When Depression Makes You Appear Selfish
It is often said that relationships are a two-way street — that you get out what you put in. So how do you maintain relationships (platonic, romantic, or familial) when your mental health interferes with your ability to support others? How do you maintain relationships when you are so preoccupied with your thoughts and ruminations that it doesn't even occur to you to check in on the people closest to you? Sure, the odd blip can be forgiven, but in the case of chronic, long-term depression, how do you manage to convince other people to stick around? How do you tell them that you're not selfish, just suffering?
Depression Can Look Like Selfishness to the People Around Us
In a previous post, I reflected on how my depression and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) stifled my ability to do anything productive. Depression has a way of closing in the walls around you — of populating your mind with so much noise that you effectively lock yourself in a mental prison of your own creation, unable to turn down the volume long enough to focus on anything else. What we often don't consider, though, is how that must look to the people around us and how it must feel to watch someone they care about apparently stop caring about anything, including them.
I don't have a lot of people in my life, but the ones I do have are fantastic. I know that when I was at my lowest, I behaved in ways that would have made anyone else run for the hills. Objectively speaking, I didn't deserve their love and support during that time.
I was distant, indifferent, short-tempered, and unreliable. I stopped asking how they were, forgot anniversaries and birthdays, bailed on plans, and ignored messages. And yet, they stuck around. This is a testament not only to the fact that they are wonderful people but also to the importance of honesty. The people I'm referring to — the ones who stuck around — were the only people I had told about my breakdown, and I truly believe that had I not been honest with them, a number of them would have walked away. I know this because I have been on the other side of the fence, and I walked away.
Being Honest About Your Depression Can Save Your Relationships
When I was much younger, a very close friend began to exhibit all the depressive behaviors I have described above. We were studying at different colleges, so most of our communication was over the phone, but as the months went by, I began to notice a pattern — it was always me who made the call or sent the message, it was always me asking the questions, and all she seemed to do was complain about how much she hated her house, friends, degree, and family. It was the same when we were home for holidays, and I could feel my patience wearing thin. After two years of feeling like she no longer cared for me, I gave up. I stopped calling and let the relationship die.
Years have now passed, and we have both moved on, but it is clear to me now that she was deeply depressed during this period. It's quite possible that she didn't realize this herself at the time, but had she known, and had she told me, I know I would have been much better equipped to deal with the change in our relationship and had much more patience for her apparent selfishness. Because she wasn't selfish — she was suffering.
So once again, I find myself imploring you to open up — to be honest about how you are feeling with the people you love. Honesty can rescue a relationship on the brink of collapse by showing the other person that you care about them enough to share something deeply personal. It also helps them to understand why your behavior towards them might have changed. You're not selfish — you're suffering.
Has depression made you appear selfish? Did you notice it at the time or only later? Share your story in the comments.
Lear, J. (2020, December 3). When Depression Makes You Appear Selfish, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2023, September 23 from https://www.healthyplace.com/blogs/copingwithdepression/2020/12/when-depression-makes-you-appear-selfish
Author: Jennifer Lear
I've been accused of being selfish during bouts of depression but only by one person, who was narcissistic and who I had been suffering narcissistic abuse from for years. Oddly, only after I stopped talking to her did these accusations of selfishness start, I think it’s her way of rationalizing with herself and twisting the truth to a few mutual friends how our friendship ended, but really I ended the manipulative and controlling abuse by cutting her out of my life.
“Selfish” was her go to manipulative insult for anyone who did anything that didn’t include or benefit her in anyway- “You’re being so selfish! What about me!?!”. She demanded that we all consider her mental illnesses and help her all the while refusing professional help herself. She would be your friend to get info from you about personal stuff, then use it against you at her will down the line.
I put a lot of energy into our relationship for years- honestly, busted my ass- into helping her (I really hate the idea of people going through it alone, I also didn’t realize what I was going through was abusive, I honestly just chalked it up to immaturity as we were young- high school to senior high age) and the one time I went to her for help, this effort and compassion was not returned. Even though I knew that there was a possibility of her returning back to her old tricks and pinning the selfish tag on me I decided to give her a chance, she might have grown and matured. But no, and the thing is, I knew that would happen!
