When Family Members and Friends Don’t Understand Depression

"Just because someone doesn’t understand depression or the complexity of mood disorders doesn’t mean they don’t love me," says Therese Borchard in her column.We’ve come a little way in reducing the stigma that’s associated with mental illness, but not nearly far enough. Consider these results pulled from a public attitude survey in Tarrant County, Texas, conducted by the county’s Mental Health Connection and the University of North Texas in Denton to determine the community’s view of mental illness:

  • More than 50 percent believe major depression might be caused by the way someone was raised, while more than one in five believe it is “God’s will.”
  • More than 50 percent believe major depression might result from people “expecting too much from life,” and more than 40 percent believe it is the result of a lack of willpower.
  • More than 60 percent said an effective treatment for major depression is to “pull yourself together.”

Unfortunately, these beliefs are often held by those closest to us — by the very people from whom we so desperately want support.

Resenting them for their lack of understanding isn’t going to make things better, though. It almost always makes things worse. Whenever I hit a severe depressive episode, I am reminded once more that I can’t make people understand depression any more than I can make a person who hasn’t gone through labor understand the intense experience that is unique to that situation. Some people are able to respond with compassion to something that they don’t understand. But that is very rare.

Don’t Mistake Their Lack of Understanding For a Lack of Love

Whenever I try to open the doors of communication and express to a family member or friend how I am feeling — when I try to articulate to them the pain of depression — and am shut down, I usually come away extremely hurt. I immediately assume that they don’t want to hear it because they don’t love me. They don’t care enough about me to want to know how I am doing.

But distinguishing between the two is critical in maintaining a loving relationship with them. My husband explained this to me very clearly the other day. Just because someone doesn’t understand depression or the complexity of mood disorders doesn’t mean they don’t love me. Not at all. They just have no capability of wrapping their brain around an experience they haven’t had, or to a reality that is invisible, confusing, and intricate.

“I wouldn’t understand depression if I didn’t live with you,” he explained. “I would change the subject, too, when it comes up, because it’s very uncomfortable to a person who isn’t immersed in the daily challenges of the illness.”

This is a common mistake that many of us who are in emotional pain make. We assume that if a person loves us, he or she would want to be there for us, would want to hear about our struggle, and would want to make it better. We want more than anything for the person to say, “I’m so sorry. I hope you feel better soon.”

The fact that they aren’t able to do that, however, does not mean they don’t love us. It just means there is a cognitive block, if you will, on their part — a disconnect — that prevents them from comprehending things beyond the scope of their experience, and from things they can see, touch, taste, smell, and feel.

Don’t Take It Personally

It is incredibly difficult not to take a person’s lack of response or less-than-compassionate remark personally, but when we fall into this trap, we give away our power and become prey to other people’s opinions of us. “Don’t Take Anything Personally is the second agreement of Don Miguel Ruiz’s classic The Four Agreements; the idea saves me from lots of suffering if I am strong enough to absorb the wisdom. He writes:

Whatever happens around you, don’t take it personally … Nothing other people do is because of you. It is because of themselves. All people live in their own dream, in their own mind; they are in a completely different world from the one we live in. When we take something personally, we make the assumption that they know what is in our world, and we try to impose our world on their world.

Even when a situation seems so personal, even if others insult you directly, it has nothing to do with you. What they say, what they do, and the opinions they give are according to the agreements they have in their own minds … Taking things personally makes you easy prey for these predators, the black magicians. They can hook you easily with one little opinion and feed you whatever poison they want, and because you take it personally, you eat it up ….

Protect Yourself

I have learned that when I fall into a dangerous place — when I am so low that mindfulness and other techniques that can be helpful for mild to moderate depression simply don’t work — I have to avoid, to the best of my ability, people who trigger feelings of self-loathing. For example, some people in my life adhere tightly to the law of attraction and the philosophies of the book The Secret by Rhonda Byrne that preach that we create our reality with our thoughts. They have been able to successfully navigate their emotions with lots of mind control and therefore have trouble grasping when mind control isn’t enough to pull someone out of a deep depression.

I struggle with this whenever I fall into a depressive episode, as I feel inherently weak and pathetic for not being able to pull myself out of my pain — even if it means simply not crying in front of my daughter — with the type of mind control they practice, or even mindfulness or attention to my thoughts. This, then, feeds the ruminations and the self-hatred, and I’m caught in a loop of self-flagellation.

