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Half-Empty Heart: A Supportive Guide to Breking Free from Chronic Discontent
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Half-Empty Heart: A Supportive Guide to Breking Free from Chronic Discontent

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by Alan Downs

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Finally, help for the millions of people suffering from low-grade depression, also known as dysthymia or chronic discontent.

Frustrated. Irritable. Discouraged. Fed up. These are among the feelings experienced by millions of people suffering from low-grade depression. Often erroneaously attributed to a negative attitude or laziness, this common condition saps


Finally, help for the millions of people suffering from low-grade depression, also known as dysthymia or chronic discontent.

Frustrated. Irritable. Discouraged. Fed up. These are among the feelings experienced by millions of people suffering from low-grade depression. Often erroneaously attributed to a negative attitude or laziness, this common condition saps feelings of happiness, contentment, and passion, and frequently goes undiagnosed.

The Half-Empty Heart is a powerful and practical book that explains how the condition takes hold--and presents simple yet profound ways to overcome it for good. Using anecdotes from his private practice as well as quizzes, checklists, exercises, and a complete five-week plan for achieving lasting results, clinical psychologist Alan Downs, Ph.D., shines light into the dark corners of this isolating and debilitating condition.

You can feel good again. The Half-Empty Heart shows the way.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

“It will speak loudly to those who have tried in vain to be happy.” —Library Journal
Publishers Weekly
Downs, a clinical psychologist and author (Why Does This Keep Happening to Me?), discusses the increasingly common low-grade depression known as dysthymia. Symptoms of this problem include constant disappointment, lack of motivation and feelings of hopelessness. Downs offers many brief case studies of people suffering from dysthymia, as well as descriptions of this condition. For example: "The block we create to emotional flow is best described as emotional dishonesty. Emotional dishonesty ranges from simply hiding our true feelings from others to actively falsifying our feelings in ways that may be more acceptable and less confrontational.... We hide our true feelings from other people when those feelings aren't convenient or might be uncomfortable." Downs does a first-rate job of explaining how "chronic discontent" can develop and how it affects relationships with friends and family. The last part of the book is a five-week program designed to help people change their lives and conquer some of their symptoms. The center of his cure is a series of writing exercises (focusing on keeping a journal of feelings and recollections), and while this may not address everything sufferers may need to know, it is a solid effort to help them get on their way. (Feb.) Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
Clinical psychologist Downs used to suffer from chronic discontent, also known as dysthymia and low-grade depression, whose symptons include lack of motivation, constant disappointment, and irritability. Noting that it is "more than just a bad attitude it is a serious condition that prevents you from experiencing much fulfillment and happiness," he outlines a five-step plan that purports to "cure" it by building emotional honesty. The early life experiences of many affected individuals inadvertently cause a dysfunction in handling emotions, resulting in emotional withdrawal, he says. Although at times presumptuous (e.g., "What you really want are relationships that are emotionally open and honest"), the book skips along energetically and convincingly and effectively uses real-life examples. It will speak loudly to those who have tried in vain to be happy. Recommended. Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.

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St. Martin's Press
Publication date:
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First Edition
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5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.58(d)

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Read an Excerpt

The Half-Empty Heart

By Alan Downs


Copyright © 2003 Alan Downs, Ph.D.
All right reserved.

Chapter One

Why Does the Happiness Never Seem to Last?

* * *

You took the job. It felt good. But that was six months ago, and now it feels like the same old humdrum.

You married your sweetheart, and you thought life couldn't get any better. Now, you're not sure what you feel-or even if you want to be married.

You worked nights to get your nursing degree-it took you almost 8 years to do it, but you graduated with honors. Now, after a few years on the job, nursing isn't what you thought it would be. What now?

You built your dream house and included in it everything you've ever dreamed of having in a home. Now, a year later, you're thinking about selling it.

You find yourself weary with the humdrum of everyday life and often feel apathetic about things that you know should mean more to you. You try to spice up your life with new experiences, but you always seem to be in the same endless cycle of frustration and disappointment.

"What is wrong with me?" you ask yourself. "Why can't I be happy with my life? Why am I frustrated and disappointed with the way things have turned out?"

If this is you, you're not crazy. Chances are, you're struggling with a psychological condition that blocks you from feeling satisfaction and lasting happiness in your life. The condition is chronic discontent, and it is more common than you think.

Chronic discontent is one of our society's most widespread and devastating psychological disabilities. It is a slow and persistent condition that may exist for years, all the while eating away at your quality of life without causing any acute symptoms. Then, after years of slowly sabotaging your happiness and overwhelming you with continuous frustration, it can even turn into the more serious condition of major depression.

Chronic discontent isn't simply a matter of negative thinking or being ungrateful. If you've suffered with it, you've probably spent a great deal of time beating yourself up for not "picking yourself up" and "being more positive." Maybe you've tried, like I did, all the self-help techniques-using positive affirmations and visualizations, gratitude journals, and meditations to change your attitude. None of it worked for long, right? That's because what you're struggling with is more than just a bad attitude about life-it is a serious condition that prevents you from experiencing much fulfillment or happiness.

