John's Blog

The Blog of John Gibson, PhD

The Depressive Mindset

When something bad happens, the pessimist thinks: there’s something wrong with me, it will effect everything I do, and it always going to be this way. I am crap, my whole life is crap, my life will always be crap.

When something bad happens, the optimist thinks: there’s something wrong with this situation, the rest of my life is okay, and it –– whatever “it” is –- is only temporary.

The pessimist lives by the three Ps: personal, pervasive, permanent. (It’s me, it’s everything, it’s forever.)

Pessimism + rumination (mentally going over and over things that have happened) puts people at risk for becoming depressed. Bad things happen to everyone, but not everyone becomes depressed, and some people bounce back more quickly.

(Note: there are other factors that predispose people to depression, of course. Biology, temperament, and early parental loss, for instance.)

Pessimism is a
thinking pattern. When people who are depressed come to therapy, we often try discern the role thinking patterns play in how the client interprets his or her world. Depressives have a habit of personalizing everything. They also have a tendency to use selective abstraction –– that is, they pick out the one or two negative things about a situation and ignore the rest. Therapy for the depressive is often a process of identifying perceptions, thinking patterns, and beliefs –– and restoring perspective.

We can change our thinking patterns, but it is not enough to say, “Think Positive.” This is simply too general and too broad. We need to be specific. We need to pinpoint the specific ways the depressive thinks and then examine those patterns for distortions and logical alternatives. As you might imagine, this type of changes take a little time, not to mention commitment, focus, effort, and repetition.

By the way, I do not mean to minimize the role that external events play in our suffering or, for that matter, our happiness. Such things matter a great deal. But what does it mean to be a hardy individual? What does it mean to cope well with the slings and arrows that life shoots our way?

How you think matters.


Sometimes a crisis occurs when you didn’t see it coming. (Getting fired. Becoming seriously ill. Losing someone you love.) Sometimes a crisis occurs when too many things come at you at once. (The refrigerator goes out but your checkbook is empty and then you get the flu and then...) Sometimes a crisis occurs when a problem you ignored or pretended not see brings unwelcome consequences. (Your spouse decides to proceed with a divorce after months, probably years, of feeling like the marriage is not working.)

No one likes a crisis. We become overwhelmed, anxious, worried, upset, despondent. Sometimes we have to make hard choices. Or experience loss. Or make a change we’d really prefer not to make, thank you very much.

Getting through a crisis is seldom easy. More often than not, we have to put our thinking caps on and problem solve like the dickens. We have to tolerate the inevitable distressing emotions. We have to find the courage to face our fears. Sometimes we cry, or protest, or fight. And when these things don’t work, we go back to problem solving again. Talking about it –- seeking support, wisdom, guidance –- often helps. There is no one-size-fits-all solution to a crisis, of course. Your situation may be different from mine.

And yet sometimes there are
hidden opportunities in a crisis. Maybe the crisis will force us to change something that needed to be changed. Maybe the crisis will result in the creation of new directions and new patterns. Maybe the other side of the crisis, once we get through it, is actually a better place to be.

Maybe, just maybe, your next crisis has something to teach you. Food for thought.

Practicing what I Preach: Renewal

This year I am doing something different: I will not be working for the month of August. The entire month. A month’s vacation, in other words.

I have not had two consecutive weeks off since my daughter was born. That was eighteen years ago. I decided it was time to take a sabbatical.

I’ve always believed in taking time away from work. In years gone by, I’ve taken several weeks off each year, just not all at once. Therapy is an intensive enterprise. There is such a thing as compassion fatigue. Therapists do get burned out. I don’t won’t these things to happen to me. By stepping away for a while, I know I’ll feel fresher, more present, and more available when I come back in September.

Taking this much time off at once was not a decision I made lightly. I know it’s disruptive for the clients I currently work with. And I have not taken on any new clients in some weeks, knowing that we would just get started but then have to take a four-week break. But I’m in this for the long-haul, you might say. A great deal of my life has been devoted to doing good work, to caring for people, to helping them improve their lives.
But taking care of myself is just as important as taking care of my patients.

So far, the most universal response I’ve received from clients is: “Good for you.” Most of my clients appreciate that I have a need to renew myself just like everyone else.

I might travel a bit. Or maybe walk the beach. Or walk my exuberant dog. I will seek more input–-reading, film, news, training, fresh ideas. I’ll spent lots of time with my wife and daughter. Or maybe I’ll sleep in. Or maybe I’ll let my mind wander and let myself be idle for a time.

A goose that lays golden eggs is a mighty fine thing. We can push the goose to lay more eggs, which may seem like a good thing in the short-run. But in the long-run, well, you kill the goose. Rest is essential.

No Silver Bullets

A silver bullet has come to be a metaphor for the idea of having single solution that creates maximum results. But when it comes to stress, personal problems, symptom relief, or maladaptive patterns, there are no silver bullets.

