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Are you drawing away from your depressed friend because you can't seem to make them better?

This might come as a surprise, but for all your good intentions, maybe we've got a You Problem here? Depressed friends are just no fun are they? Sure, we're all sympathetic right? We try and be there for them when we can, checking in on social media maybe, occasionally trying to engage with them in person or online. I mean, we do our best - invite them to stuff even (they perhaps decline, or aren't themselves, or disappear for whole periods of the party because they can't cope, or leave early). We're not the kind of people who sign up for this whole 'pull yourself together' nonsense after all... And then, sometimes, we pull away. We may not even realise that we're doing it. But when we reflect on having not seen them for ages, perhaps we think , 'Well, I tried'. We couldn't get through and it's too demanding to keep up the efforts to include them in our lives. We did our best, but they quite often would just say no to our attempts to help. And if they did show up, there was always a danger that they might bring their misery with them. If any of that rings true - and yes, it's a caricature, but stay with me - then have you thought that what we have here is actually a You Problem? Ok, 'problem' is perhaps a bit harsh. You're doing your best and that's great. But my intention here is to ask a few questions about what's going on inside you when you are trying to support someone with depression, and how recognising that can hopefully help you identify some of the feelings that could be pushing you out of the life of a person who needs you.

As human beings we love to be able to feel like we have agency in life. To be able to do things, to fix things, to shape our lives. The loss of those feelings can actually be a trigger for mental illness and depression itself, but it's more the non-depressed you, with your depressed buddy, to whom I am talking here. When we are unable to make a difference to our own experience, (and that can include being unable to influence the mood of someone who is depressed, with it's attendant effect on the day we are having), then that can create frustration, distress and discomfort inside. All emotions we'd rather not have. Equally, we love to see who we feel we are reflected back to us in the reactions of others. When we're kind and considerate to someone, we are communicating an inner perspective on ourselves to the world - we're saying 'I am a kind and considerate person'. And it's gratifying to see that confirmed in the response of the other. But when that hoped for reaction doesn't come back, it hurts us. In psychology, this is all about a term called the 'narcissistic wound' (don't worry about that loaded word 'narcissistic', in this setting it simply means the energy we all direct inwardly to create a sense of ourselves and to look after that). If you spend time with someone who's chronically and significantly depressed, you might find that they are unable to give you the tacit confirmation of the value of your actions (and thus your value as a person) that you (like us all) instinctively seek. It's not that they don't want to respond. At some level, they will probably see your efforts and appreciate them. Their cognitive mind will notice and understand what you are trying to do, and likely your valiant, caring motives. But in the depths of depression, their battery has got so flat that the trickle charge still available from it may only be sufficient to keep themselves going in the barest of ways. Depending on how bad it feels for them, there might not be enough juice left to be able to get out of the house to meet you for lunch, or to smile at your attempts to lift their spirits, or even, if things get really difficult, get dressed, or out of bed. There's not enough energy to expend on reflecting back to you the self-image that at some level you - we all - need to see. To crash metaphors...they're in the cabin of a plane that's decompressed. The oxygen masks have dropped and there's just enough air coming through. They have to focus on keeping their own mask on, nothing else. As a result of all this, you might get very little back. Or nothing. But your depressed friend will be desperate that you don't give up on them. They'll probably know (and might well be ashamed of) how little appreciation they can muster and wish, deeply, that it weren't so. They may remember when it wasn't like this, when they could be the person that you made friends with years ago and the fact that this person now seems to be completely missing in action can pile more even shame onto them. If you finally drift away, frustrated, feeling strangely unappreciated or even wounded, you can add to the feeling of isolation that their self-hatred tells them is all they're worth anyway. As they get more lonely their pain deepens further, fueled by a voice inside that knows exactly what's happened but twists events to torture them. "Now you're even more alone", it says. "They really tried. You did this". Being with someone who's depressed can be - literally - thankless. If what I have written here rings true for you and a friend or family member you are trying to support, I do want to say thank you, because they might not be able to. Take care of yourself too, ok? This work is hard, especially if it seems fruitless and if it's hurting, think about talking to someone else. Share what you've been trying to do, how it's felt with them - they're more likely to be able to give you the reassurance you inwardly need. Please don't abandon your depressed buddy. Keep contact. They are inside there, hearing your words, seeing your actions. Keep reassuring them that you aren't going anywhere and that they can just 'be' however they need to be when they are with you. Let them talk about their feelings if that's what they want to do. Or if not, that's ok too. Just be present in some way. And don't try and 'fix' them, because if you do you may be setting yourself up for another wounding ("I'm a helpful person...but this person won't accept or acknowledge the value of my help. What does that say about me?"). Above all else, they need love, support, patience, forbearance and continuity of relationships (plus perhaps other things, like therapy, or meds) to help them fix themselves. They may desperately want to be able turn up for you in return for your kindness, but they just cannot, at the moment. Who knows, maybe one day you'll need a friend like the one you are showing that you can be? ********* Jo Shaw is a psychotherapist practicising in London, UK. She sees clients both in person and online and can be reached at Image credit:


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