following chapter.


This chapter discusses the relationship of earlier learning and experiences, and especially those in childhood, upon the propensity to be depressed. Understanding the various mechanisms can sometimes throw light upon one's present makeup in a manner that can help one alter one's self-comparisons to overcome depression.