Conceptualizations Hinder Overcoming Depression

January 4, 2024

Conceptualizations Hinder Overcoming Depression

Depression is often believed to be recurrent and chronic (although recent reports challenge this notion, which we'll explore in a future article). But why is depression so hard to beat? There are many reasons, but cognitively, the habit of 'conceptualization' can impede change. Let's delve into what 'conceptualization' means in this article.

What is Conceptualization?

Humans naturally seek cognitive shortcuts. Although many things in life are continuous, we tend to categorize them: white and black, femininity and masculinity, left and right. This is because our brains have evolved to work this way. Categorization helps us recognize things quickly and efficiently.

We do the same with ourselves through conceptualization or self-conceptualization. It involves forming a specific concept about oneself and viewing oneself within that framework. People with depression often hold a certain concept of themselves.

  • I'm someone who's failed in business.
  • I'm a divorced man.
  • I'm a patient with depression.

What seems like mere statements of fact can be problematic. Why? Let’s explore.

Why Is Conceptualization an Issue?

Consider the sentence and fill in the blank.

  • I am a __________ person.

Is the sentence always, perpetually true? Not quite. Saying 'I am X' doesn't reflect the whole picture, just like conceptualization doesn't encapsulate all of our realities. One might have experienced failure, divorce, or been diagnosed with depression, but the issue arises when we fuse these concepts too closely with our identity. Such fusion narrows our life’s scope and rigidifies psychologically, trimming the wings of change. It often goes like this:

  • I'm someone who's failed in business (therefore I avoid challenging ventures, right?)
  • I'm a divorced man (that's why I don't seek stable relationships, only fleeting ones, see?)
  • I'm a patient with depression (you know how life with depression goes, don't you?)

Conceptualization offers seemingly solid reasons for our current negative thoughts and emotions and excuses to stay rooted there. Studies suggest that people with depression often create negative self-concepts regarding themselves and their future, further entrenching depression and blocking the drive for change.

Conceptualization can act like a self-fulfilling prophecy. For instance, if you're fused with the thought "I am a patient with depression," you might reduce activity and become lethargic in bed, ultimately cutting off possibilities for positive experiences and indeed becoming 'depressed' in essence.

How to Avoid Conceptualization

Conceptualization might be based on facts of your life, and it's natural to have such thoughts, given your experiences. It's not your fault. However, what if these concepts are just psychological events? What if thoughts aren't the same as our identity? If we could see these emerging concepts as mere events and acknowledge our minds operate that way naturally, would we still be fused with them?

Avoiding conceptualization takes effort. First, we need to understand our thinking patterns and why we have them. This process may require the help of a cognitive therapist. Once we understand the ineffectiveness of conceptualization and practice noticing it, we can use tools like thought records. Writing a thought record helps us separate situations, thoughts, emotions, and behaviors, identify when we're conceptualizing, and the negative effects it could bring. Just being able to label our thoughts as 'conceptualization' can put some distance between us and this mental habit.

Experts often cite 'openness' as a critical factor for change. A flexible attitude open to all sorts of possibilities and thoughts makes hope easier to kindle. Hope, studies say, contributes almost as much to therapeutic outcomes as the therapy itself.

Recognizing and distancing ourselves from conceptualization fosters this openness, aiding us in the journey of change.


Zettle, R. D. (2007). ACT for depression: A clinician's guide to using acceptance and commitment therapy in treating depression. New Harbinger Publications.

Hayes, S. C. (2005). Get out of your mind and into your life. New Harbinger Publications.

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