bhapter9 88-149 January 20, 1990

Do you really want to shake off your depression? Don't answer too fast, and don't be too sure. It is quite common that people get enough benefits from their depressions so that they prefer remaining depressed--despite all its unpleasantness--to being undepressed. So they stay depressed.

At first this assertion seems nonsensical. Doesn't everyone want to be happy rather than sad? But the word "want" is a tricky one, because a person can have more than one "want" at a given moment. By analogy, consider that you may "want" a piece of chocolate, but you may also "want" not to ingest additional calories or get fat. The resultant of these two forces may be that you do not eat the cake even though you "want" it, or you may eat it even though you want not to get fat.

There are two kinds of conflicting wants that may be involved in depression: other wants which conflict with being free of depress, and the wish to stay depressed for its own sake. Here are a few examples of "wants" that may keep you depressed:1

1) You may know that overwork causes you to be depressed, but you may want the fruits of the work sufficiently badly so that you overwork anyway. This is little different than the situation of the person who risks heart attack by working too hard.

2) You may have the "magical" belief that if you punish yourself for your misdeeds by being sad, an authority (which may be God) will take note of your self-punishment and therefore refrain from punishing you further. We see this in children who, following misbehavior, put on a sad and apologetic face and thereby effectively avoid punishment. This connection may continue to exist within the adult's mind, even though it no longer works. A person who violates a legal or moral code may punish himself with sadness in the hope that the law or his peers or God will thereby be foreclosed from punishing him in an even worse manner. Hence he chooses to remain depressed.

3) "Experienced" depressives -- that is, people who suffer depression from time to time -- sometimes use depression as an excuse not to meet demands and do unpleasant chores.

4) An important "benefit" of depression is that you can feel sorry for yourself because you are so miserable. Self-pity and depression are almost inseparable, wrapped up with each other like climbing vines. Some writers have even believed that self- pity is the origin of depression.

At the root of the adult depression of a child whose parents die may lie this mechanism involving self-pity: At the time of the death, other members of the family express their sorrow and pity for the child, together with their love for the child. This is relatively pleasant for the bereaved child, and it is the best substitute for the parent's love. It would be logical for a child to extend the period of seeming depressed in order to continue eliciting this expressed pity and love by others. And this pattern of depression to elicit pity and love may continue through the person's life--perhaps most strongly for a person who does not get enough of this pity and sorrow to surfeit her at the time of bereavement.


Self-pity is a pleasant substitute for pity from others. In turn another person feeling pity for you is pleasant because it is associated with the other person caring about you, and that caring is associated with loving you. Any lack of love of others may be the proximate cause of sadness, because of the close association between lack of parental love and neg-comps. (Notice how a parent expressing love for a child can banish a child's sadness. And a depressed adult is often conscious of the desire that a friend or spouse give comfort in the form of expressing sorrow.)

There is sound inner logic, then, in remaining depressed so that you can give yourself a reasonable substitute for the love of others that you crave. And this may act as a powerful attraction toward depression and a formidable obstacle to forsaking depression for happiness.

In this respect depression is similar to hypochondria, which elicits sympathy from others and provides an excuse not to exert oneself. Just as with hypochondria, the benefits of depression may seem greater than the costs.

The concept of self-comparisons is especially fruitful in analyzing self-pity. Consider these examples of external events upon which people fix their thoughts when they are in a self- pitying frame of mind:

Homely Sally pities herself because she does not have the advantages that come with being better looking; men therefore don't appreciate her other virtues, she tells herself. Unsuccessful poet Paul pities himself because magazines never publish his poetry, though they publish others' poems that are nowhere near as good as those he writes. Five-foot-seven-inch Calvin pities himself because, though he was a hot-shot basketball player in high school, no college would give him a scholarship due to his height, and he therefore never went on with his studies. Mother Tamara pities herself because two of her five children died.

Earlier I said that people enjoy self-pity. They get so much benefit from it that they are unwilling to stop feeling sorry for themselves even if the price of the self-pity is continued depression. But why should this be? What is there so pleasant in the nature of the examples given above that would make the thought desirable? Why would anyone want to go on pitying herself for losing two children to death, or because his poetry doesn't get published? We need an explanation in terms of neg-comps.

The answer to this riddle is that in their self-pity people also make a positive self-comparison which gives them gratification. Poet Paul tells himself, while he is feeling sorry for himself, that he really is a better poet than many of those who do get their poetry published; that self-praise makes him feel good. At the same time, the thought that he is not getting what he deserves -- a negative self-comparison, please notice -- is making him feel sad. He flips back and forth from one thought and feeling to the other, getting pleasure from the self-praise and the positive self-comparison, and then getting sadness from the negative self-comparison.

Tamara tells herself that when her two children died, she got a worse deal from life and God than she deserves, a negative self-comparison which makes her sad. At the same time she reminds herself that she is a virtuous woman who did not deserve the blow, and she gets gratification from thinking of her virtue by comparison to other people.

