Aaron Beck speaks of the so-called “cognitive triad of depression.” According to Linda Solie, these three are “a negative view of themselves, a negative view of life around them, and a negative view of the future.” We might call this the unholy trinity of identity and self worth.
Lets take a moment to develop these a bit.
The Unholy Trinity of Depression
1. Negative view of self — you possess somewhere between a subtle nagging doubt about yourself up to a full-blown sense of worthlessness (or anything in between). This is usually closely connected with a sense of isolation in relationships, even if you have many friends and acquaintances. No matter how many people like you and spend time with you, you ultimately doubt it is genuine and are waiting for the shoe to drop
2. Negative view of life — Life for you is mostly a bad thing. If you are asked to describe life, it is mostly made up of misfortune, even if it is just cloudy outside. It is not something you enjoy.
3. Negative view of the future — You do not have hope. This one is very important because the negative view of the future is a doubt in God’s care for you in the future. The future looks dark and shadowy, uncertain and perhaps frightening.
A Fragile Self Worth
On the other hand, these have their unhealthy twin sister. I will call this the cognitive triad of narcissism (my term). Narcissists tend to have an unrealistically positive view of themselves, life around them, and the future (or at least that is how they intend to sound). But most of the time this is forced. But here is an important caveat. The Narcissist tends to have a positive, if not unrealistically high view of self. So here they are: (1) Positive view of self — I am happy with self as long as life’s circumstances are affirming. The narcissist lives to ensure such circumstances. (2) Positive view of life — Life is positive and exhilarating for this person because her life circumstances provide such. Without this there can be a sudden downturn in morale. (3) Positive view of the future — This person has a positive view of the future as long as current circumstances (reputation, job, etc.) is currently good.
This seems a positive outlook on the surface. The problem is that it is based on circumstances. The narcissist view is always a “false-positive.” It comes from temporal things, which are uncertain—always changing. You may have a nice job today; you may be unemployed tomorrow. You may be happily married today; you may be alone tomorrow. You may be healthy today; you may be dying tomorrow.
A positive view of self that is based upon circumstances is frighteningly unstable. When our circumstances take a turn for the worse (and they always will) the glass house we live in shatters around us, emotionally cutting us to pieces among the shards. When your world comes crashing in, this of course usually leads us to the first three, a negative view of self, life, and the future. Then we melt down.
The Things That Fail Us
Things like our income, accomplishments, possessions, and reputation are not what should prop us up. Since these things are fragile, it makes our state of mind fragile as well. Augustine said: “[I]t is gratifying to be held in esteem by men…” But then he continues,
“All these things and their like can be occasions of sin because good though they are, they are of the lowest order of good, and if we are too much tempted by them we abandon the higher and better things, your truth, your law, and you yourself, O Lord our God.”
God has made all the good things in the world, but when they are allowed to eclipse the maker, we set ourselves up for disappointment.
A woman may value herself because she is physically beautiful. But what if she is burned over 70% of her body with permanent scarring? If her identity and self-worth are rooted in her beauty, it will come crashing down with it. A false Gospel has set her up for betrayal. Someday all of us wont’ be attractive, won’t be happy with our current circumstances, and will not have a positive earthly future. Be can all have a positive heavenly future!
We should also not miss that most of us do not fall on one side of the aisle or the other. Rather we are usually oscillating back and forth between a negative and positive view of life, and this is usually based purely on our current circumstances. When our circumstances are decent, then we have a really positive outlook on life. In such times we are even more positive and generous to others. Then our circumstances change and plunge us into mild depression and sulking. For many, mood and outlook may change throughout a day, like a roller coaster of emotion. That is no way to live, constantly a slave to how things are going in the moment.
God wants to give us a future of hope and substance. The Gospel gives us all three: A positive view of self, of life, and hope for the future.