While in the depths of my depression (bottom of the depression funnel or spiral), I became intolerant of many things. One of the things that irritated me was the people that went on Facebook to brag about their fast recovery progress.
“After two months on this program, I am now a lot better. I am almost back to normal!,” they exclaim, with postings of happy, smiley pictures.
Finally, I stopped reading this depression support page because it was making me feel a lot more depressed. So what was I really feeling and why?
I was envious of their progress because this particular program was not very effective for me. I was irritated and angry with them (blame) for making me feel even worse about myself. I was very disappointed and depressed with myself for doing so poorly compared to others. Finally, I was very afraid that I would never get better because all these other people were making progress and I was only standing still or regressing.
Depression and Envy
Comparing my own performance with that of others is something that I learned early in life and that got reinforced in my many years of schooling, as well as at work. When I was young, I competed with my brother for my father’s attention. At school, my parents told me that I wasn’t good enough unless I got perfect A’s on every subject. That was what I strived to do.
In college we were graded on a curve, so we were literally in competition with everybody else. At work, we were also graded on a curve. Only so many people got the higher percentage bonuses and salary raises. Only the best got promoted. The bottom performers got the boot, with the well-understood company motto of “move up or move out.”
In short, comparison of self to others is a commonly reinforced practice. Unfortunately for me, it led to a lot of unnecessary angst and suffering, while I quested for a perfect life. Now, I was comparing my depression with the same results. Such comparison thoughts often result in harmful self-esteem attacks such as why am I such a mess, not good enough, not strong enough, not courageous enough, and much more.
Initially, I tried to make myself feel better by talking down the person who was claiming fast success –
- She is taking antidepressants, so of course she is feeling better.
- My depression is so much more serious than hers.
- I had childhood trauma so I already started off at a disadvantage.
- She is super rich and beautiful, what does she have to get depressed about?!
However, none of these things are truly helpful, nor even true. People would also tell me to stop comparing, but that is on par with people telling me not to feel depressed, not to feel angry, or not to feel envy – it simply does not work.
So what does work? For me, the solution lies in doing more emotion-work. Here are some of my feelings –
- Fear that I will never get better from my anxiety and depression.
- Envy that someone else has gotten better. Shame that I haven’t gotten better.
- Envy that someone else gets to do fun things. Shame that I cannot do those same things.
- Anger that this group, which is supposed to make me feel better, has made me feel worse.
Here are some thoughts and responses that were more helpful –
- Fear and depression are just emotions, they are perfectly ok. I just need to feel them, tend to them, understand their message, and go from there.
- I hold these problematic thoughts within me with loving compassion and analyze them. Yes, there are likely many people who have “recovered” from depression in a shorter amount of time, and that is ok. Am I happy with my own progress? Yes I am, and that is good enough!
- In my prouder moments, I can extend my loving compassion and be happy for others. After all, I do not really want others to suffer. The suffering of others does not lighten my own suffering. On the other hand, extending loving compassion rewards me with feelings of pride and happiness.
- What someone else says or believes has absolutely no impact on me unless I let it be so. As with the other emotions, I want to get more comfortable with envy and shame. The more ideas or belief frameworks I can tolerate, the more free I will be and the more wisdom I will gain.
Note that my feelings had very little to do with the other person or with the depression group. It had more to do with my own thoughts, beliefs, perspective, and how I deal with my emotions. In dealing with my internal landscape now, I reduce the intensity of the difficult emotions and change my perspective on the same set of facts.
Envy consists in seeing things never in themselves, but only in their relations. If you desire glory, you may envy Napoleon, but Napoleon envied Caesar, Caesar envied Alexander, and Alexander, I daresay, envied Hercules, who never existed.
~~ [Bertrand Russell]
Depression and Shame
Depression comparison also goes the other way. A common piece of advice I received from friends, colleagues, and family about depression is to “not feel so bad because my life is very good compared to many others.”
- “Don’t feel so bad, many people have it much worse than you do.”
- “Think about all the people who have lost parents, siblings, spouses, or children.”
- “He was in a concentration camp, but look at what he is doing now.”
