Tough love doesn't work for my depression

For many years, my well-intentioned loved ones would unknowingly tell me, in many different ways, that I wasn’t actually depressed. Unfortunately, they truly thought they were helping. My guess is that they were fearful of validating my feelings – something I desperately needed them to do.  I feel that they thought acceptance of the situation would aggravate my negative moods.

Their solutions generally consisted of encouraging me to shove all my feelings deep down inside and forget all my worries. To them, it was merely a demonstration of “tough love”.

But their tough love approach never helped. In fact, it made my mental health a lot worse to the point where I could I no longer believe my own feelings. Even now, while lying in bed with thousands of negative thoughts flooding in, I still think I could snap out of it with positive thoughts if I were just strong enough to do so.

If my friends and family had known the negative effect their tough love had on me, I don’t believe they would have ever used those tactics. Instead, they could have used more compassionate and validating language, which would have been more likely to achieve the desired outcome.

Here are three tough-love phrases, which some people might say to someone with depression, and ways they could be substituted with more empathetic language.

1. Get over it – you have a great life!

People like to remind their loved one about all of the good fortune the depressed person has had in their life. The undertone of what they’re saying is: “You should be more grateful, you have a great life”; but what they really mean is: “Please stop being depressed because I don’t like how it makes me feel”.

There could be a number of reasons for this. One is a feeling of general discomfort, as some people feel uneasy with what they deem as oversharing. More often, though, it’s because they would rather not see someone they care about going through such rough time.

It’s better to be honest with your emotions if you don’t know how to help a depressed person. Before delving right into problem-solving mode, it’s much more helpful to simply say: “I’m sorry about what you’re going through”. By admitting to this simple emotion, you introduce solidarity instead of condescension, and it serves the same function as trying to lift someone’s spirits. The language is more empathetic and less judgmental.

Sometimes, all that people really need is a little bit of compassion and sympathy. This may or may not stop the depressive episode, but at least you can take comfort knowing that you share a connection with someone you care about, and you’ve made them feel less alone. This is much more useful than unintentionally undermining someone’s experiences, making them feel even worse.

2. Here’s what you should do…

Reiterating one of my previous points, the need to problem-solve is unintended and instinctive for many people. When they hear that someone is depressed, they want to offer advice immediately.

While some of the advice can be useful – such as encouraging exercise, meditation, etc. – it can be unhelpful to give advice before any type of acknowledgement of feelings.

Without realizing it, when somebody offers unsolicited advice, they’re implying: “You wouldn’t be depressed if you tried harder not to be depressed”.

The intention behind “this-is-what-you-should-do” advice is to give someone the tools to hopefully beat depression. But since depression doesn’t necessarily have a cure, these pieces of advice may ultimately be futile.

Instead of offering advice at the very outset, you can say: “Let me know if there’s anything I can do to help”. This way you validate someone’s experiences and emotions by letting them know that you respect and acknowledge their pain, and that you would like to help. Sometimes, it’s best to just offer the support and, if need be, to listen.

3. What happened? Why are you depressed?

This is another phrase offered to depressed people. It might not be a harmless question, though, because by asking someone what happened, you are again ignoring their thoughts and emotions.

It also implies that a trigger is required to start a depressive episode. However, that’s not always how depression works. For many people it comes out of nowhere and overtakes their lives.

Again, people can offer unsolicited advice by saying: “You shouldn’t feel this way. Nothing happened for you to feel this way”. The same good intentions can be accomplished, but interpreted as truly supportive, by saying: “I’m sorry that you’re depressed, and there’s nothing wrong with you for feeling this way”. This is important to say because there are many stigmas and a lot of shame surrounding depression. It is horrible enough to experience it. Adding shame to it is an unnecessary burden.

You are helping to minimize the shame and remind them that, while their experiences are difficult, their reality is also valid and their worth as a person stays intact no matter how many depressive spells they have.

Depression is more than a feeling. It can be heaviness with real physical manifestations, such as crying, headaches and nausea, etc. When people told me that I can overcome this “sadness”, I found that insulting because there had been many instances when I had gone to work while being sad, or had forced myself to leave the house when I didn’t feel well. You’re often not even able to perform the daily tasks during the depressive episode.

I believe that, although depression doesn’t necessarily have a cure, it can be more manageable, depending on the support people receive from their loved ones. Now that I’ve done away with people who utilized tough-love tactics, my episodes are much easier to cope with than they were before. Depression is still crushingly difficult, but the despair doesn’t feel quite as heavy, because my current loved ones don’t undermine my experiences.

By using more compassionate language they make me feel less alone. Conversely, tough love always made me feel even lonelier, more ashamed and burdensome to everybody in my life. I firmly believe that most people don’t want their depressed friends and family to feel this way and, hopefully, by providing more compassionate language in place of tough love, people can feel accepted, loved and less alone.


-Andrew