Am I Depressed, or Do I Just Suck?
It was on a cold Berkeley night when my housemate, who I consider one of my closest friends, and I sat on the floor having what I have come to know as a “feeling session.” We were both having a hard time at the moment, with school, with family, with the swirling thoughts in our heads, with what seemed like everything. She turned to me and said, “sometimes I wonder if I’m depressed or if I just suck.”
As someone struggling with depression since childhood, I understand what it is like to conflate depression with a personality. It can seem like the sadness is all you are and all you ever will be. So when my friend said this, my stomach dropped. Her words resonated with me because she had unknowingly dared to speak aloud the question that I so often wondered myself, “Is something wrong, or am I just not good enough?” That sort of thing.
When dealing with depression, it is easy to mistake depressive symptoms for one’s own shortcomings. When this becomes persistent, a person may come to develop overly critical self- appraisals. Imagine if every time you set out to do something, a voice was there in the back of your head saying, “try all you want, it will never be good enough.” When a person is relentlessly harsh on themselves like this, a huge toll is taken on the self-esteem, which can then further reinforce the habit of seeing themselves through a negative filter. You’re left stuck in a never ending and destructive circle of doubt and self-hatred.
Sometimes, it may feel as though you have no choice but to ask yourself in all sincerity, “Why am I like this?” This question is more than one of comic self-reflection. It is one that hints at disliking yourself, at truly wanting to know why you do things the way you do and at needing to interrogate your own nature as a person and why must it be so flawed. This question is also one that perfectly exemplifies Berkeley students’ unhealthy habit of rigid self-criticism.
For example, I needed only to scroll for about a minute on the iconic “UC Berkeley Memes for Edgy Teens” Facebook page before I hit the first meme about the “crippling depression” that resulted from Berkeley academic life. Another minute and I got to a meme about how one person longed to try out for the archery team, not as an archer, but as a target. The memes that are posted on pages like this and that are heavily circulated by students are incredibly relatable because we are all stressed students trying to meet Berkeley’s high standards for academic success. In all honesty, they are hilariously relatable. However, it is also important to take a step back and realize that they create a culture of self-deprecating humor. This humor has a few common themes such as our own self worth being based on one’s academic performance, and the sinking feeling of evaluating one’s performance as not good enough. The result is this: we as Berkeley students can look around and see that we are all sad and stressed, which is good because we do not feel alone in our suffering. However, at the same time, we are left hyper-aware of our poor state of mental health, but with no actual tools to combat it. So, how can you?
Maintaining one’s self-esteem and mental health is much more than just the catchall phrase of “self-care.” It is learning to monitor the way you think of yourself, learning to analyze one’s own thoughts and how to better act on them. Sometimes, this involves learning how to change the way a person thinks altogether. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, or CBT, is recognized by the American Psychological Association as learning to change “behavioral patterns” and “thinking patterns” by recognizing cognitive distortions.
Cognitive distortions are biases in the way we think that distort or warp our thoughts in a way that is often unfair to ourselves, or plainly illogical. According to David Burns, a professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at the Stanford University School of Medicine, there are ten patterns of cognitive distortions that are all too easy to fall into. I would like to go over a few that of these ten that I think Berkeley students are vulnerable to. As you read these, try and see if you can recognize yourself in any of them.
1. All-or-Nothing Thinking
All-or-Nothing Thinking is when anything that doesn’t go exactly according to plan is equated to an irredeemable failure. The workload of a Berkeley student can be plain overwhelming. Sometimes choices must be made such as opting to Pass/No Pass a class so that you can put all your focus on a class that is more important for your major, or maybe having to spend less time on extracurriculars just so you don’t fail. When faced with these tough decisions, you might be left feeling like a bad student because you could not manage to “have it all;” the good grades, the perfect amount of outside experience, etc. However, this kind of thinking unjustly discredits the incredible accomplishments that students often DO manage to achieve in their time at Berkeley. A person should not guilty for prioritizing the different parts of their workload accordingly; instead, they should realize that in prioritizing, they are ensuring that what needs to get done will get done.
