The difficulty I encounter the most among people suffering from depression who come to see me is the inability to let themselves be sad.
I know, it can seem completely counter-intuitive. Depressed people are sad all the time, aren’t they?
Well, yes and no. People suffering from depression can’t help but being sad. That’s actually quite different.
The common backstory people suffering from depression share when they come to see me and other mental health professionals, despite taking countless different shapes, could be generalized in 2 sentences :
“I was okay for years. But now, things are just too hard, and I don’t know why, or even if I do, I can’t do anything about it.”
But when we start to dig up the details of that back story, I ALWAYS end up having to say at some point : “Well, from what you are telling me, you were not that happy or even okay, you know? That’s more about ignoring hard and painful issues that had existed for a long time the best you could, until they’re too big to be ignored. Can you see the difference? It’s an important one.”.
(Yes, I don’t dick around at work. I pledge for radical honesty from the very beginning. Authenticity is kind of like the opera, you either love it, or hate it, but the response is usually visceral.)
The truth is, I’ve never met the mythical person who actually were really happy until they were depressed, and I even don't believe they exist.
Depression is like rust, it creeps up on us slowly, bit by bit.
And the best way to get depressed, is actually to avoid being sad for too long.
Some of us are so good at avoiding sadness that they don’t really feel it anymore or are simply ignoring it, act as if it doesn’t exist or isn’t that important. Here’s how it can look like.
Yesterday, my favourite person came into the bedroom while I was writing on our bed. He seemed down, a bit sluggish. His eyes looked sad. I asked how he was feeling, he answered “Fine”. (Sometimes I wonder : is anyone saying they’re fine ever that fine?)
I replied that he didn’t seem that fine, and offered a hug, which he readily accepted. We spent some time chatting, I asked about how his day was going.
He kept giving me information that were infused of sadness, not really connecting the dots. “I don’t know why but since we came home from holidays, it’s hard. […] I don’t want to take care of myself, I’m resisting it for some reason. […] I just watched an episode of South Park, and it was fine, you know, but I felt empty somehow. […] As if I couldn’t tell why I did watch it in the first place. […] I played that game I like, but I stopped, because it wasn't that fun, even if I haven’t played for a while. […] I went back to my online class about music production, but part of me didn’t care anymore, at all. I don’t know what’s up.”
Sadness can have many different shapes besides crying. Losing interest in what we love and taking care of ourselves. Emptiness. Loneliness. Restlessness. Craving things that leave us worse than they met us.
All the while, he was apologizing for “bringing me down” or “ruining our nice moment together”. He wasn't allowing himself to be sad.
I just answered “You’re allowed to be sad, you know. I’m sorry, it sounds hard.”
And kept asking a few questions so he could let it out. Sometimes, that’s our job as partner, being there for each other in ways the other can't.
He told me that being with me was kind of the only thing seemingly helping, so I answered by asking how lonely he felt lately.
He ended up admitting that he was questioning a lot of his relationships. Especially since one of our conversations during our vacation, that brought to evidence some things he was very unhappy about in the way he was interacting with others, but not realizing it, since it was always his normal. He told me about how it always was hard on him and his self-esteem.
I asked even bigger questions like “Were you guys allowed to be sad in your family when you grew up? Is that an allowed emotion, have you seen it in others, especially your parents?”. He wasn’t. It’s very hard for a child to not see anyone sad and okay to be sad in its environment, it can make them feel like they’re bad or not strong enough to feel sadness. But we all need to feel every emotion that exists to feel fully alive, not only the ones we were taught were okay.
We snuggled some more, I hugged him tight, told him how much I loved him.
We agreed that journalling would probably help him sort all this out better, and so was some more quiet and still time, rather than the busy pace he was having this week. He left the room a little bit lighter.
Today, I smiled seeing him going back to what matters the most to him : playing and creating music. I also know he talked about sadness with his therapist. He’s bravely listening to his pain, and it’s already alleviating it.
He was having a hard time letting himself be sad, feel it. At least for a while, he would have kept keeping himself busy, trying to ignore those underlying feelings he didn’t seem very aware of. Feeling unworthy for having perfectly human emotions.
Despite learning how to better be in touch with his feelings, sadness is one he carried for a long time and struggles to address, like so many of us.
Others can feel sad once in a while, but then hop on the “solving feelings” train right away. Here’s how that might present itself.
