The Practice of Creativity

Rethinking Depression Blog Tour

Posted on: May 3, 2012

If you’ve ever explored how to develop your creativity, then you’ve probably heard of Eric Maisel. Eric Maisel is a pioneer in the field of creativity. As a coach and therapist he specializes in confronting the psychological challenges of creating. His significant body of work tackles the myriad external and internal dilemmas that creators face.

I met Eric, at a book signing, when I was a postdoctoral fellow living in the Bay area. I knew and loved his no nonsense approach to creativity from his books, so I jumped at the chance to see him in person. He announced an experimental program that he was starting—creativity coaching. His new program was a 16 week, email based training designed to teach people the principles for supporting others to create and explore issues and tensions in their own creative lives. The coaches in training would simultaneously coach volunteers online (screened by Eric), for free. Hearing about this innovative program electrified me and a year later I took him up on his offer and loved every minute of the training. My training was almost a decade ago and it sparked my coaching practice, The Creative Tickle®. His work continues to influence, inspire and surprise me.

His new book, Rethinking Depression, tackles the complex subject of depression and is for anyone that struggles with finding meaning in their life. Do you have a life-purpose vision? And do you engage in self-care? Rethinking Depression “is dedicated to helping readers create.” This book does two important things: 1) challenges the view that depression is a disease 2) provides the reader with a complete program for addressing human sadness.

Following is a short article that introduces Rethinking Depression followed by a Q & A.

Rethinking Depression
By Eric Maisel

There is something profoundly wrong with the way that we currently name and treat certain human phenomena. When we call something a “mental disease” or a “mental disorder” we imply a great deal about its origins, its treatment, its intractability, and its locus of control. The mental health industry has its reasons for calling life’s challenges “disorders” but we have few good reasons to collude with them.

In fact, the word depression has virtually replaced unhappiness in our internal vocabularies. We feel sad but we call ourselves depressed. Having unconsciously made this linguistic switch, when we look for help we naturally turn to a “depression expert.” We look to a pill, a therapist, a social worker, or a pastoral counselor — even if we’re sad because we’re having trouble paying the bills, because our career is not taking off, or because our relationship is on the skids. That is, even if our sadness is rooted in our circumstances, social forces cause us to name that sadness “depression” and to look for “help with our depression.” People have been trained to call their sadness “depression” by the many forces acting upon them, from the mental health industry to mass culture to advertising.

Chemicals have effects and they can alter a human being’s experience of life. That a chemical called an antidepressant can change your mood in no way constitutes proof that you have a mental disorder called depression. All that it proves is that chemicals can have an effect on mood. There is a fundamental difference between taking a drug because it is the appropriate treatment for a medical illness and taking a drug because it can have an effect. This core distinction is regularly obscured in the world of treating depression.

Psychotherapy, too, can help remediate sadness for the simple reason that talking about your problems can help reduce your experience of distress. Psychotherapy works, when it works, because the right kind of talk can help reduce a person’s experience of unhappiness. To put it simply, chemicals have effects and you may want those effects; talk can help and you may want that help. Antidepressants and psychotherapy can help not because they are the “treatment for the mental disorder of depression” but because chemical have effects and talk can help.

By taking the common human experience of unhappiness out of the shadows and acknowledging its existence, we begin to reduce its power. At first it is nothing but painful to say, “I am profoundly unhappy.” The words cut to the quick. They seem to come with a life sentence and allow no room for anything sweet or hopeful. But the gloom can lift. It may lift of its own accord — or it may lift because you have a strong existential program in place whereby you pay more attention to your intentions than to your mood.

What is an existential program? It is people taking as much control as possible of their thoughts, their attitudes, their moods, their behaviors, and their very orientation toward life and turning their innate freedom into a virtue and a blessing. Even if people decide to take antidepressants or engage in psychotherapy to get help with their unhappiness, they will still have to find ways of dealing with their meaning needs, the shadows of their personality, their consciousness of mortality, and the facts of existence.

Living authentically means organizing your life around your answers to three fundamental questions. The first is, “What matters to you?” The second is, “Are your thoughts aligned with what matters to you?” The third is, “Are your behaviors aligned with what matters to you?” You accept and embrace the fact that you are the final arbiter of your life’s meaning. With this approach to life, each day is a project requiring existential engineering skills as you bridge your way from one meaningful experience to the next. By accepting the realities of life and by asserting that you are the sole arbiter of the meaning in your life, you provide yourself sure footing as you actively make meaning.

If we can begin to move from the “depression is a mental disorder” model to the idea that human beings must deal more effectively with the realities of human existence, including the realities of sadness, despair, and grief, we will have taken a giant step away from “medicalizing everything” and toward lives lived with renewed passion, power and purpose.