You might be more familiar with the phrase “jumping to conclusions”. Failure might seem like something you have to get used to at Berkeley. For example, getting a bad quiz grade here, or a “less than what I expected” grade on a midterm there. Sometimes when these things happen, it is easy to feel certain that these single instances out of one’s entire academic career are accurate predictors of your final grade in a class, or maybe even your worth as a person. The thing about overgeneralizations is that they are conclusions we make when we get into panicked states of thinking. It is only natural to be concerned when you don’t perform optimally, but one failure does not have to determine your entire future. The power to change your study habits, learn from your mistakes, target your weaknesses, and change the game is always up to you. Don’t forget that.
3. Personalization and Blame
In this cognitive bias, a person believes he or she is the cause of something, even if the situation was not entirely in their control. The fact of the matter is that sometimes we do make mistakes and sometimes things do happen that we could not have foreseen. When these things happen, it is a much better use of one’s time and energy to learn from what happened, and make sure it does not happen again, rather than falling into despair and guilt, discouraging one from getting back up and trying again.
4. Emotional Reasoning
This is where a person believes that their emotions reflect the reality of a situation. Berkeley is home to some of the most incredibly gifted minds of our time, with lavishly accomplished professors, and students who you might see as simply too good to even try to compete with. In an environment like this, you might feel like everyone around you is more qualified, so you conclude that this must be a fact. But, as I’m sure you know, just because one might feel a certain way, doesn’t mean it’s true. Our emotions are not perfect reflections of reality because they are susceptible to logical fallacies. Feeling not good enough is perfectly valid and understandable under these competitive conditions, but that does not make you less than someone else. Everyone has their own strengths, everyone has come from different backgrounds, and everyone goes at their own pace. One person’s success does not determine your failure.
5. Mental Filter and Discounting the Positive
After being a Berkeley student for two years, I’ve come to realize that while I often take my losses to heart, I rarely do this with my wins. This is because of mental filter thinking, when a person focuses only on the negative and does not appreciate the positive. In a competitive place like Cal, it is important to learn not only how to take a loss, but also how to celebrate a victory. If you get an excellent grade on a paper, help a friend academically, or exceed your last midterm score in a class, allow yourself to take in that win and appreciate the hard work it took. Why do our losses resonate with us more than our wins? Because students tend to take them more personally. But it doesn’t have to be like that; you can learn to recognize when you have done something amazing
When a person falls into these types of thinking patterns, they tend to get stuck in them. Although these patterns are distorted by one's own insecurities and stress, they can easily become one’s reality and determine the way a person sees themselves. This is why one of our best defenses against depression is learning to recognize self-incriminating trains of thought. When we are able to put a name to our cognitive distortions, we can start to take away the power they have over us. We can stop and think “is this really how things are, or am I overgeneralizing?” Once we do this, we give ourselves the power to respond in a way that is fairer to ourselves and that more accurately reflects reality. That being said, this is by no means an easy feat, but it is not impossible either.
After only two years of Berkeley, I’ve had the pleasure of meeting some extraordinary people. People like my freshman roommate who as a sophomore is already done with the entire CS61 computer science course series, but who is also convinced no professor will help her do research, although I (and many others) consider her to be a computer science genius. People who were the best students from the towns they came from now feel like nobodies in a sea of other geniuses. It does not matter how undeniably talented a person is because, at the end of the day, everyone doubts themselves now and again. And that’s ok, so long as you know how to fight back and remember that your thoughts do not determine who you are. For a long time, I thought I was alone in my struggle with depression, but I now realize that many know exactly what I have gone through and that none of us are alone in it.
So on that night, my dear friend asked me “am I depressed, or do I just suck at being a person?” After a long pause I replied, “I think you’re somebody who is having a hard time right now, but that doesn’t mean it’s always going to be that way.”