Life Beyond Depression: The Possibilities of Moving on From Victim to Survivor – Dr. Rebecca Wang-Harris

    The two most difficult characteristics of depression affecting self concept are lack of motivation and overwhelming self-doubt.  Depression is absolutely a frightening path to follow in life, yet one’s perception can shift from feeling like a helpless and hopeless victim to being a resilient and wise survivor, who educates oneself about treatment options and utilizes social supports when needed.  Being a survivor of depression involves accepting one’s depression as a challenge which can be overcome and not a stigma to fear or which must be hidden from oneself and others.  To clarify the process of moving on from victim to survivor, one must visualize how each symptom can be transformed into new and extremely empowering personality strengths.  For instance, the lack of motivation can be replaced with the development and utilization of specific daily behaviors in the workplace and in one’s personal tasks and relationships, and the self-doubt can be replaced with realistic, self-affirming thoughts.  


    Do not think that this process is easy.  It requires a deep searching into one’s self concept and life experiences.  Depression cannot be managed until a person understands how it developed.  This process requires effort and assistance from a mental health professional or other supportive people.  Depression should not be viewed as a life sentence.  Rather, it should be viewed as part of one’s life path and a valuable project with the outcome of increased acceptance of the self and the painful circumstances which created the depression.  A person may have been severely victimized by other people, by loss, and by other external circumstances.  You cannot control many distressing life events, but you can, at every second of your life, control your thoughts and behaviors related to any life event.  This is a skill which can be learned.  A person’s self concept may fluctuate in performing this skill successfully.  All that you can do is to try your best, and sometimes your best may waver.  The key to moving on from being a victim to a survivor of depression is to perceive depression as a part of you which requires effort to manage, similar to someone who has a physical mobility problem and must learn gradually how to walk again.



     An individual’s possible self can be understood as the future-oriented component of a person’s self-concept.  It is a hypothetical image of what one hopes to become or what one fears becoming in life.  One’s possible self is an inner cognitive and emotional guiding force which can be a protective factor in the face of adverse life circumstances.  When a person is coping with symptoms of depression, the visualization of one’s possible self can provide a goal-oriented path and a sense of hope, which is a vital source of strength and which can supplement a person’s medication regimen, if that is a chosen treatment method.  A person may require medication to balance brain neurotransmitters as the first step to developing a more stable possible self, but then it is necessary to begin a self-exploration process to fully understand one’s insecurities, weaknesses, and, perhaps, traumatic experiences.  

    Every person has disturbing thoughts and memories, but one’s brain can tap into available self-knowledge.  This means that you are capable of accessing information which can be confronted, revised, and resolved.  You can learn to transform or accept any thought or behavior which is causing your depression.  Yes, some people certainly have genetically produced depression, which exists without any causal life events.  In this case, a medication management plan is recommended but must be supplemented with the knowledge and utilization of effective daily coping behaviors.  In the case of genetic depression, it is even more vital to participate in mental health therapy to acknowledge and work through the effects of growing up in a family characterized by depression.  

    Depression causes a person to feel out-of-control in one’s daily actions and thought processes, and this, in turn, perpetuates the cycle of the self concept of helplessness and hopelessness.  Until a person learns how to recognize these debilitating actions and thought processes, one will remain in this cycle.  When in the cycle of depression, a person engages in a comparison process of who one is and who one is not or who one should be.  When many discrepancies exist within the self, a person can experience sadness, guilt, shame, regret, anger, and anxiety.  For example, a young adult may experience a discrepancy between what one had envisioned regarding work, relationships, and one’s own identity and what is actually occurring.



     I am emphasizing the importance of self concept and self-regulation, because it provides a valuable sense of control and consistency to one’s daily life.  Self-regulation also allows a person to let go of self-doubt and to improve one’s mood, because it requires a person to create, to monitor, and to adhere to a daily schedule of behavioral goals and emotion management techniques.  These accomplishments are small steps toward greater stability.  Depression causes a person to feel very unstable and vulnerable.  A daily behavioral schedule is key to remaining focused on the path to surviving depression.  Depression also often causes a state of ambiguity and confusion, and a primary goal of therapy is to teach the skills needed to regulate one’s negative thoughts and behaviors.  

    There will certainly be setbacks in functioning, due to these negative thoughts and behaviors, but these are moments to work through during therapy, through journaling, or through taking the time to self-reflect.  Self-regulation is an ongoing process which can help a person to become or avoid specific images of the self in the present or future. Even with the use of medication, those who have a genetic predisposition to depression have often reacted more emotionally to life experiences and may still have difficulty with the self-regulation of emotions in relationships and when enduring stressful events.

    While medication manages one’s daily moods and brain chemistry, this is only part of the big picture of a person’s functioning.  Medication can be the first step in helping a person to pursue one’s desired goals and to try to avoid feared negative outcomes.  A monitored medication regimen can be an effective and empowering path which helps an individual to conduct daily future-oriented actions, such as adhering to a budget, following a nutrition plan, exercising, and completing necessary academic or work tasks.  



    When a person becomes stabilized on a medication regimen, the essential next step is to assist this person in defining, envisioning, and actively working toward one’s possible self as a depression survivor.  This perspective must not be viewed simply as a type of positive thinking.  On the contrary, the commitment to and achievement of one’s possible self as a depression survivor can be a very complicated process, in that it requires a thorough processing of a person’s painful experiences and fears.  This process must occur concurrently with the exploration of life goals, values, and unfulfilled needs. 


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