Last night I was chatting to a friend about depression. As someone who is still recovering from depression she kept referring to it as “her weakness” which bothered me a little. This lead to her sharing with me a perspective on depression she had encountered recently: that depression was a method by which nature would rid a tribe of weaker members. Presumably it worked something like this: a person who couldn’t meet the expectations placed on them by their tribe would develop depression and end their own life so that only the strong members would survive. Thus it is a form of eugenics programmed into our psyche to effectively off ourselves for the benefit of the rest of the tribe. Now, I am trained as a biologist and such a genetic trait is unlikely to be passed on via natural selection because it actually lowers the probability of an individual passing on their genetics. Such genes usually die out quickly. However, this got me thinking about something: if so many people have the potential to get depression – why would such a trait be preserved by natural selection? What survival advantage does a propensity for depression actually have? Here is my case on why depression is helpful rather than harmful.
Imagine you’re standing near the edge of a cliff. It is a long way down onto jagged rocks. Seeing the danger, you keep well away from the edge of the cliff. Someone comes up to you and starts pushing you towards the edge of the cliff. Here you have a choice: resist or allow them to push you over the edge and to find oblivion on the rocks below. Now, if you resist you’re going to annoy someone who wants to destroy you, and if you don’t resist you will be killed.
I mention the annoyance caused to the person wanting to kill you, because this is often overlooked. Sometimes we have to inconvenience other people in order to assert our own interests. I like biology, my mother may have preferred that I study mathematics instead, in order to make myself happy by studying biology, I had to annoy my mother who may have wanted me to study mathematics. We all do this: joining the soccer team when our friends wanted us to join the football team, wearing a pink dress when our friends wanted us to wear a blue one and so on. Asserting our own interests can mean inconveniencing others. In this case, if one chooses to resist being pushed over that cliff you are inconveniencing your would be killer.
Now we have this image, let us suppose we change one of our basic assumptions about depression. Let us assume depression is useful and valuable. But we just don’t understand what its intended purpose is yet. With this in mind, let us revisit that cliff top scenario from a psychological perspective instead of a physical perspective:
It’s not your physical body standing next to that cliff, but your sense of self identity. The farther away from the edge you are, the stronger your sense of self is: your self purpose, your self identity, your self-esteem, your self-respect, etc… are all improved as you walk away from that cliff. However, if you walk towards that cliff the less you value yourself, your needs, your desires, your body, and your interests. The more you think other people are right, and that you’re always wrong, selfish, or foolish. Falling over the cliff would mean ceasing to be an autonomous person but instead transforming into a victim or a slave who is acted upon but unable to control their own lives because they don’t have a firm enough sense of their own self interests so as to act for themselves. You would become completely powerless over your own life.
When someone starts pushing you towards that cliff they do so by saying things that wound your sense of self: “you need to shut up about being unhappy, you need to do as I tell you, you’re an idiot for wanting to study biology, what’s wrong with you? Do as you’re told, you are cold and frigid for not sleeping with me, I’m going to hurt you if you don’t do what I tell you do, you are always making the wrong decisions, etc…”
Now the person saying things may not necessarily be a stranger. They could well be a “friend” or a family member, or a teacher, a boss, a politician or some other person in a position of trust or authority over us. In which case it is more complicated, there might actually be harmful consequences in refusing them. Especially for a child as refusing the demands of a parent can often result in being spanked or denied love and attention. Likewise refusing the unfair demands of a boss could leave you unemployed. So how can a person resist being pushed off that cliff and losing all sense of self? More importantly what would it look like to resist being pushed over that cliff
Maybe it would look this: refusing to do what you’re told or expected to do. Refusing to get up. Refusing to go to school. Refusing to go to work. Refusing to go outside. Refusing to speak up. Refusing to talk about it. Effectively, carrying out acts of disobedience: going on strike, working very slowly, doing poor quality work, effectively putting up a picket line around your fragile sense of self.
Resisting self-destruction looks an awful lot like depression from the outside looking towards the person. Because to the person trying to push you off that cliff in order to destroy your individuality for their own convenience, it looks like you have the problem, not them. They want to control you and exploit you, and for some excuse they may feel entitled to treat you like that, but depression is you resisting their pushing. It is like someone pulling the emergency brake on a train. Saying “this isn’t what I want! This isn’t meaningful for me! I won’t do this! I won’t comply! I won’t get out of bed!” Depression is can act of defiance against impossible odds. It is can act of bravery to stand up for oneself in a desperate situation.
Depression is a defence mechanism that functions to prevent your self erasure from being total. Giving you a chance to one day grow a fully developed sense of self and to heal from these injuries. It is given a bad name, but only by the people trying to push you over that cliff because they see it as preventing them from getting what they want out of you. Even a therapist can sometimes be inappropriately pushy by effectively demanding a depressed client get better, when the client needs to make that decision for themselves in their own time. So people often do have good intentions when they are pushing people towards that cliff, I’m sure parents think they are doing the best thing for their children in demanding they do what they believe are the best choices for their children. However, despite the good intentions, their actions are still harmful to a person’s sense of self.
If you have depression, or have suffered from it, then consider that the fact that you’re able to think, to feel, and to act in your own interests at all, as opposed to being a mindless conformist or a people pleaser is because depression was there when you needed it to be. Depression was the friend you needed when you had no others. It may not have been a perfect defence, but it bought you time and saved much of your sense of self from pouring out over that cliff into self erasure. It gave you a fighting chance to one day heal and be a complete person.
When you grow up and get away from the toxic environment that was harming you, then you can start to heal. You won’t need depression so much and you can start developing and asserting your sense of self again. It is time to be grateful for what it gave you once, and to move on being fully in control of your own life. Evolution doesn’t give us junk, if depression wasn’t valuable it wouldn’t be such a widespread trait
Part of the healing process is learning to accept, and sometimes even love, the things you currently hate about yourself. Depression is no exception. Accept it, appreciated it, perhaps even love it, and then let it pass from your life.
One thought on “A Brighter Perspective on Depression”
I’m not sure I agree with the premise here.
From first hand experience, depression isn’t so much a defence, but a shutdown. The depressive state results in a state of what could almost be called a living death. You don’t do things because you refuse, but because you just can’t. The depressed person struggles to do anything, to feel anything, to think anything. It also carries some quite noticeable physical symptoms, such as loss of peripheral vision, a more staggered, shaky gait, poor sleep and random physical pain.
The fact that depression exists doesn’t mean that it has an evolutionary advantage. If the evolutionary disadvantage is not enough to have significant pressure against it, a negative trait can continue. A deleterious genetic condition can arise and spread through genetic drift, and remain as long the selective pressure against it is weak. Consider the useless, occasionally harmful appendix.
Depressed people can and do have children, so their genes do get passed on, however much depression is genetically determined that is.
If there is one advantage to depression, it may be the depression changes ones perspective. This almost altered state of consciousness can result in in some clarity and insight into problems which one may not normally consider.