When I’m seriously depressed, I get advice from the people who care about me. Some of these are professionals, and some are not. All of them have good intentions. The worse my depression is, the more likely they are to be a little uncertain as to the best way to help.
I can be very defensive when it comes to input about my condition–as I and others have written, living with a mental health condition involves dealing with stigma, assumptions and intrusive opinions sometimes. This produces a cumulative effect of defensiveness if I don’t process it well. Add the tendency toward defensiveness many addicts have, and I end up with a porcupine wrapped around my head.
A good friend in recovery bought me lunch last week, and I opened up to her about my worsening condition. She was very supportive, and also gave me some feedback about things she saw in my story. My internal reactions–and some of my external ones–were defensive. I wanted to reply no, you don’t understand to just about everything. When I managed to work through that I got a lot out of some of the feedback, including a couple of very important insights.
It made me think about the spectrum of defensiveness I display; a spectrum I am sure others have experienced too. Defensiveness, like any other trait and behavior, can be diagnostic. For example, in addiction treatment, many relapse prevention education materials name increased defensiveness as a warning sign that one’s recovery may be in danger.
For me, defensive thinking falls into three basic categories. The first one is what I think of as a “healthy” level. In this state, I can evaluate advice or feedback calmly and with an open mind. I’m able to say honestly: “I’ll think about that,” or “Maybe you’re right,” or “That sounds like something I should try.” If it’s something I have tried before or if I truly feel the advice is wrong for me, I’m able to handle that appropriately too. Depending on the person, I might talk about why that is or I might decide the best thing is to change the subject at the first opportunity. If I’m hearing things that reflect a lack of understanding, I don’t take it personally.
The second category is when I am feeling prickly, insecure, and irritable about the fact that the world has opinions. I have trouble telling the difference between advice and criticism. Any suggestions are heard as negative judgments or commentary on how I must not be doing enough. Or suggestions are heard as invalidating the depth and nature of what I am experiencing.
That reaction can have its roots in a very real, very valid frustration. It is maddening, sometimes, to try to explain clinical depression to someone who thinks it means feeling down. The best description I’ve ever heard of it was crafted by the writer Allie Brosh in her article called “Adventures in Depression, Part II.” In this humorous and also heartwrenching account, she captures the feeling of disconnect one can have when dealing with those who seem, while we are in the throes of an episode, to be living on another planet and speaking a different language.
(Aside: Allie Brosh is funny and amazing and one of us. Read her website. You know I never promote things, so, seriously. HyperboleandaHalf.com.)
Anyway, this level of defensiveness has its dangers because when it gets out of control, I get rebellious. Like a disgruntled teenager, I begin to feel that since nobody is ever going to understand how hard I’m trying, I might as well do what I want. So it’s important for me to rein it back if I can. I need to be willing to ask myself: is this suggestion I’ve just been given truly off-target, or is just something I think I can’t do? If I don’t think I can do it, is that true–or is the truth that I don’t want to do it? What am I afraid of, or what don’t I want to give up?
The third category of defensiveness is the most dangerous one. Dangerous, insidious and life-sapping. It’s the one where I shut down. Instead of reacting, I absorb everything like a sponge and funnel it straight to the Department of Self-Loathing Generation: Yes, you’re undoubtedly right, and that’s something I should be doing. That’s something I should be feeling. I am sure that, if I were not so pathetic and lazy, I would go out and follow your advice right now. Oh, you’ve just made another helpful suggestion. Your suggestion makes perfect sense. That fact that I’m not following it is further evidence that I don’t deserve anyone’s compassion.
This state usually goes with a pretty worrisome level of depression–a level in which nearly all outside input gets transformed into fuel for this internal anti-fire. Right now I’m slipping in and out of this place, and it worries me. That’s my truth today.
You, whoever you are, who are thinking this way today–your shame fueled by the concerns of others–I don’t agree with what you are thinking about yourself right now. I don’t agree that you’re pathetic, or lazy, or beyond help. In fact I disagree quite strongly. Strongly enough to see the illogic of having such beliefs about my own self.