You don’t need empathy to support a depressed person

When a friend was hospitalized for appendicitis, people flocked to visit him at the hospital. When I was clinically depressed, some who knew it avoided me like the plague. But I completely understand — it’s natural for us to be afraid of the unfamiliar, including unfamiliar illnesses. And when it comes to depression, people are wary not because they are afraid it might be contagious (hey, many don’t even recognize it as an illness!), but because they are afraid of saying the “wrong” thing.

A friend once apologized to me, “I’m sorry I haven’t been reaching out to you or being there for you. I’m not like J — I wish I were, but I’m not. But know that I’ve been praying for you, okay?”

At the time, I smiled and told him not to worry about it. I read between the lines and I read his facial expressions — I knew what he was saying was that he wasn’t good at empathizing and didn’t want to do or say things that might end up aggravating matters. We exchanged hugs and parted ways for the remainder of the academic year. But that night I wept in my room. I wasn’t sure why at the time; I cried over the silliest things after all.

I know why now. I felt abandoned by a friend. Sure, he wasn’t my best friend, and I did have other close friends who were walking the journey with me, but when an individual walks out on your life, his/her absence can’t be compensated by quantity. The next time I saw him, it would be the beginning of a new academic year, and I’d have already recovered over the summer. We hung out again and were friends once more. This was no isolated case. It happened again, and again, with different people.

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But my friends are not bad people. They are wonderful people. They did not stop being my friend during depressive episodes because they were tired of me. In fact, I don’t think they even intended to stop being my friend. And I’m sure they believe they were doing what was best for me. From their point of view, they were temporarily stepping out of my life so someone more “qualified” could step in to take better care of me. Someone who would have the right things to say, someone who perhaps have gone through the same thing I was going through, someone who could give good advice. Basically, someone who could empathize.

And yes, I wished I had people in my life who fit the above descriptions, and I was indeed blessed with at least one such individual, but it didn’t erase the deep pain of being “left behind”. And one thing I’ve come to realize over a few cycles of depression is this: depressed people don’t need you to empathize; they just need you. A depressed person would rather have you say all the worst possible things, rather than not have you at all.

It is very difficult to understand what a depressed person is going through. That is an inescapable fact. But even a fellow depression fighter/survivor would not be able to understand completely, since disorders of the mind affect each individual as uniquely as his mind is unique.

But a general common theme is that the depressed individual experiences and perceives a reality different from that of the non-depressed individual. I remember despairing not because I didn’t know if I would ever recover, but because I came to believe there was nothing from which to recover. I didn’t believe I had a negative cognitive bias, but believed that it’s others who had a positive cognitive bias, while I saw my existence for what it truly was.

Loved ones of those who are depressed, you have a very tricky and very important task of holding their hand and walking together, even though you are walking in different realities, until you are once more reunited at the end of the tunnel. This is very important because they need to be walking with someone who can see the light at the end of that tunnel. If you choose to wait to greet them on the other side, what if they never make it there?

Someone very dear to me had no experience whatsoever with depression. He bought himself a book on the topic (The Catholic Guide to Depression, which I’ve recommended multiple times in previous posts) in an attempt to understand what I was going through. It’s safe to say that even after a year, he never came close to understanding, but what mattered was that he never stopped walking with me. He never got tired of me even when I got tired of myself. And he never stopped believing that God would deliver me even when I’d lost all hope. You have my eternal gratitude.

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327 thoughts on “You don’t need empathy to support a depressed person”

  1. Great Post. Depression is a serious disease that needs to be addressed not avoided. For those who may be dealing with depression or just feeling very down lately it may be helpful to check out my recent post. Maybe it can give you a new idea on how to treat yourself. My post is written more for people that are between 14-21 but I think it can still help plus I want feedback. The link is https://canwejusttalk.wordpress.com

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I really admire you for being friends again with the people who vanished from your life when you were ill. I couldn’t do the same. I’ve had two depression episodes, and I just can not continue as if nothing happened or changed, because it did change. They dissapeared when I needed support, and I can not count on their honesty any more. It really felt like I have a plague, you described that very well. Thank you for this post, kind regards from Croatia, and have happy holidays, God bless you!

