Reframing Depression: Is Depression Bad?
Severe depression can debilitate a person, robbing them of sleep, self-worth, and other ingredients of a healthy life. At its most extreme, depression can motivate a person to suicide. It’s important that people can notice and talk about severe depression when they see it in others, since diagnosis and treatment of severe depression can be life saving. Anyone suffering from severe depression is encouraged to seek treatment and, if needed, access a suicide prevention hotline.
That being said, I believe there’s a lot of space to reframe more common varieties of depression. Our culture has all-or-nothing beliefs about depression that can lead people to mishandle their depressed moods and make them into something toxic, distorted, and extra painful.
To reframe something means to see it in a new light.
A good starting place could be to acknowledge that there are different types of depression, and not just pathological, “mental illness” kinds.
To begin with, we could speak of normal depression and toxic depression (like I did above). This simple distinction could help people to notice the different shades and functions of depression.
For example, depressed moods—including sadness and melancholy—can encourage you to seek out much-needed solitude. Or they can lead you to find support from loved ones. Both of these are examples of how handling a depressed mood properly can move your life forward, bringing you closer to the ingredients you need to live and grow.
Instead, we act as if the verdict is already in on depression: it’s bad, and needs to be gotten rid of. We leave no space to find something positive or useful in depressed moods.
There is a line from Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet that I love very much.
“Why do you want to shut out of your life any agitation, any pain, any melancholy, since you really do not know what these states are working upon you?”
Why do we avoid so-called “negative” experiences (including depression)? We don’t want to suffer unnecessary pain, but maybe we go overboard in our attempts to rid ourselves of all suffering. Maybe, because we can’t sense the difference between normal depression and toxic depression, we try to shut all of it out.
Rilke’s question also suggests that we don’t always know which pain is necessary and which isn’t. We may resist our suffering, telling ourselves we shouldn’t be feeling this, only to later realize that we were being changed in some deep way. Sometimes we need the distance of age to look back at a difficult time in our life and see that we were being shaped and seasoned in ways we couldn’t then understand. We were being “worked upon”, as Rilke says.
How does this happen? How can depressed moods help us? Thomas Moore, author and therapist, gives us one answer.
Depression as an Opening
In some depressions, “reflection deepens, thoughts embrace a large sense of time”.
In a depressed mood, you might think about your past, turn over lost loves and missed opportunities. You do this not to beat yourself up or wallow in pity, but to process these important events of your life. “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it,” wrote George Santayana. Depressed moods can be a way of remembering and making meaning of your past, thereby letting it come to rest.
In this way, depression can act like a doorway to past wounds, letting each of us work with the pains and losses that we carry hidden and packaged-up in our day-to-day lives.
From this perspective, depression isn’t an illness: it’s a unique way of being that our culture hasn’t prepared us to enter and make use of.
Learning to meet depressed moods in the right way is a skill. This is not to blame anyone who is struggling with severe depression. Few of us are told that these moods can be met creatively and usefully. Our muscles are atrophied here.
But we always have the option of approaching our depressions differently.
Is Depression Bad?
“Is depression bad?” Once you reframe depression, the question sounds strange. It’s like asking, “Is water bad?”, or “Is a wave bad?” Depression is a thing of this world just as valid as anything else. Plus, there’s no one depression, just like there’s no one weather. Some depressions are gentle and kind in the way they slow us down, while others are fierce and unforgiving.
Maybe we can say that a depressed mood is bad when it enters our life in the wrong way, or when we aren’t able to shape it into something useful or bearable. Even then, we risk misjudging as bad something that hasn’t yet revealed its secret purpose, and that eventually shows itself to be helpful or formative to our character. (So much of our suffering only makes sense later, when the patterns of our lives begin to show themselves.)
Our job is to meet depressed moods like deep sadness and melancholy in the right way—to bring them into our lives in such a way that they do what they need to do, and then leave us. And they do eventually leave. Even the majority of major depressions do come to an end.1“Recovery typically begins within 3 months of onset for two in five individuals with major depression and within 1 year for four in five individuals.” American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (DSM-5®). American Psychiatric Pub. p.165. “No feeling is final,” wrote Rilke.
Thomas Moore again: “What if ‘depression’ were simply a state of being, neither good nor bad, something the soul does in its own good time and for its own good reasons?”
So, try to not call your depression bad. Give up being the judge of what feeling is good and what feeling is bad. Quit insulting your depression. Give it space to do its thing. Ask it what it needs. Then decide if you can (or want to) give this to it.
The point is to give up judging your depression. Our perspectives are so limited, and there’s so much we don’t know. Like Rilke wrote, we really don’t know what our suffering is working upon us.
We don’t know which experiences, emotions, or moods we need to have in order to become the people we want to be.
A Strange Kind of Trust
“Even further, we may have to develop a taste for the depressed mood, a positive respect for its place in the soul’s cycles.” – Thomas Moore
Rilke and Moore have an impressive amount of trust in emotions. They don’t claim to know why we feel what we do, but they have faith that our emotions are part of a deeper movement (“the soul’s cycles”). In this movement, we become something else. We grow and ripen.
It’s not all positive and romantic. Life tosses us around, and we get bruised along the way.
Still, it’s possible to trust the larger arc of your emotional life. You can relate to your feelings as allies and friends (kind of like this awesome lady talks about here).
This is not easy, especially at the beginning. But a lot of great things aren’t easy at the beginning—and most of us are beginners here. We have little practice accepting and welcoming our suffering. Our avoidance muscles are strong, and our acceptance muscles are weak.
So, expect it to be difficult at first. How could it be easy so quickly? It’s okay for it to be difficult. It’s okay to want to never feel any depression ever again. But keep practicing accepting. Keep trying to befriend what you want to get rid of. With time and patience, this intention will spread its roots through your life.
It’s not easy, but in the end, it can be more than worth the struggle.
Conclusion – Reframe Your Depression
Here are some simple and practical ways to reframe your depressed moods.
1. Make the distinction between normal depression and toxic depression. Practice sensing the difference.
2. Stop saying that depression is bad. Quit judging what you don’t know.
3. Look for anything positive in your depressed mood. Where does it lead you? What does it open up for you?
“Faced with depression, we might ask ourselves, ‘What is it doing here? Does it have some necessary role to play?’”Thomas Moore
The bottom line is this: If you reframe your depressed moods, you can change your attitude—your mental model—in such a way that you handle depressed moods the right way. The right way for you.