You're not a loser. You're not mentally unstable. You're not a disgruntled whiner. But you are suffering from a condition that, if it is left untreated, can develop into a more serious psychological problem. No matter how strong an individual you might be, no one can endure the kind of continuous frustration you've known without it taking a serious toll on their life and well-being.

Tom is the CEO of his own company. After years of being a traveling salesman for a software company, Tom saw a need for computer programs that would help traveling salesmen manage their businesses. He eventually left his employer and started his own company. Today, his company employs 300 people and is one of the largest in the field.

Even though it might look to you and me as if Tom is very successful, Tom sees himself as a struggling businessman always on the verge of disaster. He works long hours, and is always on the lookout for potential crises. Most of the time his mind is totally consumed with worries about the company and its future. He pushes his staff relentlessly for more sales, higher revenue, and bigger profits.

The way Tom sees his life is that he hasn't yet "made it." When he attends conferences with other business leaders, he only sees what he hasn't yet achieved. His company hasn't earned $100 million in annual revenue. He doesn't fly on a company-owned private jet. He doesn't own homes in Aspen, the South of France, and all the other places where other CEOs own expensive real estate.

OK, so it's kind of hard to feel sorry for Tom, right? After all, if you and I had everything Tom has, we'd surely be happy. Surely.

But we wouldn't. Whether you're a CEO, a substitute teacher, a checker at the grocery store, or a stay-at-home mom, it really doesn't matter. Whatever you have or accomplish, it will always feel like less than it should when you suffer from chronic discontent. The cycle of disappointment consumes everything and colors it with frustration. Every idea that is tried, every activity ... virtually everything disappoints you.

Clinically, chronic discontent is diagnosed as dysthymia or a persistent, low-to-moderate form of depression. While it is a form of depression, it looks and feels very different from what you might typically think of depression. In fact, many people with chronic discontent (which I will refer to throughout this book as CD) suffer for years without knowing what it is that is diminishing their enjoyment of life.

Only recently has research shown that there is help for chronic discontent. Until now, CDers, who didn't seem to consistently respond to medication (including the popular SSRIs like Prozac) or psychotherapy, were the bane of the mental health profession. Chronic discontent was considered so difficult and frustrating to treat that many psychotherapists wouldn't agree to see a client with it. All this frustration and the lack of effective treatments led some mental health professionals to give us derogatory labels, like "the worried well" and "neurotic cranks."

Because CD can be progressive, most people with chronic discontent don't get help until they develop a full-blown case of major depression (a distinct loss of energy, inability to concentrate, extreme weight loss or gain, hopelessness and despair, long periods of sadness and crying, etc.). Because major depression is quite treatable with a combination of medication and psychotherapy, these patients would get help and could eventually get back to normal. The problem is, normal for a person with chronic discontent isn't the normal experience of other people. It is a normal that is filled with ongoing disappointment and frustration. We are able to get through the day and function at work and home, but it is more of a struggle than it is for other people.

When someone with chronic discontent goes on to develop an instance of major depression, the technical term is "double depression." I think that term really sums up the experience-it's misery times two. The everyday experience of frustration and weariness suddenly descends into a dark cavern of hopelessness and despair. Chronic discontent that goes untreated for years often develops into a case of recurring double depression. In fact, research strongly indicates that untreated chronic discontent is the strongest indicator of your predisposition to experience numerous major depressions in your life.

In recent years, there has been a growing interest and body of research into methods of treating chronic discontent. The research occurs under various labels, with "chronic depression" and "dysthymia" the most common. More and more, there is a realization among psychotherapists that chronic discontent is a very real and widespread problem, and furthermore, that it is treatable.

As a mental health professional and former sufferer of chronic discontent, I want to share in this book what I've discovered. After finding help myself and making an exhaustive search of available research, I decided to write a book that provides useful tools in an easy-to-understand format. Virtually everything that is written on the subject of chronic discontent (chronic depression, dysthymia) is written for an academic/ professional audience in language that is difficult to understand, much less relate to your life. I wanted to write a different kind of book on the subject.

By the time you finish this book you will have all the tools you need to do the work of breaking the cycle of chronic discontent and finding some lasting contentment. It will take work and some patience, but you will find the relief you need. You can overcome chronic discontent.

What Is Chronic Discontent?

To start, let's take a closer look at just what is chronic discontent.

Do you find yourself repeatedly enthusiastic about something new in your life, only to discover that in time you completely lose the excitement and joy you once felt for it? Do you find yourself constantly looking for something else that might make you happy and fulfilled? Do you find yourself frequently bored and making changes in your life just to jump-start a better mood? Do you see yourself occasionally exploding over a small, insignificant thing that has somehow enraged you?

