I have a lot going for me. Why do I feel depressed?
You might have a general sense of depression but can’t identify a root cause to justify feeling depressed or anxious. Some people realize something is off when they’re surrounded by friends and still feel alone.
For others, it’s while they are on vacation with good food, great scenery and multiple opportunities to relax, and yet they feel unhappy or depressed. The overall feeling of depression is present, but not necessarily the behaviors or criteria that would convince a person that it’s time to really stop and reflect.
Reaching a “breaking point”
Generally, what brings people to a “breaking point” is a relational conflict or a crisis such as a major life transition. Crisis, in the therapy world, is another way of saying “an opportunity for change and growth.” Some individuals change or grow, while others approach a crisis by going full steam ahead into an iceberg. A crisis typically indicates that it is time for you to perceive yourself, your life and others a little differently so you can avoid sinking.
For many people though, you don’t need to hit a breaking point before starting the process of change by preventing major depression. If you experience that chronic feeling of depression, without an apparent root cause, then this is a perfect opportunity for you to explore some of the typical reasons why and, better yet, how to make an inner shift to feel more enlivened in your relationships and your work.
I’ll start you off with a few reasons why you might feel depressed even if your friends, family and colleagues believe your life is good by any typical standard. This list is a starting point for reflection and is by no way exhaustive of the complexity of depression in your specific situation.
Not recognizing your pain (minimizing feelings)
Mari is a 24-year-old that has felt depressed since she was in middle school. She told her mom at age 16 that she felt depressed and contributed the feelings to a chemical imbalance in her brain. When her mom and a therapist tried to understand why she felt depressed, even though she had friends, an education, a “typical” family and aspirations, she could not voice any reasons.
At 24, Mari has an okay job, fun plans every weekend and a growing social network, yet she daydreams about running away from it all and wonders sometimes if life is worth living. Medication helps a little, but she still finds herself feeling alone and indifferent in a crowded room. She has started to drink more to feel excited and looks forward to any occasion that involves drinking, finding comfort, relaxation and energy in it.
A starting place for someone like Mari is recognizing the pain that is in her life. If a big trauma such as overt physical, emotional or sexual abuse or the death of a loved one is not present, causes to depression can generally go undetected because of our misunderstanding of what constitutes pain. Mari might tell herself things such as, “Well, my parents weren’t really around because of work, but many kids don’t even have both parents or they were abused by their parent like my friend Nate.”
Many people generally categorize pain into a hierarchy and then compare their situation to other people’s situations in other countries or horrific stories they hear on the news. In other words, they minimize their own feelings. They write the feeling or moment off as insignificant, moving on to the next task or conversation. A parent’s voice might pop into mind that says “stop complaining” or “be grateful.” They operate on an overall belief that their life is generally good and could be much worse.
Although it is true that a life experience can always be worse, it is equally true that it can also be better. Additionally, minimizing your own experience helps neither you nor the person in another situation. In fact, a person operating on this belief over a long period of time, minimizing 100+ moments of pain, is likely going to see their situation get worse, whether by hitting a quarter or mid-life crisis or developing a dependence on a substance to feel balanced.
If the person’s life stays “generally good” then what most family therapists will predict is that the person will see problems and “symptoms” develop in their children or those closest to them. In short, just because one minimizes, excuses or dismisses their “silly” emotion does not mean it goes away. It generally means that it pops up in new and creative ways.
This pattern of relating to your own experience as invalid generally starts early through learned behavior and is reinforced by our culture and our families (and eventually ourselves). Generally, it takes exploring the complexity of this pattern in your own situation to grow awareness of it and how to face yourself with compassion.
It can be challenging work and yet a necessary first step for someone like Mari who has possibly experienced childhood emotional neglect. Thankfully, there is a whole body of research by Kristin Neff and Chris Germer about the healing effects of acknowledging your own pain and how to relate to yourself in a much healthier way.
About the Author
Emily Stuart is an Associate Marriage & Family Therapist (aMFT)at Well Clinic in San Francisco. In Emily’s words, “It is my goal as a therapist to help you grow the space between stimulus and response to feel calmer and enlivened in your relationships and work. Navigating this space can be tricky, challenging and also expansive and playful.”