I’ve been a little paralyzed to write since the utterly unexpected popularity of my “Depression is a Trip” post. How do you follow something that seems to speak to so many people? And of course, depression tells us that we can’t, that any success was a fluke, that really we’re fakes, and the world will soon discover our deception and unmask us as the failures we are.
I wrote that post for myself, because metaphor helps me think, and for my husband, who wants to solve everything for me because he is an engineer and a man and he loves me. I wrote it because I couldn’t not write it.
All of which is, perhaps, an apologetic lead-up to this post. Which is exactly the point.
One of the most interesting comments on that other post was about apologizing. The commenter’s point was that people with depression should no more apologize for their depression than people with cancer should apologize for having cancer. I agree, and I’ve been thinking about that. And then I came across this comic, which suggests changing our wording, so that instead of saying, “I’m sorry” we say “Thank you.” When we feel like a burden on our loved ones, the comic recommends, we should thank them for their love and support rather than apologizing.
This recommendation is both lovely and smart. Words matter. Practicing gratitude has been linked to greater happiness and other benefits. And being acknowledged for their own wonderful selves gives our friends and loved ones more strength and energy to continue to support us. “Thank you” creates a positivity loop.
Depression, however, throws a huge roadblock in front of many who want to practice gratitude—a giant tree across the road. People who say “I’m sorry” instead of “Thank you” are plagued by the deep belief that we are unworthy. Unworthy of anyone else’s time, effort, or love. Unworthy of any good thing in our lives. Unworthy of existing.
I’m not saying that every depressed person feels this, or feels it all the time. But many people with depression truly believe that their loved ones—and the world—would be better off without them. They think, if they were gone, that those who cared for them would feel relieved, would think, “Well, at least I don’t have to worry about them anymore.”
Thus the tendency to apologize in the first place. If you believe you are unworthy of anything—including existing—then it’s very, very hard to thank people for giving you love and understanding. You think, “If I wasn’t such a loser, they wouldn’t have to give me so much. If I were worthy, I’d be supporting them, saving the world, and making a ton of money in the process.”
The practice of gratitude can help us chip away at that deep feeling of unworthiness, because the words we use—both to other people and in our heads—affect the narrative we create about ourselves. But we also need to have compassion for ourselves and others who apologize for existing. Don’t take the suggestion as another voice telling you that you’re doing something wrong. Use this re-visioning of your interactions with others as a way to begin noticing your beliefs about yourself. Notice those beliefs, but do not judge them.
In noticing that you feel unworthy, you are recognizing that there’s another part of yourself: the part doing the noticing. This is the part that can become the gardener of your mind and soul. Remember that gardens are long-term projects, complex, affected by the weather, in need of attention but also resilient enough to survive a little neglect. Remember that a seedling planted now may take months or even years to bloom.
And so I must consciously end this post with gratitude and not apology. Thank you, readers, for reading this. Thank you for continuing to engage with the world, even when you don’t feel like it, because your courage to do so gives me courage. Thank you to everyone who thinks about this existence thing, who puzzles through what we can do to make it better, who offers suggestions and insight and experience. You support me, and I am grateful.