Are you supposed to be happy?
Depression can be a really depressing thing to talk about and often we are told not to bring up “depressing” topics in conversation, even with close friends and family members. People struggling with depression are expected to put on a cheerful mask and not spread their sadness around to others.
How can we learn to talk about depression in a constructive, meaningful way in the face of a culture that values superficial “happiness” above truthfulness? The idea that “depression is depressing” can interfere with our need to bring it out into the open in order to make progress on managing this tricky mood.
A psychiatrist is often asked “how can you do what you do?” and it seems that the root of this inquiry is the idea that sitting in an office or clinic and listening to people talk about sad and scary topics must be a sad and scary way to earn a living. But our experience is that it’s exactly in the talking about and learning about mood disorders that we see significant growth and healing.
A charming, very competent, bright, woman who is a professional, mother, wife, community leader, and just generally the image of successful adult living. She brought in a conversation with her mother that set her off.
Her mother, it turns out, has for years asked the question, “Are you a happy girl?” And this has always set the daughter off down a path of doubt and anxiety about the occasional, well managed, depressive dips that she has.
Further exploration revealed that in many, many ways, this question was part of a consistent pattern of behavior on her mother’s part that made it clear to the daughter that it was not “OK” to acknowledge any feelings of sadness or depression. These would overwhelm her mother with anxiety and would create such a level of upset that the daughter learned that she had to keep such thoughts to herself.
As it happens, this observation explained a curious pattern that had developed over the years in our work together. Although the daughter (my client) was very effective in a business world and reliably completed very complicated projects, she simply could not get herself to do even the simplest homework between sessions.
What emerged was an extension of the “depression is depressing” idea. Thinking about depression in a serious way between sessions was too scary. It could only be discussed in session. Of course, as we thought about this some more, we realized that this was an idea that derived from her childhood and which was no longer relevant to her adult life.
All of us have unexamined thinking patterns from our childhood, from responses to specific situations or traumas, or just from our wider culture. Some of these patterns may be holding back a healing process that is ready to happen if we can just face up to it. Thinking about moods does not have to be depressing, it can be intriguing, satisfying, many other things as well. And if you can’t think about it, it’s going to be hard to live with your mood creatively.