7 LESSONS FROM 10 YEARS OF COACHING PEOPLE THROUGH DEPRESSION AND HEARTBREAK
There are wounds that never show on our bodies that are deeper and more hurtful than anything that bleeds. Depression and heartbreak are two such wounds. I know, from experience.
About a decade ago, in quick succession, Angel and I dealt with several significant, back-to-back losses and life changes, including: losing Angel’s brother, Todd, to suicide, losing our mutual best friend, Josh, to cardiac arrest, and losing our home in the downturn of the economy. The pain inflicted by each of these experiences was absolutely brutal, and enduring them one after another broke our hearts and knocked us both into a moderate state of depression. There was a long stretch of time when we shut out the world, shut out each other, and avoided our loved ones who were grieving alongside us.
Luckily, with the right support, and the gradual restoration of our inner resolve, we pushed forward, stronger and with a greater respect for life. And while there were many intricate steps to our recovery process that I’m leaving out here, the outcome of our journey ultimately led us to the work we do today, over a decade later. Through our course and coaching we have spent the better part of the past ten years leveraging our lessons learned to guide amazing human beings through the process of coping with significant bouts of depression and heartbreak (and other forms of adversity). The work has been anything but easy, but it’s also been incredibly rewarding and life-changing—it has undoubtedly been the most significant silver lining of the painful losses and life changes we were forced to endure.
This morning Angel and I were interviewed on a national radio station about our brand new book, Getting Back to Happy: Change Your Thoughts, Change Your Reality, and Turn Your Trials into Triumphs. Near the end of the interview the radio talk show host asked the most sweeping question imaginable:
What have you learned over the past 10 years from coaching people through depression and heartbreak?
We answered the question as best as we could, and tried to give decent insights with the time allotted. But we were off-air a minute or two later. So, the truth is we barely had enough time to graze the surface of such a complex and personal topic. But over the past few hours Angel and I have actually enjoyed thinking more deeply about it. In fact, we spent the entirety of our lunch break today having a very open and candid conversation about what we have learned from both our own depression and heartbreak, and the lessons that emerged afterwards from coaching others through these painful states of mind. I took some notes while we chatted, and I’d like to share them with you.
While Angel and I are certain there’s no “one size fits all” kind of advice for depression and heartbreak, there are some very important general principles that apply to most people who are presently suffering. The reminders below, then, aren’t universal clarifications, but simple guidelines that will hopefully give you a general starting point for supporting yourself or someone you love through the process of coping with depression and/or heartbreak.
1. Depression is not a state of mind you consciously or logically choose.
Being depressed is kind of like being lost deep in the woods. When you’re lost deep in those woods, it might take you some time just to realize that you’re lost. For a while, it’s easy to convince yourself that you’ve just wandered off the path—that you’ll find your way back any moment now. Then night falls, again and again, and you still have no idea where you are, and although it’s agonizing to admit, you begin to realize that you’ve disoriented yourself so far off the beaten path, so deep into the thick of the woods, that you can’t even tell which direction the sun rises or sets from anymore. You’re not choosing to be where you are, but you can’t see a way out. That’s how depression felt to me when I was struggling through it a decade ago.
Depression is one of the most helpless and tiring emotional experiences a person can live through. Sometimes it’s feeling totally disoriented, sometimes it’s feeling completely hopeless, and sometimes it’s feeling absolutely nothing at all. There are times when depression can leave you feeling dead inside, incapable of moving and doing the things you used to enjoy. No one chooses to be depressed, and no one can turn it off or on in an instant whenever they feel like it. It’s a state of mind that must be coped with and healed one tiny step at a time over the long-term.
2. Depression is not simply a deeper state of heartbreak or sadness, and it’s often misunderstood.
Heartbreak can be a trigger for depression, but depression is something altogether different. Depression isn’t rational or emotional—it isn’t a straightforward response to a tough situation. Depression just IS, like December’s weather in Seattle. It lingers, and it’s hard to wrap your mind around if you haven’t experienced it.
Some people may imply that they know what it’s like to be depressed simply because they have gone through a divorce, lost a job, or lost a loved one. While these tough life situations can lead to depression, they don’t create depression by default. In most cases these experiences carry with them strong emotional feelings (a key side effect of heartbreak). Depression, on the other hand, is often flat, hollow, and insufferable—literally sapping a person of emotion, hope and reason.
