Bipolar depression can make me feel like I am a failure. After sitting with this feeling so regularly, I began to recognize small steps that help the heaviness and negativity fall away and clear the lenses of my usual rose-colored glasses.
Bipolar Disorder & Feeling Like a Failure
I can sometimes feel like a complete and total waste of space. It seems to occur in a pattern or cycle, too. Since “failure” is such a repetitive experience for me, I figured I should find a better way to recover from it. And since I think it’s related to my bipolar disorder, I’d like to share my findings with you!
Here’s how the initial conversation in my head went:
Q: “What’s one thing I could do to feel better right now?” A: … [shrugs] … “Nothing. You can’t feel better.”
It wasn’t a very productive conversation.
What started out as my mission to find “some thing to do” to shake the feeling of failure … turned out to BE a failure: There is no one thing.
Ennui, depression, the sunken place—whatever you want to call it—is a thick glob of mud on our rose-tinted glasses. Sometimes, we just kinda have to sit there, blinded, for a moment while gravity pulls the mud back to the ground from whence it came.
Eventually, a teensy bit at a time, I began to feel better. And whenever I recognized that I was feeling even one degree better, I took note of any recent experiences that may have helped.
Here I share what strategies I learned, how I learned them, and what they mean to me.
How to Move 12 Degrees North of “Failure”
#1 Embrace Radical Acceptance.
For me, this means surrendering to reality. If I can let a (metaphorical) wave of reality wash over me (instead of fighting it), the sand and debris will settle, and I’ll be able to see more clearly. One thing that really helps me is this gem of a mantra from my friend’s dad: “Nothing is ever as good as it seems, and nothing is ever as bad as it seems.”
#2 Find Solitude.
It may sound counterintuitive (isolation is typically considered a negative symptom of bipolar depression), but taking a period of time to meditate or focus inward can really help. I’ve found it’s much easier to process all of the many thoughts and feelings and emotions if I’m not distracted or interrupted. Let it marinate.
#3 Lose Yourself.
Just allow your brain to zone out a little with some movies, games, or music. I know it may look like being “lazy” in some people’s eyes, but these activities are great for me because they keep one part of my brain busy while the other part is covertly processing things…. And I have receipts for this! When I explained to my psychiatrist that I had been just zoning out and playing games, he said, “Do you get new ideas while you are playing?” The answer was yes, and it made me realize that these kinds of activities can have an actual benefit sometimes.
#4 Learn about/from Indigenous Peoples.
Well … this is a pretty random idea, isn’t it? It may not be for everyone, but I’ve benefited from exploring video footage of uncontacted tribes from around the world. There’s some part of me that wonders, What if I had been born there? And, for some reason, that helps me “zoom out” of the deep, dark place I’m in.
I think if we can learn about a community of people who live in a remarkably different way than we do and then ask ourselves, “What are the similarities between us?” we can begin to reconnect with what it means to be “human.”
#5 Think in E-Prime.
E-Prime is a sub-language of English that excludes the verb “to be” and all of its forms; is, am, are, was, were, be, being, and been are not allowed. It’s a scientific way of thinking that strips out our own perceptions so we can isolate the bones of the matter. As an example, instead of thinking something this:
“My employer is ready to give up on me and I’m terrified I’ll lose my job.”
“This employer maintains certain standards, and performance below standards may result in termination. I fear my behavior falls below standard.”
Thinking about failure from an e-prime perspective helps me keep it at arm’s length. It helps me remember that things aren’t always what they seem.
#6 Fall Back on Mantras.
For me, it’s a good time to reflect on the phrases I know by heart: my mantras. “Remember yourself” is a particularly helpful one for me; it keeps me grounded in authenticity.
#7 Remember the Rules of Air Travel: Put on YOUR Mask Before Helping Others.
There are times when we need to place our full focus on self-reflection and self-development. It’s okay to take a time-out for emergency resuscitation of your spirit. I’m fortunate to have a support team in place that can cover my bases for me when I need a moment to put on my oxygen mask.
#8 Remember the “Golden Rule” of Bipolar: What Goes Up Must Come Down.
…Or is that a rule of physics? No matter—it seems to be true for both! With “bipolar brain chemistry,” we benefit from observing the inherent physics of our moods: for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. If you’re feeling down now, you can trust that you won’t feel that way forever.
#9 Listen to the Dalai Lama.
I’ve been checking out livestream talks given with the Dalai Lama, and listening to him is a first for me. I have come to like his teachings because the ideas are not exclusive to any religion; rather, he teaches common, core tenets upheld by all major religions. He uses logic and even science as a guide; this combo of thought + reason really lights me up and helps me feel connected. Some of the most uplifting messages have been:
Compassion is the basis of humanity;
Emotional hygiene is more important than physical hygiene; and
Education and compassion can bring world peace.
#10 Visit the Joyful Places—with Visualization.
If we’re going to be all pent-up in our own minds, we might as well be somewhere with a wonderful backdrop. When times get tough, I close my eyes and imagine climbing up into my own secret treehouse in the rainforest, where I feed and snuggle my pet koala. Yours doesn’t have to be that weird, though! Simply go somewhere in your mind that makes you feel comforted and safe, or check out some funny or inspiring sites/apps online for your own visualization guidelines and ideas.
#11 Practice Avoidance/Exposure.
If you’re like me, “avoidance” is no problem during low times. But after taking a bit of personal space from the stressors (see #7), it’s good to venture back into “exposure.” Make a small promise to yourself that you know you can keep—even if it’s something tiny, like, “I will close my eyes and take three calm breaths next time I begin to feel upset.” I don’t take on a lot, but I can choose to set a goal that I know is attainable. Doing this helps build my confidence, giving me some strength to move.
… I’m sorry. You didn’t want to hear that, I know. We can do a lot to manage our moods, but there’s not anything we can do to edit our inherent brain chemistry. Like it or not, our disorder causes major mood downswings when a certain cocktail of neurochemistry is present. And according to the definition of bipolar disorder, a down state is an episode—not a permanent state. I’m not sure whether time heals ALL wounds, but I have learned that having loads of patience with my own brain chemistry goes a long way.
So, I didn’t find one thing that catapults me right out of the feeling of failure that comes with an episode of bipolar depression.… But I did find twelve things that can bump me up one tiny degree at a time. And from that higher vantage point, I can usually see a way out.
Brooke Baron has a BA in English, a minor in philosophy, and a lifelong obsession with language. She is the author of A Beginner's Guide to Being Bipolar.
Although born and raised in Alabama, she has been a proud California resident for 10+ years. During a professional stint in Silicon Valley—in both the corporate and private business sectors—she handled internal and external communications, office design and construction, photography and graphic design, executive assistance, and functioning on very little sleep.
Brooke now specializes in "New Human Orientation" from her home in the suburbs. She has a young, loving, growing family of five and is fueled by that love and coffee.
In addition to caring for the rest of Team Baron, she enjoys writing, reading, researching miscellaneous topics, and funneling manic energy into creative projects. With so many balls in the air—including bipolar II disorder—balancing her life is like balancing two kangaroos on a see-saw. She offers consulting services for the bipolar community at Better Bipolar Balance.
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