April 6th, 2016: Just yesterday S* asked me how I was doing, and I honestly answered, “You know, it feels like everything I touch is turning to gold right now. It’s amazing.”
But today, the world feels dark. Really dark. I want to get out of bed and at least try to make something of myself, but I can’t. Whatever it is that normally draws me into the world is nowhere to found. Not even a glimmer.
Life feels monotonous, bland, uninspired, and pointless. If I’m being honest, I kind of hate myself, and I think I’m a jackass who’ll never amount to anything much.
Though I had plans to write, take meetings, and go out in the evening, I am spending the day in bed, eating cherry pop-tarts, watching Netflix, and feeling like shit.
When I wake up the next morning, I feel a bit better. Not great, but better. By the end of the following day, I’m glad to be alive again. I even feel playful.
Every now and then, the world caves in on me. Temporarily, I feel miserable. More than that, I feel like I’ll never be able to get back to the place where I love myself and my life again.
When this happens, I’m always tempted to think that I’m broken, flawed, or messed up. But almost everyone I know goes through periods of intense darkness or depression. As far as I can tell, my friends and clients who have the courage to live boldly, vivaciously, and creatively are more susceptible to darkness than those who stayed on the beaten path.
So let’s start there: if you periodically feel depressed, there is nothing wrong with you. You’re not broken; you don’t need to be fixed. In fact, I would argue that it’s a sign of truly being alive. The only people I know who don’t deal with depressed periods are those who have avoided pain so much that they end up behaving more like robots than humans. They’ve chosen (perhaps unconsciously) to numb themselves. By avoiding pain, they’re also avoiding the full human experience and failing to dwell in reality. To numb yourself is to move through life with muted feelings.
Short intense bursts of depression are normal parts of the human experience and can offer deep insights. They may not seem normal, because most people suffer in silence, which leaves everyone feeling like they are alone.
It also doesn’t help that many mental health “experts” imply that perpetual happiness is possible. It’s not.
The good news is that when the world grows dark, there are reliable ways to step back into the light. More than that, there are tools you can use to help you transform the darkness into something meaningful.
First, let the darkness in
Many people feel guilty for feeling bad. They think, “I’ve got food, a job, and friends. I shouldn’t feel like this. This isn’t ok. I should feel grateful for what I have.”1
This mindset signals to yourself that your naked feelings aren’t valid. The truth is much more simple: your feelings are valid, even if they don’t make sense or seem unwarranted. Telling yourself otherwise creates distance between yourself and your reality, which is counterproductive.
Another common reaction to feeling bad is trying to reframe your feelings into something positive. An example from a conversation I had a few weeks ago:
Me: “It hurts that S* only returns my calls when there’s something in it for him. We used to be such close friends. It took me years to notice that the relationship has become toxic, and now that I see it for what it is, I’m wrecked and embarrassed.”
C*: “Dude, don’t feel bad about that. S* treats everyone that way, and I’m sure he’d be there for you if you really needed it. Besides, you’re a well loved guy. People adore you; focus on that.”
While C*’s approach to dealing with difficult feelings is common, it’s also misguided. Attempting to reframe your feelings about a situation is the same as saying to yourself, “How I feel is somehow wrong.” Once again, that’s a bad idea and a form of self-denial.
Feeling guilty for feeling bad and reframing your feelings builds walls around your heart. While those walls are comforting in the moment, they come at the cost of divorcing you from your truth.
Instead of these mindsets, try something far bolder and more courageous: let the darkness in.
Feel the full force of your emotions and reality pressing down on you.
Succumbing to the darkness provides several counterintuitive benefits:
- It proves to yourself that you can handle the adversity. It forces you to confront the reality that you are stronger than the darkness within. When that reality clicks, you gain deep insight into yourself and your power.
- If you are meant to learn something from this bout of depression2, it will create space for you to gain clarity.
- It will begin the process of cleansing your system of the negative feelings.
Instead of fighting your feelings (which only exacerbates them), surrender.
Next, create space for the light
After letting the darkness in, the next step is to release the demons that are causing emotional chaos. During this process, you usually begin to feel relief.
The following five approaches are the ones that I find most effective. More importantly, they’ve generated positive results for the friends and clients I’ve shared them with. You don’t need to use all five; just experiment until you find the strategy that works best for you.
1) The “fuck you” game (warning: lots and lots of f-bombs coming up, even for me). This is my favorite technique and one that I use even when I’m feeling great. Start by going someplace private. Then say, “Fuck you” out loud to everything that you want to say “Fuck you” to. This can be to a person, a situation, an object, whatever.