Even if they aren’t thinking I’m a weak person, their philosophies trigger this self-denigration and angst in me, so it’s better to wait until I reach a place where I can embrace myself with self-compassion before I spend an afternoon or evening with them. If I do need to be with people who trigger toxic thoughts, I sometimes practice visualizations, like picturing them as children (they simply can’t understand the complexity of mood disorders), or visualizing myself as a stable water wall, untouched by their words that can rush over me.

Focus On the People Who Do Understand

In order to survive depression, we must concentrate on the people who DO get it and surround ourselves with that support, especially when we are fragile. I consider myself extremely lucky. I have six people who understand what I’m going through and are ready to dole out compassion whenever I dial up their numbers. I live with an extraordinary man who reminds me on a daily basis that I am a strong, persevering person and that I will get through this. Whenever my symptoms overtake me and I feel lost inside a haunted house of a brain, he reminds me that I have a five hundred pound gorilla on my back, and that my struggle doesn’t mean that I am a weak person not capable of mind control. At critical periods when I’m easily crushed by people’s perceptions of me, I must rely on the people in my life that truly get it. I must surround myself with folks who can pump me up and fill me with courage and self-compassion.

Depression support groups — both online and in person — are invaluable in this regard for offering peer support: perspectives from people in the trenches who can offer key insights on how to deal with the invisible beast. I created two online groups, Group Beyond Blue on Facebook and Project Beyond Blue, but there are many forums worth checking out, like the ones at Psych Central. Actual support groups hosted by such organizations as National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) and Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance (DBSA), and support offered by a therapist, are also great resources to help give you the coping tools you need to get by in a world that doesn’t get it.

Join Project Beyond Blue, the new depression community.

Photo credit: Getty Images

Originally published on Sanity Break.

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10 thoughts on “When Family Members and Friends Don’t Understand Depression

  1. Therese that was so helpful. I haven’t anyone who fully understands,as I have said in a previous post I have moved and am more isolated. I have found friends who have suffered from depression but have overcome it have decided not to speak to me anymore. Two people I have given a lot of support to. They have moved on to a happier place and want to forget I suppose. It hurt so much.
    Like you each time I think I have overcome it and believe I am well it bites me again and I get infected by this demon.
    When you can’t join in or get to a class you have paid for its hard to find new friends.
    I know my family understand me to a point but they live far away. Isolation makes it harder.
    My husband is understanding to a point but still expects that I can do things when I can’t.
    Thank you for reminding me not to expect people to understand. It is such a lonely disease. Lizzie

  2. This article was extremely helpful.
    I dont have anyone in my life that understands..so I have to rely on websites for support.

  3. It frustrates me is when people tell me that I need to understand that depression is like a physical illness and that I shouldn’t feel guilty/embarrassed or whatever…and THEN they make suggestions for things I should do to get ‘over it’ which are things you’d NEVER suggest to someone with a serious illness or injury. So they tell me to be gentle with myself and keep in mind that it’s ‘not my fault’ yet continue to suggest activities that I should be doing, which I feel incapable of doing when I’m in ‘depressed mode.’ They tell me to just make myself do it.

    1. Have you tried telling them to take a flying leap? What I really would like to say when I hear that sort of response–“go f—- yourself”. I’m sorry but I get really tired of people saying stupid shit when I am hanging on by a thread. What is there not to get about having a life-threatening illness?

      You do exactly what you need or not need to do. You know best love!

      1. I have been very direct with people. Like the original post says, people who haven’t experienced it themselves just don’t totally get it, no matter how well intentioned.
        Thanks for your validation!

  4. Therese,

    I am so so grateful you chose to speak your truth. I admire your courage immensely. I always gobble up your articles and breathe a sigh of relief just knowing someone else knows just what it’s like. You are one of my heros in life.

  5. Great article. I’m still climbing out of the hole of a bad depressive episode. One of the things that made it worse for me was having the two people I’m closest to not get it. I was devastated and hurt. I did take it personally. But I was lucky enough to reach out to others that have been there and continue to struggle with this cruel disease. These are the ones that I need on my side during the bad moments. I know they are there 24/7 if I ever need them.

  6. Therese,

    Once again, you have provided just the right information for me at the time when I need it most ! I have some family members who I am terrified will find out about my disease because I know how close-minded they can be. Fortunately I am blessed to also have some who are very supportive, although none have actually been through it that I know of. After my latest “close call” I know now that I need to be more open about my illness, as I feel led to do so to benefit others. Thanks again for your encouraging words. God is definitely working through you and my prayer is that someday He will use me to help others as well.


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