I know someone, a man who is deeply unhappy. He is miserable and, judging from how well he takes care of his body, he is someone who does not care if he ruins his health and dies early. He has suffered from depression for years and often talks about how he will overcome it. However, I have not seen any real effort on his part to overcome his depression. Despite his stated intentions to get better, I cannot help but wonder if maybe there is something important that he is getting from depression, something so valuable that he does not want to take the risk of losing it? What benefit of depression is he getting? What incentive does he have in fervently avoiding anything that would help improve his condition?
In many cases, depression is a result of fighting a battle that cannot be won. Trying to get meaning out of a meaningless job, trying to appease an abuser, trying to change a person into someone else—these are common examples of unwinnable battles people fight for years that drive them into depression or “learned helplessness”. In essence, the problem with these cases of depression is not that the person has given up, but that they have not given up. If they gave up on their impossible task, they could focus their energy on something far more productive and likely to fulfil them.
However, people cling to these impossible goals determined that they must never give up because not giving up has a benefit. Being the person who does not walk away from a problem, but just keeps trying over and over again, can be something a person can take pride in doing. Who would they be without this impossible goal to fight for? A loser? So giving up is out of the question.
These impossible goals usually revolve around things that are not directly within the depressed person’s sphere of influence, which is part of why they end up feeling so powerless to change anything. When the goal is focused on people or things that one cannot possible have control over, then the goal is futile and feelings of depression will set in.
The problem here is a lack of compassion; specifically a lack of compassion for oneself. The conclusion is made that a person is undeserving of allowing themselves to give up. They are not allowed to fail. Someone might tell themselves that they need this career to fulfil them; when it does not fulfil them, they see themselves as having no other options but to stay in the unfulfilling career. The same applies if they are in an unfulfilling relationship. They believe that they need this relationship to succeed or they can never be happy. The irony is that if they were to allow the career or relationship to fail, they would almost certainly be happier in the long run, albeit anxious and miserable in the short term. Unfortunately, self improvement rarely has short term or even medium term benefits and it can be hard to visualise the long-term benefits when short term comfort is beckoning
Because they believe they must succeed at these impossible tasks, these people see themselves as being forbidden to complain about their choice; instead they can only complain about their situation. If they complained about their choices, then it would become apparent they put themselves in this situation and only they can get themselves out of it. However, by complaining about the situation, they are able to express their misery, avoid personal responsibility for their misery, and justify to themselves their continued mission of forever failing at the impossible task. By focusing on things outside their sphere of influence, it deflects from focusing on things that are within their sphere of influence, namely, themselves and their own choices. The feeling of depression that arises from fighting these “lost causes” is a psychological signal that one is directing their energies towards inappropriate places.
The other problem is that while it is very common for people to find themselves battling impossible tasks, such as trying to convince themselves that they prefer their career in an office to being home with their children or that they really do love their spouse even though that person may be a major source of stress in their life, it is difficult to obtain compassion from other people for self-inflicted problems. This is what the problem is ultimately about, though. Depressed people do need compassion; however, they do not give themselves compassion because they do not feel they deserve the compassion if they “fail” at these impossible goals. Since they cannot give compassion to themselves, they seek this compassion from other people. They want other people to give them the compassion that they deny to themselves and some depressed people use their depression as a way of extracting compassion from others.
This is where more apparent benefits of depression appear. One is the outsourcing of responsibility for compassion to other people. Another is that if you are powerless, a victim of circumstances, then you cannot save yourself; you will need to be rescued and there comes a sense of entitlement that goes hand in hand with victimhood– “I can’t save myself, I need someone else to save me! You had better save me to show you care!” Depression here is more easily understood if we use the term “learned helplessness” because the depressed person could choose to give up on their impossible goal, but they have convinced themselves that giving up or “failing” is not an option. By removing this option from the table, they make themselves feel helpless when in fact they are not.
An example of this would be if a man says he is depressed because his marriage is unfulfilling and his job is boring, but tells himself that getting a divorce or quitting his job is not an option. He may say, “I need this job to support my family” or “I can’t get divorced because of the kids.” In both of these excuses, he is putting other people’s needs ahead of his own and sacrificing himself upon their altar. He tells himself he must succeed at these things that make him miserable because otherwise he would be a failure as a husband, father, and a man. He tells himself he has no other options to stay in his marriage and career when the reality is that he could make different choices; he just chooses not to because they are hard choices that would result in him feeling worse in the short term. So he sacrifices his long term happiness for the short term status quo and thus ends up feeling chronically depressed, believing himself powerless to change his life and possibly even berating himself for complaining at all.
Of course, if you are actually in a cage being tortured, that is completely outside of your control. I would argue that children raised in abusive households do experience this kind of real helplessness too. However, most adults do have real options and choices they can make to relieve their depression but choose not to because the benefits of depression appear more appealing to them, at least in the short term. So while there are some situations in which people are genuinely powerless, many situations that lead to people feeling depressed do have options available that are within the control of the depressed person, however unpalatable they may seem in the moment.
Another benefit of depression is the perception that it grants one permission to express misery. This is particularly true for men, as many men do not feel they are allowed to express any misery because they see it as weakness and believe it is unmanly to show weakness. Therefore, the only way they can talk about their pain at all is to frame it in terms of having a medical condition that needs medication to fix. Depression has become a socially acceptable way to admit to being in pain. This is very tragic, as anyone can experience intense emotional pain and dysfunction. It does not matter how young, old, poor, wealthy, ugly, or pretty one might be. Even people who have lives that look great on paper can suffer depression that has a real, underlying cause. Pain is a part of life and we all need some compassion from time to time to help us deal with it.
In order to understand why you might be holding onto your depression, a simple sentence completion exercise can help generate some person insights. Take the following stem and write as many endings to it as you can think of:
” I need my depression because-”
Here are some examples that you might come up with if you start writing down as many endings as you can think of:
“I need my depression because otherwise I would have to admit I chose the wrong field to study.”
“I need my depression because I don’t want to admit my relationship is going nowhere.”
“I need my depression because it is the only way I can get my family to notice I exist.”
“I need my depression because I don’t feel worthy of people helping me.”
Of course, this might not cover all causes of depression, but it is nonetheless a good place to get started when trying to find answers as to why you feel so miserable or unmotivated. Depression serves a purpose, it is not just arbitrary torture induced by a sadistic Mother Nature. It exists because it has helped our ancestors to survive for thousands of years. It is worthy of our attention, understanding and respect, just as we are worthy of our own attention, understanding, respect and most of all compassion.