The exercise looks something like this:
- “Fuck Walter for making me feel like an asshole”
- “Fuck money for being so captivating, so hard to come by, and so unfulfilling all at once”
- “Fuck being single when all of my friends are married”
- “Fuck my friends.”
- “Fuck trying to lose weight”
- “Fuck donuts”
- “Fuck CrossFit”
- “Fuck Kanye”
It doesn’t matter if you fully believe everything you say. It doesn’t matter if you’re hypocritical or inappropriate (if you need to tell puppies to go fuck themselves, do it). What matters is that you suspend judgment long enough to release the pent up tension. This may take three minutes, or three hours. You’ll notice that after this exercise you feel much, much lighter and more playful.
2) Stop pretending to be strong, and be weak already. Most of us – especially men – move through the world pretending to be stronger than we are. This is another form of self-denial. Instead of pretending to be strong, allow yourself to finally be weak. Collapse. Break. Cry. Sob. Allowing yourself to be weak will help clear out whatever you’ve been holding onto that’s bringing you down.
3) Talk to yourself. Depression shrouds you in dark illusions about yourself and the world. It creates a fog that distorts your truth. One way to cut through the fog is to ground yourself in reality. You can do this by talking to yourself out loud.
Yes, talking to yourself is kind of insane. That’s ok. It will help you conquer the darkness. While it’s tempting to just think about this stuff, it’s important that you put your feelings into words. Taking the time to name and identify ongoing issues crystallizes the situation and removes the fog.
Start by asking yourself, “What’s wrong?” and then answer yourself, stream of consciousness style. Resist the urge to judge your monologue. Instead, be curious. Try to understand yourself. Be gentle if what you’re saying makes no sense or seems petty.
Your dialogue might begin by being mundane or walled off. That’s fine. Use curiosity and persistence to press through. An abbreviated example:
You: “I feel crappy today. Really crappy.”
You: “Yeah, I noticed. Why do you feel that way?”
You: “I have no idea. I think I’m just messed up.”
You: “Yeah, but take a guess about what’s going on. It’s fine if you’re wrong.”
You: “Well, I mean, I’m not thrilled that I still have this shitty job; I wish I could find the courage to quit.”
You: “You’re not thrilled? That’s a pretty big understatement…”
You: “Ok. I’m wrecked. I hate that every single day I wake up and know that 9 hours of my time are going to be dominated by some stupid boss at a stupid company that I neither like nor respect. Worse still, I’m too cowardly to quit.”
You: “Is there anything you can do about that?
You: “Well, ok, but give me an idea, even if it’s a crappy one…”
And so on.
If it becomes clear that a certain person (or people) are causing dark feelings in you, talk through that too. For example:
You: “And I hate that Jessica is so aloof about our relationship.”
You: “What would you tell her?”
You: “I’d start by saying that I’m insanely – almost unfairly – attracted to her, but the way she ignores even my most basic emotional needs makes me feel really small…”
Many people suggest talking to loved ones when you’re depressed. This is excellent advice, and you should take it. Feeling the warmth of people you love will help you get back to your reality, but you should still talk to yourself. Even the most open people wear masks. To conquer bouts of depression, you need to take the mask off for a bit, and it’s generally easier to do this when you’re alone.
4) Rage! If you’re in touch with your body, then this strategy will be fun. Use physicality to clear your system of bad energy by throwing an adult version of a temper tantrum. Down a Redbull, blast some metal, and bounce off the walls. Beat the shit out of your pillows. Scream. Jump with all your force. Break plates on the ground. Throw mugs at the wall. Get one of those foam bats and whale on your couch.
5) Temporarily hold yourself to really, really low standards. We’ve already discussed how counterproductive it is to fight against your feelings. A much more effective strategy is to surrender to them. Spend the day in bed eating Pop-Tarts and watching Netflix. Let the clouds pass.
This is especially effective when combined with one or more of the strategies above. The combination of rest and release is often exactly what you need.
If you live with other people, let them know that you’re feeling down. You can also let them know that you’d like to be left alone.
As to which technique you should use – there’s no right or wrong here. Go with the ones that you’re drawn to. Different situations and feelings call for different techniques.
Take time to spot-check the basics
When working to improve mental health, it’s tempting to search for complicated and flashy solutions. You look for repressed childhood memories, subtle ways you’re sabotaging yourself, emotional vampires flying under the radar, and obscure micronutrient deficiencies. All of those things are important, but they’re not starting spots.