People with chronic discontent are often in start-up mode-first feeling good about something, but discovering that the feeling usually fades to frustration or apathy. So you start another project, relationship, job, trip, family-you name it-in search of a meaningful feeling that lasts. After repeated false starts and letdowns, you become increasingly discouraged and cynical.

Most of the time, CDers are stressed, frazzled, and frequently irritable. They feel overwhelmed and fed up. Life has become too demanding for them, and they always seem to be just one step over their limit. They bark at their children; they snap at their mates. In short, they rarely have fun.

It's not that they want to be this way, either. Anyone who has experienced chronic discontent will tell you how guilty and ashamed they often feel for overreacting to small, insignificant things. Or how much they dislike themselves for being irritable. They often long to be like other people, who seem to be more carefree and fun loving.

Here are a few of the people you may recognize who suffer from chronic discontent:

John, a 30-year-old father of three, was always starting something. One month he'd join the gym and buy all the workout paraphernalia that goes with it, only to have it stuffed in a closet a month or two later, rarely to be used again. Then he'd become obsessed with finding and buying the latest high-tech gadget that would keep his attention for a few weeks before it, too, landed in the closet. It seemed that there was always some new hobby, sport, or obsession with John, but rarely would he stick with his new interest for very long.

Susan is the mother of two overachieving young boys. They are constantly winning awards in the classroom or on the sports field. She loves her boys, but is constantly critical of their performance. "You should have done better in algebra," she'd say, or "You were better last year at baseball than you are now." Despite the fact that her boys are extremely likeable and well behaved, she is constantly vigilant for any way they might misbehave, and is quick to correct them.

Donna is a freelance writer who has done well for herself, although you'd never know it to hear her talk. She's placed articles in some of the best women's magazines, but she only remembers the ones that rejected her. In the supermarket line, she says to her husband, "I never figured out why they rejected that story," despite being among several magazines that had published her regularly. When she finally landed an ongoing contract with a magazine, all she could focus on was how she was paid less than someone else she knew or how great it would have been if she had a contract with this other, more popular magazine.

Dan is a manager for a local television station. He worked hard to get where he is, especially considering he didn't graduate from college. Dan is good at what he does, but everyone around him treats him carefully. Sometimes the least little thing will set him off ... and you don't want to be around when that happens.

Annette just broke off her third relationship this year. Each romance felt promising from the start, but after a few months she would start to doubt her feelings and would end the relationship. She began to think that maybe there wasn't a man that she would be compatible with, or maybe she was just being too picky. She wasn't sure what the problem was, she just knew that she never seemed to fall in love with the men she dated.

John, Susan, Donna, Dan, and Annette all suffer from chronic discontent. Each in his or her own way is struggling to feel something meaningful in life, but can't. As their lives progress they are becoming increasingly frustrated and emotionally withdrawn.

So if chronic discontent is really something more than just being lazy or having a negative attitude, then what is it? What it is-and this may surprise you-is a dysfunction in the way you feel and handle your emotions. We'll look at this in more depth later in the book, but first let's look at the central role of feelings in your life.

The Bottom Line of Life

Life is about feeling. Feeling is what makes you know that you are alive. A life devoid of emotion is a life that loses the reason to continue. Feelings are just that important.

Think about this for a moment. What is it that you live for? Maybe it's the love you feel for your children. Maybe you're really passionate about your work. Maybe it's the feeling that you've done something truly worthwhile with your life.

When you see a movie or read a biography, what makes you think the story is worthwhile? When you hear an inspiring speaker, what is it about his or her message that moves you? When you decided to give money to a charity, what was it that stirred you to give? All of these things usually boil down to a feeling.

All the good things, the truly meaningful things, in life are about feeling. Dreams are wishes heavily laced with feelings. Families are started and maintained by feelings. Lasting friendships are about feelings. Even churches and synagogues are about our need to feel part of a larger whole.

Feeling is the meaning of life. If you stop feeling, your life stops having meaning to you, and you inevitably begin an earnest search to reclaim that meaning. A person who is completely devoid of feeling quickly becomes despondent, and can eventually become suicidal.

When you find yourself consistently frustrated, as people suffering from chronic discontent do, the problem lies with your difficulty in feeling what is happening in your life. Chronic discontent isn't just feeling badly-it is difficulty feeling anything meaningful.

Caroline was a product of the go-go eighties. She entered the working world and clawed her way up the public relations ladder until she was head of a large division of a national advertising firm. Every hour of her working day was scheduled to the minute with meetings and appointments.


Excerpted from The Half-Empty Heart by Alan Downs Copyright © 2003 by Alan Downs, Ph.D.. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Alan Downs, PH.D., is a clinical psychologist in practice for more than fifteen years. He is the author of five previous books on psychological matters, including Why Does This Keep Happening to Me? He is based in San Francisco.

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