kicking the depression stigma

                               behind_the_mask_by_ookami_seaempress

I hate the negative stigma in our society that comes with being sad and depressed, or struggling. As someone who works in the mental health field, I see how this stigma affects people every day. Recently I came across an article on Huffington Post about “types of friends worth keeping forever.” Although one can see it as a insightful article on the choice we have in making friends and the ones we “should” keep, there was one caveat that I found a little disconcerting. For one of the types, the article’s author wrote, “People who are upbeat.” She further elaborated on those who are the opposite, or not upbeat, “They are those folks who ruminate over every little problem in their life again and again — and yet never make one move to change their situation. They are Debbie Downers. And they bring me down. Misery loves company and downbeat friends generally are more interested in your bad news than your good news. People who are positive and motivated and optimistic and who lift up those around them are worth hanging on to.

Perhaps I am making it out to be more than it seems. And I can completely see the author’s intention in writing this. Upbeat people are nice to be around… they make you feel good. It’s good to have them in your life. However. Whether it is intentional or not (and I want to hope that it is not), just in the way she frames her words, she is implicitly encouraging the aforementioned stigma. These upbeat people are the “types of friends worth keeping,” and only those who are “upbeat” are “worth hanging on to.” I could not help but feel after reading that that one could easily read this piece and come away feeling they are “not worthy” to be a friend, or worth keeping to someone else because they are suffering with depression, or are struggling deeply and find it immensely difficult to “pretend to be happy.” Am I supposed to make you happy and talk only about good things in order to be a friend worth keeping? What if I am reaching out to you for support? Does that mean I can’t because it might bring you down? It’s as if I have to hide away my issues and pain, so I won’t be a “Debbie Downer” and bring people down, like this article writer. I need to find a way to put a mask on so people will accept me and want to be around me.

As a therapist trainee, I am seeing clients who suffer with depression, anxiety, relational issues, trauma, sexual abuse, the list goes on. And for many of them, I see them minimize their issues, feel left alone in their struggles (most likely by those who avoid “Debbie Downers”), and feel shame for feeling what they do. They constantly seek validation from me to know that it is okay to feel and think the way they do. I have found just by the act of validating my clients’ feelings, they feel greatly empowered… and it is because we are constantly de-validating each other in this society and forcing one another to “be happy.” And I can’t help but think, how would this society if we just allowed others to express sadness and suffering? What if upbeat wasn’t the main goal, but instead being authentic and genuine with ourselves and with others? Many of my clients would not be needing to come into my office, of that I am sure.

This is a long diatribe, but essentially what I want to get out is that I am not in agreement with the negative concept this article writer is (unintentionally) transmitting. What I do support is this: you are worthy as a friend and as a person, regardless of your mood, whether you are happy or sad. You are not a label (i.e., Debbie Downer). And you are NOT your emotion. You are a complex and beautiful person. You have a right to love and be loved, and you have a right to exist. No one else has the power to define you, except for you.

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fighting to be yourself

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I’m sick of being told who to be, of people who do not know the real me defining my identity, blubbering, “‘X’ is who you are.” Yet you judge me based on your experience of reality; your view and social construction of reality is not true for everyone else. I’m sick of you making generalizations based on minute encounters… you have not seen my mind, my heart, my passions. I’m sick of you making judgments of what I can and cannot do. I’m sick of you thinking that you can “read” people–spouting pride until you are naught but a forest of arrogance. I’m sick of you assuming without looking at the BIG picture, as if everyone views the world the same way as you, as if people are not any different, shaped by their own unique life situations. That social, familial, socioeconomic, gender, and racial arenas do not make a difference. I’m sick of you saying that you know who I am, and shoving that mold on me as if I’ll fit. I only have this to say to you. Get your head out of the fucking sand. You are not God. You cannot read my mind and you cannot judge my character when you made no attempt to understand who I am.

I spent most of my life letting people define me, telling me who I was and what I was capable of. People have given me unsolicited advice and have shoved their standards and views onto me, forcing me to accept them as “truth.” But growing up, I begun to see that their words have as much power as I give them. I think that many of us still continue to live being affected by this, subconsciously operating on the assumption that people hold much more power over us than they actually do. That their words somehow matter and how they view us is a reflection of who we are. But having spent my whole life encountering people who have gotten “me” wrong, I came to realize that people are much worse at reading me than they think they are. If I had continue to let everyone’s words define me, I would not be here writing this. Ever since I was 5, people have told me that I’m: ugly, unattractive, weird, different, a loser. Kids either made fun of me or ignored me. I was ostracized for my racial identity and experienced terrible racism. Most of the time, I was not worth attention, unless it was negative. I spent a majority of my life believing I was not good enough for others.

I suffered with dysthymia (a chronic kind of depression) for 9 years of my life and in all honesty, I may have followed through with killing myself if I continued to believe in those horribly untrue definitions people told me. But now those words have no power over me. Because I am a strong advocate of the postmodern view, that the world, as well as who we are and how we see others, is individually constructed. We all see life through a unique lens that is molded by our experiences. I construct my own identity, regardless of whatever interpretations or assumptions people make on that based on their experiences. Their words have no power, because I have stopped giving them power. Even if people today say that I’m: pretty, attractive, smart, intelligent, open… I do not need their confirmation to know I am those things. And when people say negative things, or things that are completely incongruent with my identity, I pay them no heed. Because whether good or bad, people are not constructing my identity.

And there is such freedom in that. Because when you break it down, life is based on your perspective. You, and only you, hold the power to construct your life and your identity. These people only define you when you let them. We always have a choice… a choice to rise above what society dictates, those harming standards, to not be like them or think like them, to be a complete you, without hesitation. There will always be people who will not appreciate who you are and what you are worth. But if their words don’t matter, then that won’t matter either. In your lifetime, the world will never stop shoving its standards on you, seducing you to follow as they do. But don’t give up. Be courageous. Push back. Define your own standards. Fight for your passions, for what’s true in your heart, and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. You have to learn to fight for yourself, in order to learn to fight for anything else in this world.