How to assist depressed loved ones
Over the course of our lives, we are likely to experience ups and downs, and similarly our loved ones are also likely to go through times of joy and times of turmoil. Very often, when someone we care about is really suffering, we feel powerless and stuck, and sometimes even begin to share in their sadness, or desperately try to intervene to change their situation and rescue them from their pain. We may even feel guilty if we speak to them about our happiness or our successes and, as a result, we often try to protect them by minimizing our sharing, or downplaying our achievements, lest we make them feel worse.
Of course, it is completely understandable to think feel and react in this way. When someone we care about is depressed, we are mobilized to try to change their situation, but does this kind of interaction assist a depressed loved one? And what is the impact of this kind of response on us, when we behave in this manner? Finally, is this the optimal way to assist, or is there perhaps a more effective manner of assisting our loved ones through a deep sadness in their lives.
To answer these questions, we must first have a look at depression itself. Clinically speaking, as a Pretoria psychologist, there are different clinical patterns that we have observed that result in depression, for the purposes of this article, I will not go into detail regarding the clinical picture, however, what is important to note is that typically when an individual is depressed, there is a feeling of hopelessness coupled with the low mood. In a sense, there is a feeling of “what is the point”.
As a result of this hopelessness, depressed individuals go into an emotional black hole, they tend to want nothing to do with the world. This feeling is not an aggressive one, but rather a sense of “what’s the point”. Speaking about their situation and feelings appears to be pointless, and it feels to them as though nothing can actually change, resulting in wanting to be left alone. This “black hole”, often leaves the individuals feeling small and pathetic as if there is something wrong with them, as if something is lacking in their ability or functioning that makes them less than other people in the world who are not in this emotional state. Of course, this just makes the depression even worse. In this sense the diagnosis of depression (if handled ineffectively) very often gives the depressed person license to just lie down and confirms that there is in fact something wrong with them that cannot be changed. Furthermore, the diagnosis often acts as a barrier to others, pushing people away, as the diagnosis represents something going on that is different to the rest of society.
Very often people who are feeling deeply depressed cling on to the diagnosis as it allows them to push the world away, allowing them to be left alone. Sadly, this of course runs the risk of perpetuating the feelings of stuckness and hopelessness, increasing their low mood.
When considering this process, we can begin to see how isolated the depressed person becomes and how alone they begin to feel. Very often, when you speak to a loved one who is depressed, they will not share the true depth of their suffering and in that sense, they never truly connect with others and remain stuck viewing the world from their deeply sad, “pointless” viewpoint.
All this being said, how do we assist a loved one who is depressed? How do we help them and not feel frustrated of helpless ourselves?
The first step is to reach them. There is a profound emotional release that human beings experience when we are understood, and not alone. It instills hope as someone finally gets it, and it allows us to let go of painful emotions. The challenge here is that most of us don’t realize that a depressed loved one is in pain and does not want to suffer and be alone anymore, but simultaneously feels hopeless and wants to be left alone, as it feels pointless, tiresome and painful to share the depth of despair that they are feeling. If we do not understand this our depressed loved ones may feel as though we “don’t get it, and in fact nobody actually gets it” which will of course perpetuate the hopelessness. If we communicate to our loved ones an understanding of these feelings of hopelessness and wanting to be left alone that they are experiencing then they may actually feel understood and they may actually feel a degree of hope. This is the first step to assisting them.
It is important to remember that simply by understanding what they are going through will assist them in a profound manner.
The next step is the real tricky part. More often than not, a person who is feeling depressed is also feeling useless. They typically feel as though they are too pathetic to affect change in their lives. When we observe someone who we care about feeling this way, more often than not the impact mobilizes us to rescue them. To intervene and assist and change their lives so that they no longer suffer. It is important to try to resist this impact and not rescue a depressed loved one.
To fully explain why, I first need to explain what we have discovered about psychological symptoms in human behavior. symptoms (of which depression is one) typically serve a function, they have a purpose, psychologically speaking. The purpose of a psychological symptom is an unconscious effort to assist us, however, they very often perpetuate our suffering.
When it comes to depression, the function of the symptom of depression is to mobilize the world to feel pity on the depressed individual and to save them, as they are so down that we try to pick them up and protect them. If a co-worker we care about is depressed we may do their work for them to try to help. If our family member is being teased by someone they know, we may intervene and fight for them or rescue them in some way, to spare them from the real world factors that bringing them down. This behavior is of course fully understandable, however, on a process level, two destructive elements occur when we rescue a depressed loved one.
Firstly) our behavior as people is often driven by emotions, when we rescue a depressed loved one, we adopt their emotional experience and mobilize ourselves with their emotions, leaving them immobilized and leaving us carrying the emotional turmoil. For example, let us say you have a loved one who is being disrespected in their work environment. They are feeling more and more depressed about their situation and share their feelings of defeat and powerlessness with you. In this instance you can hear how they are being pushed around and bullied and you become angry! At this point, when you start to share your anger with your depressed loved one, they stop feeling angry about their situation as you are angry enough for the both of you. Typically, at this stage we push them to handle their situation differently or we try to intervene and rescue them. What we don’t realize is the anger itself is what mobilizes humans to push back and if we “take on” the anger of our loved one, we take away the meconium that would build up and allow them to rescue themselves. Not to mention we carry anger that we cannot effectively do anything with, which will run the risk of draining and damaging us. In this sense nobody wins.
Secondly) when we adopt the emotions of our depressed loved ones and rescue them, we tell them what they “should do”, or we do it for them. The impact of this on them is typically disempowering as they then feel even more pathetic as they can see how strong you are, confirming their “uselessness” and perpetuating their depression.
The key to the second step of assisting a loved one, while assisting ourselves is again to empathize with them and to fight the urge to rescue or instruct them how to handle their situation, but rather to share our feelings that we want to rescue them, but that we trust and respect how they would like to handle the situation. in this way they will build the appropriate mobilizing emotions and they will be empowered when the rescue themselves and we will not carry their emotions, which burden us, as we are not them and as a result have less control over their lives than them, which leaves us helpless and frustrated.
The third and final step is to share openly so that they can empathize with us. Part of a depressed persons suffering is that they only experience the world through their frame of reference, and everything seems gloomy through their eyes. If we share our lives and feeling, even if they are the opposite, we give the depressed person the opportunity to put themselves in our shoes, and connect, allowing them to not feel so alone. They may even assist us too if we are struggling, this can be empowering for someone who is depressed and may assist in lifting them up. Furthermore, this sharing allows us to connect to our loved one and is an important part of our mental health. If we limit our sharing to a depressed loved one, not only to we isolate them, we isolate ourselves, resulting in psychological discomfort for both.
In a final thought, it is crucial to remember that when engaging with a depressed loved one, to ensure the optimal outcome for themselves and us we need to empathize accurately with them, not rescue them, but rather convey respect for them and to share openly and vulnerably with them so that they can empathize with us. In this way, you will truly assist a loved one struggling with depression and simultaneously assist (rather than drain) yourself.