I was too exhausted from the narcissistic behavior over the years, the malicious gossip about everyone and the constant criticizing and keeping tabs on our friendship, “when she was going through her silly little depression, she didn’t even ask how I was doing!”. I realized that her abuse towards me was partly fueling my depression and so I started to slowly hang back on contacting her and I felt so much better for doing so. Because of this experience I can’t help but be interested to hear your old friend's side of things! I wonder if she sensed your lack of patience towards her and this in turn made her reluctant to speak further.
I do recognize that this post has kinda unnerved me, I know that my experience with this narcissistic individual is hopefully a very isolated incident, even still- I’ve been weary of the use of the word selfish when it comes to matters of mental health ever since. I think that if we are going to beat the stigma around mental health, we have to let people speak about it in the way they need to without the added pressure of them needing to also make the conversation about us. From my experience, when I have tried to consider how I’m coming across, it’s hindered me being able to be truthful about what’s really going on, and so making the situation harder to talk about. However when I’m talking to a good friend and that pressure has not been present, I am able to talk about my mental health in a better and more honest way, people understand and our relationship is stronger.
Depression is notoriously bad enough to vocalize without the added pressure of also having to speak about it in a way that will make every individual person in your life able to understand. It’s also hard enough to be friends with the right people in the first instance. I would say to people who want to listen to their friends; if you know that your friend needs to talk about an aspect of their mental health, it’s damaging to them if you go into the conservation with the expectation that they should talk to you in a way that you want them to, you have to let people speak about their mental health in their own way.
I finally gained my confidence back and started talking to my other friends and the right people about my mental health, after the abusive experience I was incredibly reluctant to do so. But I couldn’t believe how understanding they were, how willing they were to listen without this give and take that is expected in a normal conversation that is not about mental health issues. I was stunned at how the simple act of listening with no expectations from the right people made me feel so much better. I thought to myself “this is real friendship, people who don’t keep playbooks about who said what and when, there is no hierarchy”. Not a single person accused me of being selfish! I’m glad to say that the character assassination of me to our old mutual friends from this individual seems to have stopped, finally! I can breathe easy knowing that there are now a few States and a lot of time between us!
Thank you for your comment.
My name is Natasha Tracy and I'm the Blog Manager here. Jennifer Lear, the author, is not available right now and I want to make sure your concerns are addressed.
Your story explains a lot, thank you for sharing it. I can understand why the word "selfish" might be upsetting for you.
That said, the piece on which you are commenting explicitly states that people with mental illness are _not_ selfish. I believe it encourages people to open up and doesn't tell them to do it in a certain way. I think this is a positive message.
While I can understand your concerns around specific wording, it's my belief that this piece can be positive for people with mental illness.
- Natasha Tracy
Thank you for the reply!
I do realize that my experience has left damage and that this is totally on me to heal it, I also know that it is not the writer’s responsibility to predict this and that this article has clearly not been written to cause harm. If I could express my thoughts, and I’ll do it in a much better way than before!-
The “selfish” accusation is ignorance that has fuelled the stigma surrounding depression. The stigma is all too easy to internalize, I have unwillingly internalized it myself and it has been very prevalent in general when people talk about depression in the past. However, in this case were my concerns lie is in the way the article has been concluded. With the questions “Has depression made you appear selfish? Did you notice it at the time or only later?” this throws the “you’re not selfish, but suffering” point that the main body of the article is trying to go for into question for me. The whole thing has been undermined by this and it left me and my friends confused, it reads as a microaggression. I of course do not think that this has been intended, I just want to highlight this as a consideration for the future.
From my experience, trying to view my suffering through an “am I being selfish, am I appearing selfish?” perspective has only brought guilt and shame, has stopped me being able to talk about it and delayed me starting to get medical and therapy-based help. The writer has encouraged people to talk about their suffering honestly but what happens when we talk about it and people are just not willing to listen to that topic? Or when people seem willing at first then almost wish they didn’t ask? Most people today, even with the stigma being tackled, are still not willing to listen. Unless you are very lucky to have a strong support system of friends and family, it sounds like the person being described in the article did not have this. Also, the writer has said that “had she told me, I know I would have been much better equipped…”, implying that this person had to use specific wording in order to be understood. I would like to know how this person could have spoken about it in order to be understood at this time by the writer, as I have been in a similar situation as this person myself. I really can relate to this struggle to not only find the right words, I have been interrupted, laughed at, treated with impatience and distain so many times when trying to speak. I have found that I could only get people to listen years later, when I was better- “why didn’t you tell me?!”- I did, they were just not willing to listen.