In therapy, we pay attention to the particulars of your unique psychology. Perceptions, thoughts, feelings, motivations, beliefs, fears, wishes, dreams, personal history, relationships –- these are just some of the elements that may be contributing to your distress. Because your psyche is so complex, solutions to your problems, whatever they are, are unlikely to be simple.

Common Questions

“What advice would you give for–– “

Let me stop you right there. Psychotherapy goes well beyond simple information or advice. It’s ultimately a process of understanding how your unique psychology–-complex patterns of thoughts, feelings, and actions––contribute to your distress or problems.

Unlike self-help books or advice columns, therapy is tailored specifically to you. Your concerns, your situation, your personality, your history. Common advice tends to be universal. Therapy is specific.

“Okay, but does therapy really work?”

Most people report that it does. There are many ways to feel better. Mood, symptoms, relationships, satisfaction with life, problem resolution–-these are just some of the changes clients may report. And scores of research studies have consistently confirmed that therapy does indeed help people.

Which doesn’t mean it’s a panacea or even that a successful outcome is guaranteed. Truth is, the outcome of therapy depends on your goals, the type and severity of the problem you are trying to address, and your motivation to do psychological work. Still, most people report after seeking treatment they feel better off than before they started.

“What can I expect from the process? How does it work?”

The first session is a bit unsettling for many people. After all, you’re talking to a professional that you don’t know yet, and you’re talking about the most problematic aspects of your life, which can arouse strong feelings. But the good news is, the process of opening-up gets easier. We go at your pace, and we seek to understand, not judge.

In the early sessions, I do a lot of careful listening. Your life is like a story, complete with characters, plot, and narrative. My first task is to listen for those themes that tie your life story together. But as we go, you can expect me to begin making comments. These are anything but casual. They are designed to give you input, feedback, direction, suggestion, and interpretation, and they are directed at the way you think, feel, act, and react.

Sometimes the changes that people need to make are obvious, but sometimes not. And almost all change is accompanied by resistance. The middle stages of therapy are all about working together to understand the various forces that are holding you back. Frequently these “forces” are psychological, but sometimes they are social or practical. Therapy is as much about figuring why you haven’t been successful in personal change as it is in knowing what to change.

“How long does therapy take?”

There is no set length for therapy. To a large extend, it will depend on the problems you are trying to address and the goals you are trying to accomplish. Although some problems require longer-term work (e.g., maladaptive personality patterns), most problems do not.

Frankly, therapy is best viewed as an investment in your best asset–-you. Yes, it costs money, time, and energy, but if you improve your psychological functioning, you might just end up happier, wealthier, and wiser.

“But I’m not crazy–-I don’t need a therapist. I just want to feel better.”

Well, my definition of crazy and your definition may be two different things. What I can say is that most people have problems, issues, imperfections, struggles, and suffering of some kind. That just makes you human. Seeking assistance with these things makes you smart.

About Therapy

Therapy has one overarching goal: to help you alleviate distress.

Of course, distress can take many different forms. Sometimes it is a set of symptoms, like those associated with anxiety or depression. Other times it may involve a key relationship, such as a romantic relationship or a marriage. And still other times it may involve a problematic situation, such as a divorce process, job issue, or a family matter.

Therapy helps you understand––and change––the underlying emotional factors that are driving your distress. During the course of therapy, you can expect us to explore your unique psychology. This may involve emotions, thinking patterns, core beliefs, key relationships, and your personal history. Once we understand the factors that are contributing to your emotional patterns, we can then figure out the steps you need to take to make lasting improvements in your life.

Psychotherapy requires your full participation. It’s a highly collaborative process. By coming to sessions, you are essentially inviting someone else to join forces with you as you take steps to address your concerns and improve the quality of your life.

What is the "good life?"

I like Martin Seligman’s definition. The good life, as he sees it, is made up of these components:

  • Positive emotion. Otherwise known as feeling good.
  • Engagement. Activities that cause to lose track of time, for instance.
  • Relationships. We are hard-wired to connect. Good relationships make for a good life.
  • Meaning. Making an investment in something that is bigger than one’s self.
  • Achievement. Accomplishing things that matter to us.

Happiness is more than feeling good. Ever tried to learn a musical instrument? Complete college? Play Bridge? Play a sport? Some activities test us and tax us, but they may come to have deep meaning for us nonetheless. Seligman suggests that “feeling good” may be the least important component of the group.

Which doesn’t mean we don’t want to feel good. We do. It’s just that there may be more to happiness than positive emotion.

Also, it’s not enough to achieve our goals; we also need to
appreciate our achievements, perhaps even savor them.

What the good life is not: the wealthy life, the ideal life, the stress-free life, the idle life.