Someone I know emailed me this week, saying he was feeling depressed. He was very self-critical about it because objectively his life was the best it had ever been (after a lot of difficult experiences in his childhood and early adult life he is now employed, in a relationship, with a nice home) and therefore it felt ungrateful to complain about anything (like social anxiety, work stress, sleep disturbance, niggles in the relationship, having to care for a dependent parent) as he should be happy. He felt perpetually exhausted and like therapy and medication was for people with ‘real problems’ and talked about wishing he didn’t exist. This was my answer:
There is no ‘should’ with feelings. They just are what they are. We can learn to challenge our thoughts or change our behaviours, which can have a positive knock on effect, but feelings we have little control over. So just be mindful of them, and try to deal with the stuff that underlies them when you are feeling well-resourced and supported.
I read a rather naff explanation on facebook today, but it has a germ of wisdom in it:
I held up an orange and asked a boy in the audience “If I were to squeeze this orange as hard as I could, what would come out?”
He looked at me like I was a little crazy and said, “Juice, of course.”
“Do you think apple juice could come out of it?”
“No!” he laughed.
“What about grapefruit juice?”
“What would come out of it?”
“Orange juice, of course.”
“Why? Why when you squeeze an orange does orange juice come out?”
He may have been getting a little exasperated with me at this point.
“Well, it’s an orange and that’s what’s inside.”
I nodded. “Let’s assume that this orange isn’t an orange, but it’s you. And someone squeezes you, puts pressure on you, says something you don’t like, offends you. And out of you comes anger, hatred, bitterness, fear. Why? The answer, as our young friend has told us, is because that’s what’s inside.”
It’s one of the great lessons of life. What comes out when life squeezes you? When someone hurts or offends you? If anger, pain and fear come out of you, it’s because that’s what’s inside. It doesn’t matter who does the squeezing—your mother, your brother, your children, your boss, the government. If someone says something about you that you don’t like, what comes out of you is what’s inside. And what’s inside is up to you, it’s your choice.
When someone puts the pressure on you and out of you comes anything other than love, it’s because that’s what you’ve allowed to be inside. Once you take away all those negative things you don’t want in your life and replace them with love, you’ll find yourself living a highly functioning life.
Now, I’m not totally on board with filling yourself exclusively with love and light (because I think negative feelings are pretty normal and have their value too), and I’m not sure that anyone can ever respond only positively to life’s pressures, but he is right with one thing – your response under stress reflects what you have learnt and experienced in your life up to that point. If you are filled with the poison of being bullied at school or denigrated by your parents, with the wounds of failed relationships, with traumas and losses, then that becomes your norm. It will tarnish your view of yourself, the world and others, and it has the potential to leak out in unhelpful ways. When you carry that baggage and aren’t buoyed up by positive experiences and relationships it becomes much harder to be resilient to the day to day stressors of life. It becomes harder to feel you deserve a better life and to seek out positive experiences for yourself, and you can instead end up avoiding or sabotaging them.
Therapy is there to help you recognise that skew, and to separate the result of negative experiences from your innate worth as an individual. It can help you to challenge your thinking, to change your behaviour, to give yourself opportunities to test and refine your beliefs about yourself, the world and others. It can help you reflect on the patterns in your relationships, why you keep replaying the ones that are not helpful and how you can begin to change this. And sometimes when you are feeling so hopeless and worn out that even the idea of therapy is too much to manage, medication can help to give you the energy and optimism back to allow change to be possible.
The biggest problem of depression is that people can see it compassionately in others, but we are very critical of ourselves for feeling that way, and unable to recognise that the stuckness and self criticism is part of the depression and – importantly – eminently treatable. If you read back your email to me and imagine someone else made it, I think you’d be a lot more compassionate to that person than you are being to yourself. The problem is that you are trying to measure the objective situation with a subjective (and in fact distorted) tool – yourself. And that distortion increases when you are depressed. So be kind to yourself, and allow others to help you. You don’t have to be stuck with feeling sad just because you can’t pin a reason for it on something specific or because there are other people who have bigger problems in their lives.
You said that you sometimes wish you didn’t exist, but I am very glad you do, and I am sure that there are lots of other people who value you and would miss you if you weren’t around. When you are depressed it is hard (if not impossible) to imagine that life can get better. But it can get better. Not only that, but it does get better for most people with depression. Most people who are depressed or even suicidal go on to happier times and to be glad they didn’t act on those thoughts. So please, seek help and don’t give up. Call the Samaritans if you feel like you might harm yourself, and speak to your GP about medication and/or a referral for psychological therapy. After all, 90% of people who turn up to therapy start to feel better, and you can too.