Calvin gets pleasure from reminding himself what a hot-shot basketball player he was, while pitying himself for the opportunities he did not know. And Sally gets pleasure from thinking about her good mind and her fine character when pitying herself that because of her face men don't like her despite these virtues.

We can now understand how a person gets hooked on the self- pitying mechanism, just the way a person gets hooked on heroin, and why it is so hard to kick this habit. Self-pity exerts a fatal fascination. It is like the situations in experimental psychology called "plus-minus stimuli," stimuli that are neither only positive nor only negative, but rather are both negative and positive. The fatal fascination arises because you cannot obtain the benefits without suffering the costs. Paul cannot think how he is a good poet without also coming to think how his poems do not get published. And he cannot stop thinking about his publishing failure without giving up the pleasure of self-praise of his poetry.

To test this analysis on yourself, inspect your thoughts the next time you are feeling sorry for yourself. Look for both (a) the self-praise for being virtuous and good -- the positive self- comparison between what you are, compared to the benchmark comparison of what you are getting from life; and (b) the negative self-comparison between what you get and what you deserve. You may also test this analysis by listening to what you say to another person when you express pity for him or her. And pure logic also implies this behavior: Unless the gratifying element of the positive self-comparison is present in self-pity, why would anyone not simply kick the habit?

Please notice that you will not expect -- or usually get -- pity unless you deserve better than you got. The rotten mother, the mediocre basketball player, the lazy poet will neither expect nor get pity for child death, non-scholarship, or publication rejection.

This analysis of the benefits of feeling sorry for yourself is described in Mike Royko's satire of the benefits of moaning when suffering from a New Year's day hangover.

The other part of a hangover is physical. It is usually marked by throbbing pain in the head, behind the eyes, back of the neck, and in the stomach. You might also have pain in the arms, legs, knees, elbows, chin, and elsewhere, depending upon how much leaping, car- eening, flailing and falling you did.

Moaning helps. It doesn't ease the pain, but it lets you know that someone cares, even if it is only you. Moaning also lets you know that you are still alive.

But don't let your wife hear you moan. You should at least have the satisfaction of not letting her have the satisfaction of knowing you are in agony.

If she should overhear you moaning, tell her you are just humming a love song the lady with the prominent cleavage sang in your ear while you danced.

Some people say that moaning gives greater benefits if you moan while sitting on the edge of your bathtub while letting your head hang down between your ankles. Others claim that it is best to go into the living room, slouch in a chair, and moan while holding a hand over your brow and the other over your stomach.2

Consider the example of Charley T., an obese depressive. Charley says to himself: "I'm so miserable, and the world has been so terrible to me, that I might as well cheer myself up with a few chocolates. Why shouldn't I? No one else gives me any love or help or pleasure, so at least I can give myself some pleasure!" And there goes the whole box of bon-bons.

If Charley stops feeling depressed, he no longer has a handy excuse to munch chocolates by the handful. And this is an inducement for him to remain depressed. We might label this sort of ailment "candy depression".

The goodies that the rest of us give ourselves when we are depressed--relief from work, self-sympathy in feeling sorry for ourselves, excuses not to do things for others--are not so obvious. Yet they can be just as powerful a barrier to curing our depressions as is Charley's yearning for food. If we are to cure our depressions, we must face up to the fact that we must give up something in exchange. If we won't pay the price, we won't stop being depressed. That may be hard for you to hear, but in many or most cases it is a fact.

Some writers such as Bonime3 view depression only as a way of obtaining its benefits. To Bonime depression is a "practice...a way of living," that is, a way of manipulating other people. Certainly this may be an element in the depression of some persons, maybe even most depressives, a carryover from childhood sulking that often does produce results. But to view adult depression only as a device to achieve the sympathetic response of other persons simply is far from the facts of the lives of, for example, many depressed recluses who are not even in contact with other persons who might be induced to respond to the depression; the explanation then becomes downright silly.

The question we shall tackle later is how to decide whether you want the pleasures of a) moaning for yourself in combination with depression, versus b) being undepressed.


As to dealing with the self-pity habit: I said that poet Paul thinks of himself as a "good poet." Perhaps he should ask himself whether his poems are good or bad, and not whether the maker of the poems is a good or bad person. Ellis uses the term "rating" for this tendency to label the person rather than the act, and he argues that reducing the amount of rating is an important way to attack depression. I agree, though noting that such rating is very much bound up with the daily living of most of us, and therefore hard to forswear.


Strange as it may seem, a person sometimes gets enough benefits from her/his depression so that the person prefers remaining depressed--despite all its unpleasantness--to being undepressed. Possible benefits include a good excuse from work or other demands, the concern of others, or the justification for self-pity. Recognizing that this sort of mechanism may operate can help you face the matter squarely, and decide that the benefits of the depression are not worth the pain of the depression.