Fake It Till You Make it. I Can’t!

How I failed to push my depression away with positive thoughts


I was in my therapist’s office. She had just spritzed me with aromatherapy scents, and my nose was filled with the smell of strange herbs and spices. I was crying.

“Form follows thought,” she had told me in my first session. I tried to believe her. I did.

She asked me to picture a beautiful energy above my head, floating, gorgeous and nourishing. She asked me to open my chakras one by one to let that energy in.

Nothing happened.

I had hit an internal wall, numbed by depression and then by the medication to treat that depression. Frustrated, I continued to weep.

“Form follows thought,” she had said.

The neural pathways in my brain just needed to be rewired. My thoughts would change, and my body, my illness, would follow. There is science to this, my therapist assured me. If I practiced letting in good energy, it would be easier to do later.

Form follows thought.

Still, nothing.

In my many years of therapy to treat depression and anxiety, I had never had a session quite like this. I had tried talk therapy, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, mindfulness meditation, and “gamifying” my life with apps like Habitica, SuperBetter, Recovery Record, and Booster Buddy. I tracked moods and meals like some people battle clans and crush candy. All of the things I tried had hard science backing them, and none of them required me to smell like sage, or to sit on a couch with my spine straight as someone touched my chakras to help them open like beautiful lotus flowers.

Nonetheless, form certainly followed thought in CBT. Why couldn’t it be true of spiritual energy as well?

There is no question that positive or negative thoughts can have a profound impact on the way we feel and behave. I had learned that through action: I filled out worksheets to catch my own cognitive distortions and train myself to change them to better reflect reality. The thought “no one loves me,” for example, was challenged, then met with contrary evidence. If “no one” loved me, why did a friend say X or Y? Why did a parent or guardian do Z? Why does a partner continue to show support? Therefore “no one loves me” became “I am loved.” That thought was accurate, complete, and balanced. It was all very scientific and exhaustive.

This however, was something else entirely. I was being asked to visualize the universe as particles of energy, some of which were apparently nourishing to those who could make their head-lotus bloom. As the therapist worked her way down to the chakras at the base of my spine, my mind drifted.

Form follows thought, I remembered.

What if I just told myself, the lifelong atheist and hardcore skeptic, that I could do this? That I was good? That I deserved positive energy as much as the next person?

I couldn’t. I had to believe it on some level to say it to myself, and I couldn’t do it. Like affirmations, which seem to work for those who have higher self-esteem to begin with, but “backfire” for people who have low self-esteem, I could not abide this chakra nonsense. I could admire it in other people, certainly. I just couldn’t do it for myself.

I pictured, instead of a lotus, a cactus bloom. I am prickly and resilient, I reasoned. Cacti produce flowers. I pictured my cactus flower absorbing the energy of the sun. I told myself I deserved and that I was of worth. My mind responded with silence.

Before one can look into a mirror surrounded by sticky notes on which they have scribbled “you are beautiful” or “you are loved,” one has to consider whether they really believe what they’ve written. In CBT, a thought must be accurate, complete and balanced to be believed. While I was supposed to be basking in spiritual goodness, I was picturing a desert cactus gathering strength in its own way.

Back in my therapist’s office, my sobs quietened. The session was nearly over, and all I had accomplished was smelling nice and feeling stupid. My therapist asked me to describe what I had felt, but I couldn’t admit that something in me, whether it was my skeptic brain or my medication-numbed body, had failed. I smiled at her, told her what she wanted to hear, and then I left.

In a strange way, form had followed thought this time. I thought I was a spiritual dead end, and then, just like that, I was.