Last week, I was chatting with a dear friend about her relationship to a game we are playing together. I was surprised to learn that she didn’t really find it fun.
Not that everyone would find Scrabble fun, but I don’t play anything I don’t find fun. To me, play that isn’t fun is just about passing time by, and I don’t see the point.
We discussed about the difference between pleasure and joy, a topic dear to my heart, and how joy, despite being hard to get, more fleeting, was infinitely more nourishing.
We talked about how the difference in her physical sensations, that that spark in her belly when she was sharing a lovely moment with her son or her husband was joy, while this tiny explosion in her head when she was scoring high in a game was pleasure.
A few days later, she shared that since our talk about it, she felt a bit sad, like maybe she didn’t have enough joy in her life. She also naturally renounced to some of the things she found pleasure in, but no joy, without even thinking about it.
She’s someone very skilled at creating pleasure in her life, in multiple ways. She can seem like a very joyful person. But from my eye and all my work on joy, it seems slightly forced oftentimes. Losing some pleasure and questioning this, even if she was willing to do it, shakes some of who she is.
The thing is, we cannot create joy like we can pleasure. Joy only exists in the present moment. So worry robs us from joy, so do multitasking, keeping busy, judging, evaluating, problem solving, being on our phones while being with our loved ones… A lot of the things that we tend to do all day long.
Right after admitting she was saddened by this realization, she proceeded to tell me about how she changed her journalling habits to list all positive and joyful emotions she had, instead of her gratitude journalling, often more about what she achieved. Achievement gives us pleasure, but not necessarily joy.
I replied I thought the idea was wonderful, and would probably help her find the places where she was getting the most joy in her life, which would probably make her realize she doesn’t need that much for it to happen. Joy is simple. It doesn’t need money, fame, achievement, power, status…
But it needs things a lot of us tend to miss nowadays : presence and authenticity, being wherever we are and whoever we are. Letting ourselves feel wonder, surprise, curiosity, love, fragility, vulnerability…
After supporting her great idea (gratitude is an amazing fuel for joy), I shared something dear to my heart though, because I could feel she was “solving” some of her sadness by filling up her cup with positive emotions instead.
“You know though, it’s okay to be sad. Sadness is our inner child telling us that something is missing or lost. Apparently, yours doesn’t feel like your life has all the joy you could get and expect from life. That’s important information. I hope you’ll keep that in mind and see what that means for you.”
I know that through her new journalling practice of gratitude, she’ll get valuable information. By giving up some pleasure practices, she’s making space for her sadness. I am really looking forward to how this might unfold for her, the kind of joy and meaning she will get out of this.
While writing this text tonight, I wondered about my own sadness.
About this crazy week of “writing boot camp” I just went through. The lack of self care it entailed. The cravings for social media and sugary treats it produced.
Am I avoiding my sadness too?
I used to, for years. Depression was a very old friend of mine, she even brought her sister, Suicidal thoughts, with her into my life, several times.
So I’m always kind of on the lookout. Which can tell you I’m an anxious being. And something I am working on, because it is robbing me of some of my joy.
Then, I smiled at how much I progressed. No I’m not avoiding anything. I’m both tending to it and addressing it. Here’s how that can manifest.
For the past year, I experimented with different things in my art and in my work. I changed things up. Some were great, others were less, but taught me what I didn’t want in my life, absolutely as necessary as knowing what we want.
I went through a lot of grief : when we change a lot of things, it’s normal that consequent sadness is part of our emotional landscape.
We say goodbye to life as we know it, good things we cherished. Sadness is both asking and reacting to change depending on the situation, sometimes it’s both at the same time.
During the summer, I became restless, I had a few breakdowns about different seemingly unrelated things. But I know better than that. Sadness has a core and manifests itself in different ways.
I was planning on starting a 100 days project in November. One melt down had to do with the fact I didn’t really write since last year, except for little pieces here and there and publications not Instagram. Writing, but not that fulfilling.
I use IG as a practicing platform, because writing tends, like all the things that are deeply important to us, to bring to the surface our favourite personal issues as ways to avoid facing hardship and its best friend, fear.
Going forward lovingly implies that we take continuous baby steps. Rushing the process is self-abuse and self-sabotage.
I had other things planned before the project, things I was hoping to prepare me. They fell out, and the disappointment I felt was disproportionate.