You don’t feel like YOU. You don’t even feel human. You’re disheartened and paranoid and humorless and lifeless and desperate and demanding, and no reassurance is ever enough. You’re frightened, and you’re frightening, and you’re “not at all like yourself but will be better soon,” but you know you won’t.
Here’s a chilling quote from Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace that brings this point home:
“The so-called ‘psychotically depressed’ person who tries to kill herself doesn’t do so out of quote ‘hopelessness’ or any abstract conviction that life’s assets and debits do not square. And surely not because death seems suddenly appealing. The person in whom ‘Its’ invisible agony reaches a certain unendurable level will kill herself the same way a trapped person will eventually jump from the window of a burning high-rise.
Make no mistake about people who leap from burning windows. Their terror of falling from a great height is still just as great as it would be for you or me standing speculatively at the same window just checking out the view; i.e. the fear of falling remains a constant. The variable here is the other terror, the fire’s flames: when the flames get close enough, falling to death becomes the slightly less terrible of two terrors. It’s not desiring the fall; it’s terror of the flames. And yet nobody down on the sidewalk, looking up and yelling ‘Don’t!’ and ‘Hang on!’, can understand the jump. Not really. You’d have to have personally been trapped and felt flames to really understand a terror way beyond falling.”
3. Being loved when you are depressed feels like a massive burden.
“I don’t want to see anyone. I lie in the bedroom with the curtains drawn and nothingness washing over me like a sluggish wave. Whatever is happening to me is my own fault. I have done something wrong, something so huge I can’t even see it, something that’s drowning me. I am inadequate and stupid, without worth. I might as well be dead.”
That quote from Margaret Atwood’s novel, Cat’s Eye, reminds me of the desperate loneliness and isolation one feels when depressed. But even though depression makes you feel hopelessly alone, that’s often exactly what depression motivates you to seek—more isolation. People suffering from depression typically get anxious with feeling like they’re a burden on their loved ones. This causes them to isolate themselves and push away the very people they need.
So, if someone you love becomes distant through their depression, just do your best to remind them as often as possible that you’re still nearby, but don’t force them to socialize or talk about their feelings if they don’t want to. Be patient. Ease into it. Introduce plenty of small opportunities to create informal one-on-one time when you can break them out of their routine, even if it’s just for a few minutes. Reach out to them at random intervals. Just be a present, living reminder that they are not alone.
4. Depression and heartbreak can both exhaust the human spirit.
Relentless exhaustion is a common side effect of both depression and severe heartbreak. Just getting out of bed in the morning can be an overwhelming and excruciating experience. Also, someone suffering from these states of mind may feel OK one moment and then completely depleted the next, even if they’re eating right and getting plenty of sleep. This can result in them canceling plans, departing get-togethers early, or saying no far more often than usual. These choices aren’t personal attacks on friends and family—it has nothing to do with anyone else. These are just some of the prevalent side effects of working through severe mental anguish.
Again, if you love someone who is presently suffering, remind yourself that a human being can only give to others what they themselves have. Remind yourself that depression, and to a lesser degree, heartbreak, can take almost everything away. All your actions and words should come from a place of love, but that doesn’t mean your depressed or heartbroken loved one will always be loving in return, and that’s OK. When you do not take things personally, you liberate yourself—you open yourself to loving someone who truly needs you, freely, and without letting needless expectations get in the way of the immeasurable amounts of love you are capable of giving.
5. When you’re depressed or heartbroken, the classic clichés never help.
“Time heals wounds.”
“It’s not that big of a deal.”
“You just need some fresh air.”
“It’s time to move on”
It’s super easy for people to say “positive” things like that with the best of intentions, but when you’re suffering from depression or severe heartbreak these kinds of clichéd phrases often come across the wrong way—thoughtless, empty, and essentially worthless.
In most cases clichés like these don’t address reality and only agitate the anxiety within, making a depressed or heartbroken person wish they were alone. It’s like trying to strap a two-inch Band-Aid on a foot-long, gaping wound.
So, if given the chance, what can you say instead? Again, there’s no “one size fits all” answer. Just do you best to be sincere and supportive.
Here’s a rough idea of what I might say (maybe not all at once):
“I love you, and I’m not the only one. Please believe me. Please believe that the people who love you are worth living for even when you don’t feel it. Strive to re-visit the good memories your depression (or heartbreak) is hiding from you, and project them into the present. Breathe. Be brave. Be here and take today just one tiny step at a time. Exercise because it’s good for you even if every step weighs 900 pounds. Eat when food itself sickens you. Reason with yourself when you have lost your reason. I’m here now, and I’ll be here tomorrow too. I believe in you. We are in this together.”