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  3. Reblogged this on The Dysfunctional Writer and commented:
    A very insightful look at supporting a loved one who’s battling depression. It isn’t always the most comfortable experience to be around someone who is so dramatically affected by something you can’t relate to, but that’s not important. It important part is just to be there. They don’t need your medically sound advice or your own stories relating to the same feelings. They just need you.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for reblogging this article. It was written so well and shared so much truth about those of us who battle the disease of depression. I intend to share it with my husband. He has not left my side but it may help to better understand that having a beautiful home and family does not fix it or give me less to be depressed about. Thanks again.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Pingback: Empty Corner |
  5. I’ve only just started my blog and not got much about the psychiatric effects on it yet – but I hope you all know that B12 deficiency can cause depression? It can also cause suicidal tendancies. There are physical clues too – it might be worth checking out.

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    1. Hello again, I said I’d post about B12 deficiency and depression and I have. I’ve also put in a couple of links to papers about patients suffering suicidal tendencies due to B12 deficiency.
      Hope it helps a few of you out there.

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  6. I love this! You couldn’t have said it better! They really don’t need to say anything, just to be there, that’s what most (non-depressed) people unfortunately don’t know. And also, it is terrible that many people – even doctors – don’t think depression and kinds are actual diseases. I have faced this phenomenon more than enough times. I am really happy I have found your blog. It is great to meet a fellow after so many rejections.
    Hugs!

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Awesome post. Although it’s hard sometimes to not be angry with our loved ones who don’t understand, we need to remember that this illness is such a personal struggle and we need to try and keep our minds open to other peoples’ perspectives. I am also on this journey and have created a blog at http://www.theprofessionallydepressedprofessional.wordpress.com. It is a blog about my experiences as a school administrator, mother, and wife. Would love to have your feedback! God bless.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. I had a friend with depression. We grew apart over the years because I felt I was unable to help her. Such frustration and guilt can come over this, trying hard to do whatever you can and you cannot improve anything. You cannot make things go better. It’s just not about you.
    It’s enlighting to see the other side’s point of view.
    The lack of understanding goes both way apparently.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Empathy is not being supportive. Sympathetic is what I believe to be helpful. Depression is an illness that have an immense affect on millions of people’s live across the nation.

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  10. I still struggle with depression and the last thing I want is to be around people. So, when my friends and some of my family abandoned me I was happy. Because little so they know they are a part of the reason why I still struggle with depression.

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  11. Most people don’t know what empathy IS or how it works. They assume it’s a sense, like sight, that you “have” or not. Not so! Empathy is a skill and a practice, not a sense. Here’s the way: You make your best guess about someone’s experience – such guesses get better with knowledge and practice, but remain woefully inadequate by themselves. If you assume your guess is “empathy,” odds are your guess is wrong, and your “empathy” an overconfident mistake, not helpful to anyone. If you put any confidnece in such nonsense, you’re likely fooling yourself. What’s next? Ask the other about your guess, get their feedback, then repeat this cycle of guesses, questions, and listening as often as needed until you have a reasonably accurate picture. THAT is empathy and how to get it, by such active communication. A process!

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  12. Thank you for sharing and you are so right! Just because you cannot understand what someone is going through, doesn’t mean you can’t walk beside them as they struggle to find their way. Sometimes, just another persons presence is helpful.

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  13. I have been through something very similar and I even lost my best friend over it. The best thing learned from my experience was that it was my mind. Like a room that needs to be tidied I can’t change how the arrangement of items in the room makes me feel. But tidying, throwing things away and organising those items will probably make my time in the room more enjoyable.

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