Overreacting to other things (even with anger or frustration) is another sneaky way sadness can show up in our lives. That feeling we have when we hang on to tight to some things in order to compensate how lost and sad we feel.
I decided, despite the fear coming up, to listen to it and start the 100 days project 3 days later, on the first of September. Since then, things have been quite intense, in the best and worse ways.
Things that we find really meaningful, like writing is to me, especially writing about my beloved work and its related learnings, get us to a very tender place.
If you feel emotional when you do things you really care about and give all of you to it, don’t worry, that’s a great sign you’re on your way towards personal greatness, that what you do is deeply aligned with your core values.
It doesn’t mean that it’s too hard for you or you’re not up for it. It just means it’s important to you.
So of course, I felt a lot of things since the beginning of this project. For a while, just by writing everyday, sadness evaporated, at least around not writing enough, since I was doing it, and it was quite hard, but I was still showing up. It felt so great to keep that daily promise, no matter what, after a year with so little writing and even less consistency.
I also decided to start a year of life coaching including a community to help and support me with everything I was working on, but feeling lonely about doing by myself. Lonely is also a kind of sadness, one telling us about our need for company and/or for help. And for a while, I got very excited starting all those things up, tons of exercises to reflect on where my life is at and what I want, the feeling I was moving forward.
When it got easier and my life quieter though, it got harder.
Note that this is normal too : in the calm and quiet, we face a more naked, transparent self. Being sad then doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be in that calm and quiet, just that chaos speaks louder than the feelings we avoid.
My mind fed me with another kind of sadness, one that is actually hiding fear : self-doubt and discouragement. I was disappointed in myself. My ego got ruthless. I was feeling like my writing wasn’t valuable enough, I wasn’t conveying what I wanted, and I didn’t even really know what I wanted. I felt like a failure.
I thought about trying to work on more writing, on those bigger, more polished pieces I wanted to publish in a more public way, but I was feeling too tired and overwhelmed to take on such big new endeavours. So instead, against my panicky mind’s advice, I took a break.
When we need grounding, we need to seek stillness, stepping out of chaos.
I took the opportunity of upcoming holidays to follow my coach’s nudge and take a 2 weeks social media retreat. It felt like such a relief that I followed for the next week the advice of two of my favourite creative mentors, Julia Cameron, and Twyla Tharp and made it a media retreat during my vacation. I noticed during that week that I doubled up on pleasure and achievement : podcasts, online classes, books, TED talks… It felt great, but also not like what I wanted, which was making space. So I made more space. No books, no movies, no TV shows, no social media.
And of course, the very first night of our vacations, I couldn’t sleep, and I ended up crying my eyes out on a beautiful beach, under thousands of stars. Sobbing into my partner’s arms about everything, feeling discouraged about my whole life. He listened calmly, I was thankful that he didn’t overreact, letting go through some of my stuff. We clarified some issues we had that night, and felt more connected than ever.
The days after, I was still cranky, often restless. I kept caring for myself the best I could. We went on little adventures, it was awe-some (in the purest sense of the term). Instead of trying to hide how I was feeling, I asked for the space to feel whatever I was feeling. “Leave me be please. If I annoy you, say so, or take a walk. But I need to feel all that.”
Because I did, it happened what always happens when we let ourselves feel and listened to the feelings. It passed.
I planned on having some help to dig deeper by commit to another challenge on the side : 30 days of Kleon, another one of my favourite creative mentors, conveniently writing books with 10 neat chapters looking like prompts.
Everyday, I read a chapter, play with it, and publish a post about the result in any way I please. I keep answering the sadness of not having enough serious writing in my life by showing up more consistently on the Internet and sharing my stuff. While working lovingly on my creativity. And see where that brings me.
When we treat emotions as the important information they are, we can finally get to that magical place where our favourite life happens. Not a stress-free, fast, fun and easy life (that doesn't exist), but one that feels full of joy and worth every hardship we go through.
So please, my dear hummingbird, don’t dismiss your feelings, they’re often shitty advisors, but great informants.
And if you are doing just this, if you are in the middle of your personal mess, happy or sad, and feel like you are all over the place and overwhelmed, know that’s it’s perfectly normal, and even the sign you are on a very personal and intimate track to the your gold, the core of your personal values.You’re doing great my dear hummingbird, trust yourself.