And then I’d give them a long, silent hug.
6. Heartbreak can be a healthy anchor for healing and living well in the long run.
While depression disconnects us from our human emotions, and therefore must be carefully addressed, heartbreak by itself can actually help us move through our emotions. Heartbreak is never a pleasant experience, but it can be a healthy one when it’s internalized in a healthy way. In fact, as human beings we sometimes get used to the weight of our heartbreak and how it holds us in place. Angel once told me, “My brother, Todd, will die over and over again for the rest of my life, and I’m OK with that. It keeps me closer to him.” This was Angel’s way of reminding me that heartbreak doesn’t just break you down and disappear. Step-by-step, breath-by-breath, it becomes a part of you. And it can become a healthy part of you too—an anchor that keeps you grounded.
When it comes to the heartbreak of loss, although you may never completely stop grieving, simply because you never stop loving the ones you’ve lost, you can effectively leverage your love for them in the present. You can love them and emulate them by living with their magnificence as your daily inspiration. By doing this, they live on in the warmth of your broken heart that won’t fully heal back up, and you will continue to grow and experience life, even with your wounds. It’s like badly breaking an ankle that never heals perfectly, and that still hurts when you dance, but you dance anyway with a slight limp, and this limp just adds to the depth of your performance and the authenticity of your character.
Truth be told, the wisest, most loving and well-rounded people you have ever met are likely those who have been shattered by heartbreak. Yes, life creates the greatest humans by breaking them first. Their destruction into pieces allows them to be fine-tuned and reconstructed into a masterpiece. Truly, it’s the painstaking journey of falling apart and coming back together that fills their hearts and minds with a level of compassion, understanding, and deep loving wisdom that can’t possibly be acquired any other way.
Angel and I have worked one-on-one with hundreds of these incredible people over the past decade, both online and offline, through various forms of coaching, side projects, and our live annual conferences. In many cases they came to us feeling stuck and lost, unaware of their own brilliance, blind to the fact that their struggles have strengthened them and given them a resilient upper hand in this crazy world. Honestly, many of these people are now our biggest heroes. Over the years they have given us as much, if not more, than we have given them. And they continue to be our greatest source of inspiration on a daily basis.
7. Painful hardships often lead to Post-Traumatic Growth.
To piggyback off the previous point, I want to briefly mention an emerging field of psychology called Post-Traumatic Growth which has proven that we as human beings are able to use various forms of hardships (including those that lead to severe heartbreak and even mild to moderate depression) for substantial intellectual development over the long-term. Specifically, researchers have found that hardships can help us grow our contentment, emotional strength and resourcefulness. When our view of the world as a safe place, or as a certain type of place, has been shattered, we are forced to reboot our perspective on things. With the right support and healing practices in place, we gradually gain the ability to see things with a fresh set of beginner’s eyes again, which can be extremely beneficial to our personal growth.
“We need to remember that all of us can heal through hardships, and many of us are even catapulted onto a more meaningful, motivated path after experiencing one. Growth through hard times is far more common than most of us realize. The challenge is to bring awareness to the opportunity presented by these kinds of unexpected and undesirable events. Afterward, we need hope. In the aftermath of intense pain, we need to know there is something better—and there almost always is. A traumatic experience is not simply a painful experience to be endured. Instead, it can be incredibly life changing by motivating us to evolve in the best ways possible.
It isn’t an easy journey, but most of us have the mental and emotional capacity to emerge from our hardships—even severe ones—stronger, more focused, and with a better perspective on life. In numerous psychological studies of people who have suffered traumatic hardships, about 50 percent of them report positive changes in their lives as a result of their negative experiences. Some changes are small (more appreciation for the average day, for example), while others are so seismic that they propel them onto totally new and rewarding life paths. The bottom line is that the most painful things that could possibly happen to us can be pivotal circumstances of great opportunity. Hardships often push us to face the reality of life’s impermanence, to appreciate our limits, and to find more meaningful understandings of who we are and how we want to spend the rest of our lives.”
If you have personal experience with depression and/or heartbreak, have ever helped a loved one cope with either, or if you have something to add to the list above, Angel and I would love to hear from YOU.
Leave a comment and share your thoughts.