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Change Your Social Context... Change Your Life

Cure Your Own Depression Arising from Social Dynamics

By Wendy Treynor, Ph.D.


When I was diagnosed with cancer, at age 29, I asked my mom to visit me for a special mother-daughter weekend. Heeding my request, she came and showered me with what felt like an unsurpassed level of attention — a degree of attention that I had craved all my life but never felt like I had received, up until that point.

Now, for the record, I have boxes of notes, postcards, and gifts that my mother sent or gave me from her outings and travels during my life, so there’s proof — hard evidence — that my mother showered me with oodles of love and attention. Perhaps I couldn’t feel the love, because I wanted a different kind of attention. I wanted to be with her. I wanted to be heard and understood, accepted and appreciated— invited out for special mother-daughter outings and trips — rather than be showered with the remnants — postcards and gifts — from outings and trips on which I had not been invited.

Perhaps part of my problem was that I had been born into a family — as a twin, no less — whose values coincided with my twin’s aptitudes, but not my own. My twin was “smart” (as judged by “A” grades, prestigious awards, and high SAT test scores), whereas I was creative, artistic, imaginative, and social. Given that my natural aptitudes were not valued by members of my social setting, I came to see myself as flawed. I kept aspiring to attain the unattainable — trying to be different than I am to win others’ approval, but to no avail — driving my self-worth lower and lower into the ground.

I carried this sense of defectiveness, worthlessness — this self-rejection — with me throughout most of my adult life, as I navigated myself into similarly critical social environments, which shared my mother’s values (which had become my own). Without awareness of what was happening, I interpreted—indeed, misinterpreted—my low self-worth as a reflection of the Absolute Truth of my unloveableness — as unassailable fact, instead of seeing it as the fiction it actually was — merely a byproduct of the subjective standards of my particular social environment, which I, through long-term contact with it, had internalized into my own self-standards, coming to devalue myself, also.

Emotionally, we may feel like the social group in whose context we generally find ourselves (what I call the everyday group) is the only group — ubiquitous, all-pervasive — but it’s not.

In a conflict-ridden environment, facing on-going, inescapable rejection, we come to internalize this rejection into self-rejection — and thereby experience rejection from both others and ourselves (i.e., we feel shame), fostering a sense of inescapable conflict, long-term, which can lead to depression (and perhaps suicide).

Based on my research and experience, I believe depression is the result of this ongoing self-rejection and social rejection (chronic internal and external conflict), and depression’s cure is simply to eliminate this conflict. Even though our social context may feel inescapable, it isn’t. We have to realize that we have a choice, and then actively choose or create the group with which we wish to locate and affiliate ourselves. Over time, we will adopt the standards of the group as our own. For optimal well-being, an unconditionally loving (accepting) group is the way to go, because over time, we’ll come to internalize this unconditional acceptance of ourselves into self-acceptance (thereby creating both social acceptance and self-acceptance).

If you can’t find an everyday group that unconditionally accepts you as you are, then become your own everyday group, your own source of unconditional love (emotional support), which for me and my clients translates into daily “clear mind” or meditative practice (in the morning, and breaks, throughout the day).

A long-term, sole contact with any group is likely to result in its becoming your reference group — the group whose standards you use as your own — because it’s your only reference point. If that group devalues you, it means you are coming to devalue yourself, also (unless, that is, you conform to its ways, thereby resolving your conflict — however, sometimes you can’t conform, as in the case of an amputee in a culture where everyone has, and values, having two legs and arms, or when conforming to a group’s standards means betraying yourself).

When innocent, well-meaning people are immersed in a toxic culture, people resolve their external conflict — emotional conflict — by conforming to these toxic social standards (trying to be as they are not), and as a consequence of conforming, this toxicity permeates the group, and potentially, society, at large. An identity-shift effect occurs when the threat of social rejection (external conflict) induces one to conform to (group) standards contrary to one’s conscience, but then as a result of conforming — betraying one’s conscience — self-rejection (internal conflict) arises, so that, in essence, one exchanges external conflict for internal conflict. Now one must undergo an identity shift — adopt the group’s values as one’s own — to end this internal conflict. By undergoing the identity shift effect, harmony is achieved but at the cost of losing one’s self.

To stake our sense of self-worth on the standards of any (conditionally loving) social group is misguided, and to regard it as a true indicator of our inherent value is delusion. Our value has nothing to do with our bank accounts; it has nothing to do with subjectivity or social group membership and everything to do with unchanging truth: The truth is that we’re all acceptable as we are. Stand alone in nature, or meditate, and you will know.

Viewed through this lens, now we understand our situation: We suffered because our self-approval was dependent on social approval. In contrast, through cancer, I discovered the solution: Disentangle this contingency of self-approval from social approval through meditative practice (contact with the non-social), thereby winning us self-acceptance regardless of social acceptance. The result is — the only true freedom I’ve found.

The solution for us, as individuals, is to gather the courage to exit toxic social environments and join or create an unconditionally accepting environment that accepts us as we are. In time, as more and more of us defect from these toxic social settings, not only will we come to know, accept, and love ourselves but also, rather than find ourselves alone, we will find ourselves among likeminded others, together creating an unconditionally accepting social context that supports human thriving.

Dr. Wendy Treynor is a wisdom keeper on how the peer pressure process works; former UCLA Visiting Scholar; social scientist with Ph.D. from Univ. of Michigan, Ann Arbor; social psychologist who bridges social science and spirit; international speaker; author; creator of Healing Consulting, ICan Heal.org, and  ICan Heal.TV. This article is excerpted and adapted from her new book, The Gift of Cancer: Turn Your Tragedy into a Treasure… A Treasure Map to Happiness! available at http://www.GiftofCancer.com The first 50 people who respond to  this article, will receive a free copy of her new book in return for writing an honest review of it on AMAZON! To contact Dr. Wendy for free book, consultation, or to speak to your group, call (310) YES-LOVE, or e-mail DrWendy@ICanHeal.com