My little book Froth and Goblets depicts a story of the Princess Naomi, daughter of the Sultan, Salazar, and how she has her burden of depression eased by the ministration of a Buddhist sage. I won’t have the opportunity in this short article to describe all the techniques he used to alleviate the Princess’s suffering. However it is useful to examine the various strategies that her father was involved in to help in this regard.
But first we must set the scene and have you understand some of the context of the story. Naomi is an only child. Her mother apparently suffered from depression as well. Her mother’s approval of Naomi appeared to be conditional. She reserved her expressions of affection to those times when Naomi was “good” (ie meeting the behavioural expectations of her mother). And consequently Naomi learned to be a “good” little girl and she felt guilt whenever she could not meet her mother’s expectations. But then, when she was quite young her mother died, leaving her in the sole care of her father. Her father loved her dearly but because of his busyness in attending to the affairs of state, found it difficult to spend time with his daughter. When she was young, Naomi seemed to be a very serious and stoic young girl. But then in her teenage years (which is quite often the case with those so disposed) she began to manifest the symptoms of depression. And of course living a cloistered life in the palace, Naomi was sheltered from many of the trials of the world and had her every physical need met.
So let us examine some of the underlying issues here. It is likely because of her mother’s history, that Naomi had some underlying genetic disposition towards depression. But there are also likely to be learned behaviours here as well. As usual it is hard to separate the two. Most of us would feel comfortable with the fact that our genes might dispose us towards depression. Many however will find it difficult to accept that some of the manifestations of depression may indeed be learned. However, if you have someone as significant as a parent who demonstrates such behaviours to you in your formative years, then surely it is likely that you might assimilate some of those into your own behavioural repertoire. If you have a fragile sense of self, need to be acknowledged, and given affection, and you have a significant role model that exhibits depression and that results in people paying a lot of attention to them, then it is quite probable that you might unconsciously add that behaviour to your repertoire as well.
Now don’t get me wrong. I am not proposing that those afflicted with depression are merely consciously and deliberately seeking attention. But I am suggesting that if they manifest such behaviour and it is reinforced by the attention and approval that is craved, then that behaviour will be reinforced.
And of course someone like Naomi, who lives in a cloistered environment, where her every physical need is met, becomes very vulnerable. I would recommend that you read Anne Deveson’s book Resilience. She maintains that resilience is not innate but is carved out of our life experience. To gain resilience we need to confront adversity in our lives. An overprotective parent can compromise the acquisition of resilience by limiting exposure to life’s normal problems and exigencies. Professor Gordon Parker, a renowned Australian psychiatrist believes, “Parental overprotection is not care, nor is it an excess of care. The more pathogenic version is actually low in care, and more a cold, controlling style. There appear to be few advantages to overprotection and, in fact, more disadvantages.”
Well, understanding all this, what did the Sultan do to help Naomi deal with her depression.
The first response is the most difficult. When someone suffers from depression our natural response is to comfort and indulge them. But of course such a response just serves to reinforce that behaviour. My Buddhist sage, Augustus, advised the Sultan not to encourage Naomi’s depressive behaviour but to reward her behaviour when she was positive and happy – not that he should ignore her when she was depressed, but to lavish attention on her when she was positive and happy.
And of course the Sultan had a significant carrot. In the end Naomi’s greatest desire was just to spend more time with her father. He used that incentive wisely and began to spend more time with her as a reward for her when she had a positive attitude. They spent more and more time together which they both enjoyed and provided an incentive to Naomi to show more positive behaviours. Before, she had unconsciously learned that she would get his attention by being sad, tearful and avoiding engaging with the world.
But another significant intervention was to get her out of her cloistered environment. With her father’s permission Augustus took the Princess out into the city where there were many poor and suffering folk. This surprised her. She did not know that there were people out there who starved and struggled daily to survive. This opened the door to the Princess’s natural altruism. One of the features of those who are depressed is that they are self-obsessed – not in a narcissistic way, but in a self-denigrating way.
My good friend Dr Phil Harker has always taught that the way to psychological adjustment is that first we have to know ourselves, then we have to accept ourselves, but finally we have to forget ourselves. Altruism certainly helps us to forget ourselves. (Matthieu Ricard in his wonderful book Happiness explains that altruism provides benefits not only for the recipient of altruism but just as importantly to the giver of altruism.) When our concerns are focussed on others we naturally turn our attention away from ourselves.
Consequently I would make the following recommendations to parents:
1. Seek opportunities to positively reinforce the desired behaviours of your child.
2. Encourage your child to be concerned for others. This reduces their tendency to be self-obsessed.
3. Love your child unconditionally. Your love should not need to be earned. If your child knows this they won’t have to indulge in artificial contrivances to gain your affection.
4. Don’t be over-protective because this will reduce the resilience of your child and make discourse with the real world difficult for them to cope with.
Let me end by saying that this is not an infallible prescription for alleviating depression. Some of those suffering depression have pathology that is beyond this simple prescription to assist and they may indeed find benefits from drugs. But I can assure you no one will be harmed by my recommendations and I am convinced that many might benefit.