As a psychologist, there are a few things I’ve discovered about depression over the years.
When I share what I’ve learned with someone who has depression, it generally makes them feel understood and even a little hopeful.
I decided to write down what I’ve learned and share it here for anyone who might be experiencing depression. It might also help you understand depression if you’ve never experienced it yourself.
When depression comes to live inside your mind it starts a process of slow seduction. It starts by pointing out all the things about yourself or your life that you’re not really that happy with, and then it magnifies those things until you start to feel like your life is unfulfilling and you’re not doing a very good job.
It does all of this in a friendly, even charming, way. It suggests to you that it knows you better than anyone else; it knows all your bad parts and still wants to be around you. More than just around you, it wants to be very close to you.
Pretty soon, depression starts to say unkind things to you when you make a mistake. Things like “you always make mistakes” or “you’re a failure.”
Depression is very clever though, and it knows that you would probably reject these ideas coming from someone else, so it says them to you inside your mind and it disguises them as your own thoughts. So, depression sounds like this in your mind – “I always make mistakes, I can’t get anything right” “I’m a failure, I’m a loser, I’m a piece of shit” (excuse the language, but depression often talks like that to get your attention).
Depression gets involved in your relationships too. If someone is unkind, or even just distracted, depression makes you think “they don’t love me anymore”, “they don’t want me around” or “I knew they would eventually realise they didn’t want to be with me” or even “nobody really cares.” Depression also tells you not to talk about how you’re feeling, because it doesn’t want you to get any reality testing.
Reality testing is a very useful process in which you say your thoughts out loud and another human being says “really? wow, that’s pretty negative, why do you think that?” and you say “I don’t know.” After this exchange, you would start to question your thinking and maybe even change it. Reality testing is depression’s worst nightmare, because it would help you to question and then resist it. Depression wants to keep you feeling disconnected from people who love you so that you will rely on its company and keep feeding it your misery.
Aside from isolating you from people that love you, depression also likes to cut you off from activities you used to enjoy or find meaningful. This is so that all the depressive thoughts can really take hold. If you no longer have any sense of enjoyment or meaning in your daily life, you will readily believe thoughts such as “life is pointless, it’s empty and meaningless” and “people are kidding themselves that they enjoy life” and “this is how I’m meant to feel, I was kidding myself when I felt good.”
These kinds of thoughts help depression convince you to isolate yourself even more. You avoid seeing people because the idea of pretending to be happy is exhausting, and the idea of talking about how you really feel is terrifying, because depression tells you that reality testing would go something like this “I’ve been feeling really empty, angry, and hopeless” “What are you talking about? That’s ridiculous, you have a great life” or “come on, shake it off, we all have days like that.”
What’s even worse is that the voice of depression may sound familiar – this might be how people have spoken to you in the past. Our society isn’t well prepared for tackling depression and its dark ways. We may try to wish it away, or try to see a “reason” for it – and if those things don’t work, we might be tempted to tell people they should be able to just use “mind over matter.”
Some people say these things because they are trying to help in a misguided way, and some people say these things because they are scared of depression. It makes them feel small and powerless, so they refuse to accept its existence.
These kinds of reactions from other people can be used by depression to make you feel even more isolated, when it gets you thinking “see, no one understands” or even “they’re right that I have no reason to feel down – so I must be weak or broken.”
After a while, if depression feels really confident that it’s got you listening, it may start telling you the worst thing of all. It may get you thinking “I’m so cut off from everybody they wouldn’t even care if I just disappeared” or “I’m such a burden they would be relieved if I died.” You might start to wonder how you could manage to disappear, because by now you’re listening to everything depression tells you. Actually, you can’t really focus on anything else any more.
Daily life feels at times completely empty and meaningless, and at other times excruciatingly painful and disconnected. Depression says things like “what’s the point?” and “no one would care if I died” and “everyone is better off without me” and even though a tiny little corner of you feels like depression might just be saying this to be cruel, that corner is getting smaller and it can’t talk louder than the depression.
You start either wishing passively that your life would just end somehow, or thinking actively about how you could end your life. You may not realise that thoughts of death or suicide are the depression talking – you think it’s your own idea.
There might be just a tiny, far away corner of your mind screaming that this isn’t like you, but it’s hard to pay attention to it because by now you trust depression’s judgement over your own. When you ignore your own thoughts and choose to listen to the depression, part of you feels relieved and comforted.
There may be another part of you that notices this is an unhealthy choice, but depression will soon use that thought to make you feel ashamed by getting you to think “I shouldn’t be listening to these negative thoughts, I should be stronger than this.” Depression really knows how to get you down and then make you blame and shame yourself for what you’ve become.
When someone with depression comes to see me, my job is to reach in past the depression and talk directly to the person. I help them to see which thoughts are their own, and which thoughts are the depression talking. Then I help them to start talking back to the depression, to say “I see you, depression. I’m not buying those thought any more. I’m going to see what happens if I connect with people again and do the things that used to bring me pleasure. I won’t let you rob me any more.”
Depression is persistent and seductive and it will work hard to maintain its grip on you, but once you’ve learned its secrets you will find out that it’s not as powerful as you think it is.