Despite the attempts to raise awareness of mental health issues and reduce stigma, people still say hurtful things to people who are depressed. Not because they are mean or uncaring. I think it’s actually because we are not taught more compassionate ways to respond to pain, so we say whatever we think will get the person to stop hurting. Because it hurts to be in the presence of someone who is hurting.
Here are some of the worst offenders:
- I don’t believe in depression. I’m not even sure what this means. It’s one thing to say that you don’t believe in ghosts, or God, or the theory of evolution. But how can you say you don’t believe in an illness? No one says I don’t believe in heart disease. That’s not chest pain. Just go take some Rolaids and stop your whining.
- Suck it up. Because we value stoicism, we think anyone who copes with their pain by pushing through is strong, and anyone who acknowledges their depression is weak. Maybe even wallowing in their pain. So just get out of bed and go to work. No one wants to hear about how you’re feeling.
- Think of all the less fortunate. There are people who don’t have the basic necessities like food, water, and shelter. People who live in war-torn countries. And here you are being all negative just because you don’t feel good. You have nothing to complain about.
- Be thankful. This one is similar to #3. In this case, rather than comparing yourself to others, you are encouraged to count your blessings so that you can see that you actually have no reason to be depressed. You just have a bad attitude.
- You just want to be depressed. I actually had a boyfriend tell me this when I was in college. Because it was so much fun being in my room, unable to go to class or get dressed or answer the phone and to think about suicide all the time. I was having a ball. I hope I broke up with him after he said that.
Hearing these statements from the people we turn to for support can be even more hurtful than the symptoms of depression themselves. Because we already think that we’re lazy, weak, and pathetic. We already beat ourselves up for having no good reason to be depressed. We already feel like failures.
But if you’ve said some of these things, don’t be too hard on yourself. This is how we’ve been taught to respond to pain, so it’s not your fault. It doesn’t make you a bad person.
One of the things I do in therapy is to teach clients how to practice self-compassion, which in turns teaches them to have compassion for other people’s pain. It’s a surprisingly unnatural thing to do, trying to come up with loving statements to say to ourselves. Which is weird, because you’d think this is what we’d want to hear.
Here are some suggestions:
- The only proof I need that I am in pain is that I’m hurting. You don’t have to earn the right do be depressed by having a traumatic childhood or some recent loss. The pain itself is all the evidence you need that you are depressed.
- I will be with my own pain for as long as it lasts. Because this is what we do for people who we care about. We sit with them while they are hurting.
- My pain counts, too. In the self-compassion retreat I attended, I learned that I can focus on giving myself compassion for as long as I need to before sending it to someone else. I can focus on my pain first.
- I can be thankful but still be in pain. Practicing gratitude is helpful, but it is not some magical solution that will make our pain go away. Thankful people with good lives still get depressed.
- What can I do to alleviate some of your suffering? Would it help to eat some breakfast? Turn on some music? Call a friend? These are much better alternatives than screaming at yourself for not being able to get out of bed.
Compassion takes practice, just like anything else. So be gentle with yourself as you try to come up with compassionate statements for yourself and for others.