Instead, use this period of darkness as a reminder to spot-check the basics. Are you exercising? Are you hanging out with people you love? Are you sleeping enough? How’s your diet? If you’re neglecting any of these areas, then start paying attention to them. They are disproportionately important for your mental health. You don’t need to make huge sweeping changes to your life. Just go for a brisk walk, write an email to a friend, take a nap, eat a salad, whatever.
Remember: this too shall pass
The hardest part about short bursts of depression is that it feels like they will last forever, but I promise that the dark spells pass. You’ve experienced this before, and you’ve come out on the other side every single time.
One of your truths (though you may have forgotten it) is that you’ve been able to handle everything – literally everything – that life has thrown at you. This period of depression and darkness is no exception. The clouds will burn off.
Postscript 1: but what if the darkness doesn’t pass?
One of the most fucked up things we’ve done as a society is creating a stigma around mental health.
If your friend fell and broke her arm, you wouldn’t waste a second before telling her to go see a doctor.
Yet telling her that she should talk to someone to help her deal with her depression is a much more delicate conversation and one that generally doesn’t happen.
Admitting to yourself that you need help can be even harder.
So let me make this simple: everyone can benefit from a great psychologist. I mean literally everyone. You are not the exception to this rule (and of course, neither am I).
But even more to the point: if you’ve been feeling depressed for more than a few days or if your bouts of intense depression occur more than two or three times a year, please talk to someone. Being a human is difficult enough as is. There is no need to deal with additional suffering.
Yes, admitting that you need help is uncomfortable. Yes, you may not feel like you can afford it. Yeah, I know; you’re busy and don’t have the time. Yes, a lot of psychologists are idiots who aren’t smart enough to treat you.
I don’t care about any of that stuff. What I care about is you treating yourself well and getting the help you deserve. I promise you’ll be glad you did. By taking good care of yourself, you’ll create a better life for you. You’ll also be contributing to the creation of a world where mental health problems don’t come with the stigma.
Postscript 2: suicide
7:02pm, February 10th, 2011: I’ve just finished the final rehearsal for an upcoming speaking tour. The phone rings. It’s C*.
Me: “Hey, man! How’s it going?”
C*: “I’ve got some bad news… Remember M*?”
C*: “He’s dead…. He killed himself…. I confirmed it with his mother. They found him in his apartment. The note said he had been depressed for a long time, and it was no one’s fault. I’m so sorry…”
I knew M* well. He, C*, and I hung out every day during senior year of high school.
Though some may consider suicide selfish, I don’t buy it. I suspect that M* felt like he was being selfless when he killed himself. I imagine that in M*’s darkest moments, he felt that asking for help was too much of a burden to place on someone he loved. I imagine he felt so deeply broken that professional help would just be an exercise in futility. Though he would have been wrong on both counts, the illusion of being hopeless was overpowering.
Looking back, I wish I called him more. Just to say, “Hi,” to ask how he’s doing, to laugh about the time he and C* went “Ultimate Hiking.”
And I wish he called me. It wouldn’t have been a burden at all. I would have been honored by his trust and vulnerability. I know C* feels the same way.
Life gets painful. Happiness, meaning, connection, and love can be elusive. There are days when the world grows impossibly dark; the idea of waking up and dealing with 60 more years feels unbearable. These are the times when suicide seems like a viable option.
If you start to feel this way, here is what I want you to do: search for the slightest flicker of light amidst the pure darkness. Something imperceptibly small – even trivial – will do. Perhaps it’s the memory of a pet, a nice thing someone once said to you, or the dream of living with less pain in the future.
Now use that glimmer of light and hope to pick up the phone and call a suicide hotline. If you’re in the United States, call: 1-800-784-2433. If you’re outside the US, google “Suicide hotline [your country],” and call the number. Someone will be able help you. You’ll be glad you called and so will be the people who love you.
From there, work with a professional to conquer the depression. Yes, the world and its people can suck. Yes, there are times when it feels like being alive isn’t worth it. Yes, the path forward may be a turbulent one. Despite all this, it can get better, and you’re not alone. I promise.
- This type of emotional relativism, while common, is not particularly productive.
- Sometimes depression occurs as a reaction to a blind spot in our lives. In this case, allowing the darkness in will help you see what you’ve been missing. Other times depression just pops up as a normal part of being a person without any real rhyme or reason.