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How Depression Informs Our Political Choices

Did the people of Massachusetts know anything of substance about the Republican candidate besides his high mileage truck and appearance in Cosmopolitan?
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This week's election of a Republican senator in Massachusetts has been widely characterized as a symbol of the anger and disappointment the public feels with the government. The public is so disenchanted with the status quo that somebody new--anybody new--so it seems, will be better than what we have. This was the same wish for a miracle we had when we elected Barack Obama and fully expected that his calm demeanor and superior intellect would make him the savior President.

Did the people of Massachusetts know anything of substance about the Republican candidate besides his high mileage truck and appearance in Cosmopolitan? Similarly, did people know anything of substance about Sarah Palin before committing to her heart and soul as the new savior of the party? What is this willingness to attach to someone virtually unknown on the mere basis of a hopeful expectation that this person can rescue us from our worry and distress?

I'm using political examples to make a larger point. Americans are getting angrier and angrier, the conversations both public and private are getting more heated and crude, and people have yet to realize that they are fueling much (not all) of their own anger and discontent by having such superficial styles of assessing people and by having such incredibly unrealistic expectations. I know, because I have been studying the phenomenon of depression in people for more than 30 years. Depression is so often a result of our unsatisfying and even destructive relationships with others. When we trust the wrong people, attach ourselves emotionally to people who can't (or won't) provide us with what we want, and when we are disappointed or even abandoned by people we look to for comfort, depression is a reliable consequence.

Collectively as a people, our expectations keep rising along with our hopes that we will be saved by that person whose image is so enticing. But, responding to someone's image, not his or her substance, is a formula for disaster, and we keep making that same mistake over and over again. We do it with our politicians, and we even do it with the people we date or marry. By the time you find out who this person really is, you may already have been sucked in too far to extricate yourself without lots of additional pain.

What single factor most determines your degree of satisfaction with your relationships, whether it's your relationships with your government or your relationship with your kids, friends and neighbors? What single factor most influences how you gauge whether your relationship with someone is good or bad, healthy or unhealthy, worthwhile or a waste of time? The answer: Your expectations. When you have unrealistic expectations of other people, you are at high risk for getting hurt, disappointed and depressed. It's easiest, perhaps even reflexive, to blame them and self-righteously say, "That person let me down." And, maybe that person did let you down. But, it's at least as likely that you let yourself down by having unrealistic expectations to begin with. On one level, I'm talking about your expectations of others, but on another level, I'm really talking about you - the degree to which you are aware of what your expectations are and how well you can determine whether your expectations for others- and for yourself- are realistic. If they're not, you can suffer repeated disappointments and hurts in your relationships, and these can be painful enough to lead to frustration, anger, disillusionment - and depression.

Is it realistic to think one person, even a President, can singlehandedly change the cumbersome machinery of government, especially in the span of his first year? Just how long does it take to transform a wieldy institution like government? Peoples' impatience, fueled by unrealistic expectations, keeps them miserable. Is it realistic to believe that somebody merely spouting off either conservative or liberal values is sufficiently prepared for a position of leadership? The new guy from Massachusetts hasn't had to do a thing yet, and some people are already asking about his presidential aspirations. There are plenty of people who think Sarah Palin is ready to be president despite knowing next to nothing about her true depth of knowledge or character. They just like how she looks and sounds. How much information and detail do you need before you can have a realistic, not idealistic, understanding of someone?

This is how peoples' poorly informed and therefore unrealistic expectations fuel their anger and discontent. Before you get angry, it would be great if you could sit down quietly for awhile and ask yourself what you expect, how you know whether your expectations are realistic, and whether you need much more information before you get too attached to your ideas about how you think things "should" be. You'll get much further dealing skillfully with how things really are when you catch yourself wrapped up in the "shoulds."