Emma is one of the brightest of her generation of lawyers. She can anticipate the different interpretations of the evidence likely to be made by an opposing lawyer in a case, and she is very shrewd in her assessment of what motivates her client to tell his story in a particular way. In short, as a lawyer she knows that different people interpret events or circumstances in their own individual way. She knows too that individuals can choose to change how they interpret an event or a circumstance. Yet she doesn’t apply this knowledge to her own life. She lives in fear of her mother’s criticism, just as she has ever done since she was a child. Her friends tell her to stand up to her mother, and not to feel guilty when her mother complains, but Emma insists that she’s been like this since she was a small child and that she can’t change.
Emma learned about alternative interpretations as part of her legal training. She never studied human physiology, and so she has no idea where these alternative interpretations come from. She’s not alone in this. When I lecture to people who consider themselves to be very well educated and I start to explain why it is that no two people ever see anything in exactly the same way, many faces show puzzlement, even total disbelief. But I persist, because, if we don’t understand how human beings operate, how can we ever understand ourselves?
When we are born we don’t open our eyes and see the world. We open our eyes and begin to learn how to see the world. What we learn depends first on our environment, such as the kind of room we’re in when we’re learning how to see depth and distance. A baby in a rectangular room learns to structure space in terms of angles and parallel lines. A baby in a round room – a kraal or a yurt – learns to structure space in terms of curves. As the baby grows, the adults around her explain the world to her. Some babies learn to see the world as filled with spirits and gods. Some babies learn to see the world as a dangerous place, full of germs and other nasties. Lucky babies learn to see the world as a wonderful place, full of an infinite number of delightful possibilities. Our brain doesn’t allow us to see reality as it really is, whatever that may be. Instead, our brain constructs a picture of the world. This picture is drawn from our past experience. Since no two people ever have the same experience, no two people ever see anything in exactly the same way.
We’re always engaged in interpreting what is going on around us and to us. Interpretations are something we create, and so we can change them. We can’t always change what has happened to us, but we can always change how we interpret what happens to us. Always remember, what determines your behaviour isn’t what happens to you but how you interpret what happens to you.
Emma had learned to see her world as being dominated by her giant mother who demanded that Emma please her. She saw this picture of her world as an absolute reality, even though she was now a woman and her mother was getting smaller and gentler with age. To please her mother Emma had always striven to be good, and always felt guilty for not being good enough.
The world is full of Emmas, women who are experts in feeling guilty. They blame themselves for whatever disaster occurs, and so many are familiar with the prison of depression. The key to this prison, as it is to persistent unhappiness, is to inspect the ideas that dominate our life, and see them, not as fixities, but as ideas we can choose to change. Emma can decide to give up being frightened of her mother, and instead be fondly amused by her peculiarities. She can be good simply because it pleases her to be good. She needn’t live in fear of not being good enough. All Emma has to do is to recognise that she is free to change her ideas.
Dorothy Rowe Depression: The Way Out of Your Prison third edition, Routledge.