This is How Positive Change Happens…
Sometimes, a counselling session with someone starts out with the client saying something like this:
“I’ve got depression” or “I’m depressed”.
Whenever I hear that, my ears perk up even more than usual. I often respond with “I’m sorry to hear that. Have you been diagnosed with depression?”. Sometimes, I hear “Yes, my doctor sent me to a psychiatrist. They asked me lots of questions and then told me I have depression”. Okay, so this client has been assessed and given a diagnosis from qualified professionals. The diagnosis is more likely to be accurate and we go from there in our counselling work together. I offer research-based cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) strategies for depression and that client is often including doctor-supervised drug therapy in their treatment plan too.
Other times, I hear something like “Well, no, I haven’t been diagnosed. I’ve done some reading online and it seems like a lot of the info on depression applies to me. I really feel depressed”. This kind of response calls for a different approach from me. I wouldn’t do this client any favours if I immediately hopped on that train with them and went along with a framework and diagnosis that turns whatever they’re struggling with into a mental illness. Clinical depression may or may not be accurate or relevant here. We need to get curious and investigate more together first.
Here’s some life experiences that can be mistakenly interpreted as, or mislabeled as, “depression”:
- hard-hitting, deep sadness from grief and loss of a loved one through death or the ending of a relationship of any kind which can include loss of cultural and geographical relationships
- a loss of meaning in life and a search for new meaning, also know as “existential angst”
- burnout from a chronic pattern of over-doing it/over-achieving; chronic lack of rest and fun
- the sadness and down feeling that comes from a chronic pattern of lack of self-care or self-deprivation
- ongoing relationship conflict or abuse and the valid negative impact that has
- lifestyle choices that make you feel bad or “depressed”
- a pattern of not setting and maintaining healthy boundaries
- putting everyone else’s needs before your own
- not letting yourself do more of what you like and love in life
- lots of self-criticism and self-judgment (and therefore, being starved for self-empathy, self-kindness, self-compassion)
- unacknowledged and unprocessed traumatic life experiences
If you’re struggling with one or more of the above, I suggest caution with the label of “depression”. It may get in the way of acknowledging and attending to the underlying causes. Calling it “depression” can be superficial. That lens can disregard that the sad, down, heavy, “depressed” feeling is a normal response to life and/or to how you’re living. Your body’s intelligent system is letting you know that some pain is going on, some important needs are not being met enough. It’s natural to not feel good when that is happening. It’s normal to be impacted by loss, pain, or lack of fulfillment. Your symptoms may not be pathological at all. You may not need a depression diagnosis and the drugs that often go along with it.
What you do need is to listen to, accept, and validate the emotional and physical information that is being communicated to you. It’s like a GPS system. Your symptoms are shouting “Hey, wrong turn. Not that route. Get back over here. This is the way you want go!” That part of you cares and has your back no matter how hard another part of you tries to silence it and ignore it. And that GPS part will keep shouting.
So, why not stop and listen to it? In my work with people, we stop and really listen to the symptoms, to that part of the self that is shouting out about the pain and the unmet needs. Through that process, empathy and validation begin to grow stronger, behaviours start to improve, important needs start to get met more, and feelings like heaviness and sadness start to lift.