My girlfriend has been having a hard time for a while now for no apparent reason. She seems to be depressed and not able to get out of it. While she can go to work, she doesn’t want to do much with friends or other activities she used to like doing. Last week we had a big fight because I told her that her depression was affecting me and I was tired of trying to cheer her up and of staying home because she doesn’t seem to like any of our friends any more. She told me I am selfish and that she can’t help it. I never heard her be so critical of me, other friends we know, and herself. I know depression creates low moods, but now I think it is affecting her thinking. Is there more I can say or do? She said that she doesn’t want to go to therapy because all psychologists say the same things and can’t help her.
— I feel like I am watching a sinking ship
Dear Sinking Ship,
Depression is the most common mood disorder and affects 50% of people at some time during their lifetime. Being a partner or friend of someone who is depressed can be very challenging. On one hand you want to be supportive and understanding, and yet at some point it can bring you down as well. Often a partner, family member or friend has to find a balance between being there for another… and being there for one’s self. It doesn’t help another person if you yourself become depressed or resentful.
You talked about your girlfriend being in a low mood, not wanting to do things that she enjoyed previously, and having critical or negative thinking towards others and life itself over a period of months. There also seems to be no apparent circumstantial reason for her mood. This sounds like depression and, while many people can work or function, it tends to be a downward spiral that needs to be dealt with by a professional.
There are many negative patterns which have the tendency to reinforce the downward spiral. I will address a few of the thought patterns that tend to occur in depression. People do these things without realizing that they are.
1) Filtering. The tendency to see things in a negative light. When our moods are normal, we can see both positive and negative aspects of life. When we are depressed we see less good and are focused on what is wrong.
2) Over-generalizing. The tendency to take a specific situation and apply it as a general truth. When someone uses terms like; always, never, all, everyone, nobody, etc. It causes people to avoid dealing with specific situations because they are discouraged by these general assumptions.
3) All or nothing thinking. The tendency to divide situations into terms of black and white, without being able to hold the two parts simultaneously. When our moods are more balanced we can see things in shades of grey.
4) Catastrophizing. The tendency to turn small disappointments into big disasters. Proportion is lost. Intense emotions dominate the thought process and reduce the ability to contextualize.
5) Labeling. The tendency to turn a judgment into a name (noun). Words like idiot, loser, bitch, etc. create fixed and rigid ways of seeing things, both in others and toward one’s self.
6) Mind-reading. The tendency to think that one knows what other people are thinking about them. Often it is a negative interpretation in the form of a judgment they might have towards themselves.
7) Fortune-telling. The tendency to know what will happen in the future — a negative expectation driven by a depressed outlook.
8) Perfectionism. The tendency to see one’s self and the world in comparison to a high standard or a hypothetical reality that is unattainable. The result is to always feel “less than”.
9) A long list of “shoulds”. A branch of perfectionism. A person can measure one’s self or others against the ways they “should” do things. This is a recipe for negative thinking because each of us is full of imperfection and reality is rarely as it “should” be.
While we all might recognise some of these tendencies in ourselves, depressed people can be stuck in these distorted patterns of thinking without realising that they have lost perspective. Their mood affects their thoughts and their thinking pattern affects their mood… thus it is a downward spiral that can be difficult to stop alone.
You might show your girlfriend this and ask her to see which of these resonates with her. You might also refuse to accept her premise that therapy cannot help her and push her to try it for a few weeks and then decide. Depression is something that people can overcome. It can help to have guidance.
Good luck to you and your girlfriend,