How do I unlearn my depression’s habits?

A lot of habits you pick up from being depressed are easier to unlearn than others. They take hard work, but you can do it. Showering or bathing, for instance. To train yourself to do that, you just have to do it – with the help of task lists or similar if you need to.

But training yourself not to call yourself stupid when things go wrong, or to assume everything is your fault? Well that’s a lot harder.

Today I want to talk about my experience with unlearning the less obvious habits. The insidious ones. The ones that aren’t so much actions as thought patterns or emotional responses. I’ve talked about this a bit in the past, but never how I do it.

And for me, that unlearning comes in three stages.

1. Awareness of the Habits

Okay, so this might seem like an obvious step, but you can’t unlearn something until you’ve realised you’re doing it and that it’s wrong.

Why have I listed this as a whole step? Because. It. Takes. Forever. I am discovering things that I do now that I have done for over a decade, that I had no idea were atypical behaviour. Sometimes it’s so ingrained that I don’t even know I’m doing it.

My example for you is that I’m a very controlling person. I don’t let other people do things for me when I could do them myself, even if it means that I’m more stressed. I’m tremendously bad at trusting people and giving them free rein over things in which I’m involved.

This is something that I have learned from my depression and anxiety; it isn’t a fundamental part of who I am. It’s currently a part of who I am, though. And a pretty big one.

But I didn’t realise that until the last few years. This is in part because when I was more depressed, I couldn’t do much at all – so my controlling nature just manifested as refusing help most of the time. And there are plenty of reasons to refuse help.

Realising that this was not a part of me, and that I didn’t want to retain it (because yes, there are some things that depression taught me that I want to keep), was a huge step towards fixing it. So how did I then fix it?

2. Activity Around the Habits

Bad news. There’s no one way to fix it. Good news! There are lots of ways to fix it.

This is the stage where we’re thinking about things like CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy). Where mindfulness comes in. Where techniques that you can use to break thought patterns and such esoteric habits emerge. It can be anything from as simple as acknowledging the thought or behaviour to charting when you have it.

For me, starting to unlearn being controlling – because I definitely haven’t unlearned it yet – involved acknowledgement, and then a bit of a leap of faith. I’m trying to catch myself when I’m attempting to Do Everything, and then letting go a little of whatever it is I’m holding up.

Example: I do the vast majority of the housework. This isn’t because my fiancé is lazy or a stalwart representative of patriarchal household models. It’s because he goes out to work, and I single-handedly take on the burden of the cleaning. Because I don’t trust him to do it. For years he has asked ‘is there anything I can do’, and I’ve not allowed him to.

So in the past weeks, I’ve been answering that question. I’ve been actively asking him to do things. That’s the leap of faith; trusting someone to do something I could have done myself.

And the more I’ve done this with something trivial like the housework, the more I’ve been able to do it for other habits. I’ve even found that I’ve been more relaxed about the unexpected happening in roleplaying games, because I better trust the people I’m roleplaying with to create something fun.

Like many forms of training, a lot of this is just a case of rinsing and repeating. But there’s one other important thing that you have to apply.

3. Forgiveness of the Habits

Yes, this is a step unto itself. Yes, it needs to be.

We all have a very complex relationship with our mental illnesses. I think that’s a pretty safe thing to say unilaterally. I cannot conceive of a person who has experienced mental ill health and not experienced complicated feelings about it.

One of those complexities is, often, feeling like it’s our fault. Not necessarily that we caused this – though we can think that too – but that we exacerbated it, maintained it. That it is our fault that we didn’t fix the problems earlier, recover faster, that sort of thing. I feel like this constantly.

And I need to forgive myself for it.

I need to say: it’s okay. It’s okay that you behaved like this for so long. It was something you learned to try and cope with a terrible thing – with this illness. Even if you are so terrified of not being depressed that you’ve stayed entrenched in it for decades. It’s still not your fault. The fact that you are staying there is a symptom of the depression itself.

I forgive you.

Only by saying that to ourselves – and to each other – can we truly let go of the habits. Because until we acknowledge that they are not really ours, a part of ourselves will always cling to them. Habits are what we know, what we’re used to. We learned them to protect ourselves. We learned them to survive.

But we learned them because we were sick. Because they seemed like our only way through. And now we’re getting through, we don’t need them anymore.

The fighting is over. Put down your shields. I believe in you.

If you’re experiencing depression or think you might be, please reach out to someone for help. You can find great advice and resources here at Mind – or just Google for your local mental health charity.