Q & A with Eric Maisel

The first section of your book focuses on debunking depression as a “mental illness,” which is not to say that sadness and unhappiness cannot be debilitating.  Can you briefly describe the main thrust of your argument?

What I hope to demonstrate is that there is something profoundly wrong with the way we name and treat certain human phenomena. When we call something a “mental disease” or a “mental disorder” we imply a great deal about its origins, its treatment, its intractability, and its locus of control. The mental health industry has its reasons for calling life’s challenges “disorders,” but we have few good reasons to collude with them. I ask that readers who do feel depressed seek help. I hope that this book aids people in understanding what help to ask for from professionals and what help we should realize they can’t possibly offer us.

If there is no “mental disorder of depression,” why are millions of people convinced that “depression” exists?

As soon as you employ the interesting linguistic tactic of calling every unwanted aspect of life abnormal, you are on the road to pathologizing everyday life. By making every unwanted experience a piece of pathology, it becomes possible to knit together disorders that have the look but not the reality of medical illness. This is what has happened in our “medicalize everything” culture. In fact, the word depression has virtually replaced unhappiness in our internal vocabularies. We feel sad but we call ourselves depressed. Having unconsciously made this linguistic switch, when we look for help we naturally turn to a “depression expert.” We look to a pill, a therapist, a social worker, or a pastoral counselor — even if we’re sad because we’re having trouble paying the bills, because our career is not taking off, or because our relationship is on the skids. That is, even if our sadness is rooted in our circumstances, social forces cause us to name that sadness “depression” and to look for “help with our depression.” People have been trained to call their sadness “depression” by the many forces acting upon them, from the mental health industry to mass culture to advertising.

Why is recognizing the role of unhappiness in our lives an important feature of “rethinking depression”?

To acknowledge the reality of unhappiness is not to assert the centrality of unhappiness. In fact, it is just the opposite. By taking the common human experience of unhappiness out of the shadows and acknowledging its existence, we begin to reduce its power. At first it is nothing but painful to say, “I am profoundly unhappy.” The words cut to the quick. They seem to come with a life sentence and allow no room for anything sweet or hopeful. But the gloom can lift. It may lift of its own accord — or it may lift because you have a strong existential program in place whereby you pay more attention to your intentions than to your mood. One decision that an existentially aware person makes is to focus on making meaning rather than on monitoring moods.

How do you suggest people go about creating a life-purpose vision?

You might start by creating a life-purpose sentence or statement. In one great gulp you take into account the values you want to uphold, the dreams and goals you have for yourself, and the vision you have for comporting yourself in the world, and then you spend whatever time it takes turning that unwieldy, contradictory material into a coherent statement that reflects your core sentiments about your life. Your life-purpose vision is the inner template by which you measure life, and it remains that measure until you revise it. When you agree to commit to making meaning you agree to participate in a lifetime adventure. As you live you gain new information about what you intend to value and what you want your life to mean.

Eric Maisel, PhD, is a licensed psychotherapist and the author of Rethinking Depression and numerous other titles including Mastering Creative Anxiety, Brainstorm, Coaching the Artist Within, and A Writer’s San Francisco. He blogs for Psychology Today and the Huffington Post and writes for Professional Artist Magazine. Visit him online at http://www.ericmaisel.com.

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1 Response to "Rethinking Depression Blog Tour"

I am a huge fan of Dr. Maisel’s Coaching the Artist Within. He has such a wonderful writing style and keen ability to make a cogent, clear argument about writing and creativity.

About Maisel’s argument regarding depression, I have ambivalent feelings: on the one hand, I believe he is absolutely correct. Without any doubt, the pharmaceutical companies have developed a “culture of depression.” The rate of identified depression has increased substantially in recent times. Malaise is now considered depression, yet large studies have demonstrated that anti-depressants simply don’t work on such feelings (whereas exercise and talk therapy do).

However, I think stating that depression simply does not exist is a dangerous approach. Clinical (chemical) depression and malaise are radically different. Chemical depression can cause near-catatonic (or fully catatonic) states. As a licenced psychotherapist, Dr. Maisel must have encountered clinically depressed patients, people whose lives have completely fallen apart, who may have needed hospitalization, who may have been suicidal or committed suicide. These are not people who will benefit from taking the long approach of rethinking depression. They are different from those who are experiencing the malaise of “profound unhappiness.” Having the wrong neurotransmitter combination is different from being unsatisfied with one’s life circumstances. Frequently, patients who have this kind of chemical mood disorder describe taking medication like having led their lives in a dark cave and finally having had the light switched on. Finally, the misery and the chaos are gone.

To my mind, patients with mood disorders are not cheating by taking psychotropic drugs. I take issue with a sweeping argument against antidepressants for that reason.

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Michele Tracy Berger

Michele Tracy Berger

Author, Academic, Creativity Expert I'm an award winning writer.

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