One of the biggest misunderstandings about depression
I was on the phone with my friend and told her that I was depressed and struggling. We didn’t dwell on it, and she asked what I had planned for the next coming weeks. I told her about my plans to attend a wedding in Surrey, a business trip to Florida as well a trip back home to Japan to attend another wedding.
“Your life isn’t miserable at all!” she said.
I think my friend’s response represents a typical misunderstanding people have about depression: that it always occurs when something bad has happened. Therefore on the same vein, if your life isn’t demonstrably “bad”, your sadness and misery are not justified. Typical manifestations of this attitude can lead to painful statements along the lines of:
“Cheer up, your life isn’t that bad”
“You should be grateful for all the things you have”
“And why are you so upset?”
I want to take this opportunity to clear up this bias once and for all:
Terrible things do not need to happen for depression to occur.
Now, there is indeed a very strong correlation behind critical, upsetting events and depression. But as we all know correlation is not causation. In this post, I want to talk about what I have discovered to be one of the key causes of depression — emotional suppression. Once this is understood, it is easy to see why critical events often lead to depression, and also why equally they are not needed for it to occur.
The Link Between Depression and Emotional Suppression
All of us go through hardships. At times the majority of us will feel emotions of sadness, helplessness, defeat and low self-esteem. However some of us aren’t very good at fully processing these emotions. Instead of letting them pass through us, we push them down. We become aware that they are bubbling up, but we isolate ourselves from our bodies and try to distract ourselves using things such as work, exercise, food or drink. Another very common escape mechanism is to focus our energy on our mind. Instead of connecting and embracing our emotions with our full being, we start to compulsively think. Hence why rumination comes hand-in-hand with depression. So long as we talk in our heads about why we are not happy, that at least saves us from feeling how much in pain we are.
Ironically, this tactic backfires. All those emotions that we push down eventually will reach a tipping point. It’s almost like garbage piling up. Unless you continuously pick up and throw things away, it will start to rot and smell. Depression is a warning sign that your emotions have piled up for far too long, and that they need to be processed ASAP. Think of it as emotional constipation. It is your soul crying out, begging you to confront how you actually are inside. This might be the reason why we feel like we need to be alone when we are depressed. It is our body’s way of telling us to take a time-out to just be with ourselves.
You now may be able to see the connection between critical events and depression. When something terrible happens a tsunami of emotion invades. This can be very overwhelming, almost as if a truck has hit you. It’s only natural that a coping mechanism is to start pushing some of the emotion down to deal with later. However if left for too long it will pile up and, boom – depression. However, you can also see that equally dreadful things need not have occurred for someone to have depression. It can also occur as a result of a drip-drip effect. By the time the darkness finally manifests it could be after various feelings have built up over days, weeks or years. This is why things don’t need to be terrible for a person to have depression.
Now, if you are currently struggling with depression you may be thinking, “How can you say that I’m not feeling my emotions? Every day I feel like crap! I’d much rather be feeling nothing!”. I say all this because the sinking sensation of depression is not the core feeling that you are suppressing. To re-use the garbage example, depression is the rotting smell, but not the garbage itself. When you sit down and really connect with the pain, it is likely that you will find a whole mixture of emotions swirling around, including anger, fear, helplessness and sadness. So many of us have mastered the art of suppressing our emotions that we don’t even know that we are doing it. Even if we want to feel what is inside, we genuinely don’t know what is there. And if we did, most of the time we don’t want to look at them. After all, there was a good reason why we hid them from ourselves in the first place.
Furthermore, connecting with our emotions is one thing, but fully accepting and loving them – that’s a whole other thing all together. Let’s say for example, that you look inside and start feeling that you have anger towards a very close friend of yours. You then realise that is because you are jealous towards him/her. An immediate reaction is that this is wrong, that it’s very petty of yourself to feel jealousy, and that this friend is such an amazing person who doesn’t deserve someone feeling this way towards her. Besides, just because you feel this way what can you do about it? This then leads to suppression again.
There is nothing wrong with feeling anything. Feelings are just feelings. Nothing more, nothing less. Yet throughout the years we are taught that some feelings are acceptable, and some are not. That some emotions are justified based on the external circumstances, and some are not. That there is “no point” in allowing yourself feel certain emotions. All of this is utter madness, not to mention toxic. The reality is, we must love and accept every emotion that passes through us.** The opposite of depression is not happiness, but the freedom to experience spontaneous feelings.
The Importance of Having Open Listeners
I hope now you can see why statements such as, “Cheer up, your life isn’t that bad”, is as counter-productive as it gets. The person in front of you is depressed because they believe that they are not allowed to express certain emotions. Therefore in telling them to “cheer up” you are telling them yet again to shove down how they are feeling. In essence, you are reinforcing precisely the toxic behaviour that has gotten them into darkness in the first place.
This is why you may have noticed that people with low self-esteem shut down even more when you tell them that they shouldn’t feel that way. People with depression don’t need you to try and change their minds. Nor do they want solutions either. When a person approaches you with their pain, what they require is for you to show them that feeling bad is totally fine, regardless of the circumstances that underlie it. What they desperately need you to do is to hold a loving, safe space for expression. To be an open listener.
If you open your heart to that person’s emotions, simply by being very present in the moment, this automatically shows the person that their emotions are perfectly fine. If someone says they feel worthless, let them know there is nothing wrong then with that (“I see, that must be really painful”), instead of bombarding them with evidence on why they shouldn’t be feeling this way. It’s only after the emotion is accepted and released — often in the form of tears — that you can perhaps discuss how worthy of love you think they are. But it is incredibly important to wait until the catharsis has happened.
How to Listen
So how does one listen with an open heart? My personal answer to this is to employ mindful listening. When practicing mindfulness, you calm the chatter in your mind and let your awareness expand. The key is to not be in a mindset where you feel like you want change the person or fix things for them. You are simply there, experiencing the space with them. If listening to them brings up emotions within you, notice them with full acceptance as you would in meditation. You being your honest, raw self in the moment will help the other person also embrace their authenticity. You accepting them, exactly how they are, is the greatest show of love (I have written another article on how to be with someone with depression).
I am really surprised that emotional suppression and depression aren’t talked about more often. After being introduced to this idea a few years ago it quickly became clear to me that this really was a key cause of it – at least for me. I am not saying however that it is the only cause. Depression is incredibly multifaceted and each sufferer manifests his or her own unique version. As such, the reasons behind it can slightly differ. Yet, the more I talk to people with depression, the more I do see that this could be a common cause for so many of us.
I see people often at a loss as to how to help people with depression, and because of this end up accidentally talking to people in a counter productive way. In fostering an understanding of how emotional suppression can be contributing to depression, this can not only help people with this issue understand better what is going on with them, but can also help those who have loved ones with depression support them in the best possible way.
Feb. 10th, 2018: Since writing this entry I have written a follow-up post where I talk about ways of embracing your emotions again.
Apr. 4th, 2018: I have written a follow-up post on how to help someone with depression.
**Note that this is not the same as acting on the emotion. If you feel hate, that is fine and should be accepted, but you don’t need to act on it.