Depression hurts. You can experience profound states of sadness, acute anxiety, or bleak despair. Meanwhile the world around you seems to be functioning to an entirely different script. The difference can feel huge between your reality of depression versus the “normal” reality of people who seem happy. You can end up feeling lonely and different. Consider the plight of Abby:
Abby is a 26 year old seventh-grade teacher in Oakland. The past 7 months have been difficult. She has lost interest in the things that used to bring her happiness. She no longer attends local concerts, hosts dinner parties for her close friends, or attends Pilates classes. She remembers feeling depressed – in some way or another – her entire life. It’s the summer time and she does not have to go into work, so for the past three weeks she has been staying in her apartment. She watches television, listens to podcasts or gets engrossed in websites like Reddit to pass the time. She desperately wants to distract herself from what feels like an endless torrent of bitter self-criticism and an inner emptiness.
Her two close friends – John and Lisa – have been calling her the past few weeks but Abby has not answered her phone. She fears that they will recoil and think she’s strange or broken if she tells them how she’s really been feeling . The prospect of pretending like she’s doing fine is also not appealing. So, she decides to avoid interactions with them and cope with her feelings as best as she can on her own.
Abby is clearly suffering. She struggles with what to say to someone when they ask ‘how are you?’. She knows that if she’s honest she will break the social contract of communicating that she’s OK. Her choices are pretty unappealing:
Pretend like she’s fine and mask the hurt inside
Break the “social contract” and tell someone else how much pain she in
Avoid social interactions and stay home alone
How depression works to isolate its victims
There is an implicit bias in our culture to be happy or confident. Depression usually involves feelings of self-blame, hopelessness, and/or flatness. Our culture often tells us we should not be feeling these ways. The prospect of being seen as “flawed” for feeling depressed can make you feel even worse. If you can’t be honest about what you’re experiencing because of the reaction it will get, then it can make sense to just avoid interactions altogether. This makes even more sense if you have a history of trying to tell people how you really feel only to be dismissed, ignored, pathologized or ridiculed.
Although choosing to avoid social interactions instead of faking it or risking rejection is certainly rational – it often sets the stage for feeling lonely and more depressed. Why?
We require safe and attuned relationships with others to successfully manage our emotions.
Remember how it felt as a kid to skin your knee and wail in pain only to feel quickly better when a trusted adult came to you with a concerned look and reassuring hug? Nothing changed in your actual body that let you feel better, it was the shared understanding that you were in pain and someone else: knew about it, was concerned and was going to be by your side until it felt better. The technical term for this is ‘mutual regulation of self-states’. It starts when we’re infants and continues in various forms throughout our lives.
Depression is like falling down emotionally and having a skinned up knee. It hurts. There’s something wrong. But it’s kind of scary to cry out for help because nobody else seems to be doing so. This cultural taboo is unfortunate because it means the sufferer of depression is deprived of the very experience that can – over time – improve their moods.
It can be harder to experience relationships as safe and attuned when you feel depressed. The concerned responsiveness of others is often discounted by the inner demon of depression telling the sufferer that the other person is only reacting this way out of pity. Nonetheless the path to recovery from depression requires one to eventually restore their sense of connectedness to important other people.
Tips for restoring the bridge to safe others
The truth is that not everybody in your life may be a good choice to open up to. The trick is to take seriously your own sense of who it feels good to talk to and who leaves you feeling “missed” or worse. Trust your sense of who can handle what you have to tell them and consider the risk of telling that person how hard life has felt lately. It probably won’t feel good initially to do this. Over time the sense that you are understandable will likely begin to get under your skin and you may feel less alone in your bout with depression.
You might also seek out good psychotherapy. In the right type of psychotherapy you are understood on your own terms and you don’t have to act as if everything is fine. Experiencing consistent attunement and understanding from a therapist can instill a sense of confidence that confiding in other ‘safe’ people should yield the same results.
I’ve thrown the term “safe” around in this blog post a lot. What exactly does safety mean in this sense?
Here’s what it means for someone to qualify as “safe to talk to about depression”:
He or she..
…does not get upset by your upset
…does not feel threatened by your depression
…is not made anxious by your depression
…does not assume things about your experience of depression
…is curious about what your depression feels like
…has a goal to understand what you are going through – not to fix you.
Jay Reid is a Licensed Professional Clinical Counselor (LPCC). I seek to provide a safe context – as defined above – for clients to express themselves. If you think this might be useful for you, please contact me for a free 15-minute phone consultation.