I feel badly for people who have suffered, especially for those who have suffered greatly. However, this does not make me feel less depressed, nor does it remove the source of my own suffering or depression. Perhaps these statements or self-thoughts may help some people, but it does little to help me. Upon closer inspection, it actually encourages feelings of shame. This type of depression-shaming only makes me feel worse. I feel like I do not have the right to feel depressed after having lost the two loves of my life, because they are not human.
Now when I start feeling depressed, I tell myself this –
Yes, I miss Shania and Lara greatly because I love them greatly. Yes, I am in pain and want to grieve, and that is ok. I can go ahead and grieve and take as much time as I want.
I cry, sing our special songs, look at photographs, recall bitter-sweet memories, and more. I no longer try to avoid my deep sorrow. I simply let myself fully experience my depression.
Often, when someone is grieving or in emotional pain, the best thing we can do is to acknowledge their sorrow, let them grieve and join them in that pain. Happy talk, social-comparisons, and depression shaming does not work well, especially in the long-term.
Sometimes, social-comparisons may give us some pleasure in the short-term. This emotion is called schadenfreude, which is “the experience of pleasure, joy, or self-satisfaction that comes from learning of or witnessing the troubles, failures, or humiliation of another”. However, that usually only happens with smaller misfortunes and the feeling is fleeting.
A 2011 study in the journal Emotion found that people with low self-esteem were more likely to experience schadenfreude when confronted with a high achiever’s setback
A Closed Heart
My mother was a very unhappy person. She spent much of her time comparing herself to others, comparing me to others, and comparing everybody to everybody else. These social-comparisons powered her inner and outer critics and they were both very strong.
I have always lived in fear of my mother. I used to avoid thinking of her and would almost have a panic attack whenever I anticipated a phone call from her. This is because she always made me feel lousy. I was never good enough, never smart enough, never good enough at playing the piano, etc. In fact, she spread her unhappiness to everyone around her. Nobody ever loved her well enough, gave her a good enough present, appreciated her enough, and I have no memories of her laughing or even smiling. She was full of negative judgements, she made the people around her suffer, and she made herself suffer most of all. This type of social-comparison led her to reject others and to reject parts of herself. One of my core fears has always been that I would turn out like her.
I have since realized that all of us have this tendency or seed within us. The question is how we choose to tend to it. Do we simply react and keep repeating this tendency until it becomes habit, or do we respond wisely and weaken its grip on us. This is in our control.
Black and white judgements lead to a closed heart. Our strong outer critic causes us to withdraw, see inadequacies in everyone, blame everyone for our unhappiness, and reject everyone around us. Our strong inner critic causes us to stop trying, see inadequacies in ourselves, blame ourselves for our condition/unhappiness, and reject parts of our body, thoughts, memories, and emotions. Our life narrows and we end up alone, feeling abandoned, hopeless, betrayed, and more depressed than ever.
Cultivating an open heart is not easy, but here are some things that I try to do –
- Every time I feel the urge to criticize others, I try to catch myself, do some mindful breathing, do some self-soothing, let my irritation pass, and do something constructive. I leave the event for later analysis.
- Every time I start to criticize myself, I try to catch it, do some mindful breathing, and analyze my thoughts and feelings. If those thoughts are inaccurate, I do some thought-correction or adjustment. If those thoughts are accurate, I work on accepting them, getting comfortable with them, and doing some self-soothing.
- When I make mistakes, I apologize when I can, forgive myself (because breaking life-long habits is hard to do), and continue trying.
Some people wonder why I am spending so much time inside my own head. Doesn’t it make me more depressed? Doesn’t it take up a lot of my time? Isn’t it taking over my life?
Analyzing my emotions, thoughts, and memories, is very different from rejecting and suppressing them. Previously, I was putting all my effort into stopping difficult thoughts, memories, and emotions, whereas now I accept, analyze, adjust, and soothe. The more I do this, the more comfortable I am with my own mind.
In the book Be Angry: The Dalai Lama on What Matters Most, they talk about how analyzing thoughts and emotions within a healthy framework can “transform deep pain into limitless freedom.” Such a journey is worth all the time in the world.
Only to the extent that a person exposes themselves over and over again to annihilation and loss can that which is indestructible be found within them. In this daring lie dignity and the spirit of true awakening.