I at first was not going to comment, but I couldn’t stop thinking about it. The idea of people potentially internalizing the stigma because of the concluding question, well, it’s concerning at best and at worst- dangerous. Even though the article is stating that “you are not selfish”, when reading the question at the end (and I know that the word “appeared” has been used as opposed to straight up “when have you been selfish”, it still made me to look at my illness as selfish, I felt that old guilt and shame again that I have worked so hard to not feel. As a person who has for one reason or another been unable to talk about my depression effectively, I think it would be great if the concluding question was “when have you been able to effectively talk about your suffering with depression?”. It seems more in-keeping with the main tone of the article. We have to be incredibly careful when it comes to encouraging people to talk about this. I know that I am just one person with this perspective, I did try and do the healthier thing when it comes to opinions on the internet that you might not agree with and ignore, however I cannot keep silent anymore when it comes to addressing this; careless words cost lives. The stigma is everywhere, it’s insidious - we need to practice extreme care when talking about mental health, especially when we encourage people to talk about their past experiences, as more often than not, it’s been treated with a distinct lack of care.
This was me last year my dad died in august and I never got the chance to tell him I forgave him for my youth and thank him for all the times he was there for me throughout my life so his death hit me a lot harder than I thought it would. Then in December I had a bad accident at work which has ultimately ended my career as a tradesman I live in pain every single day my depression became so great I couldn’t even recognise it and even lost who I was I didn’t even know myself anymore my gp put me on lexipro 10mg but I was so deep in self pity and depression I still could not see who I was anymore and the entire time the woman I love was suffering and crying out for my love affection and attention I was never able to see or even grasp this fact as time passed I slipped further and further down the rabbit hole I completely lost my identity and any sense of who was actually trying to help me the pain and rejection I was causing the woman I loved with all my being I was withdrawing from everyone and everything in my life I was abusing drugs and alcohol anything to take the mental pain and physical pain away not even seeing the suffering I was causing around me I was trying to return to work to make my life return to normal but the physical pain I would put myself through to try return to my life actually did the opposite with every day it made me worse not only was I detached from reality I was putting myself through agony I was slipping further and further not seeing the damage I was causing around me and the woman I loved she ended up leaving telling me that she could not live there anymore seeing me depressed and in pain every day destroying myself she didn’t want to break up just needed her own space so she wasn’t absorbing my energy at that time I could not even see that she actually wanted to save our relationship after she moved we would still see each other but I forced the point that she had left me now I was in our home alone putting myself through agony at work and drinking every day to take the physical pain away who had I become I wasn’t even me anymore then a couple of weeks later I was sick of being in pain I thought I had lost the woman who really meant the world to me I went to the chemist to get my medications and the bottle shop for my self medication after getting drunk I went to go to bed I still can’t recall what must have been going through my head I took 2 of my painkillers then next thing I knew it was like I was watching myself from the outside as I took every last painkiller I had just wanting to put and end to the pain and who I had become after this Sarah my partner turned up worried cause I wasn’t answering her calls and txts and she saw I had taken painkillers although she didn’t know I had just got my script that day and taken them all she was super worried and wanted to call an ambulance and I laid there and lied to her saying I was fine I only had a couple she looked for signs of me being incoherent or anything that might show I had had to many but I had just done it before she had arrived so the effects were some time off I convinced her everything was fine and told her to go home I’m just want to sleep when she came back in the morning I admitted to what I had done how could I do that to her and everyone else in my life I’m so against it that’s not me at all I still can’t find the answers the doctors and nurses say I shouldn’t be here and are amazed I woke up after over 3000mg of palexia they wouldn’t release me until I underwent a psychiatrist evaluation seeing I have not one recorded mental problem in my 43 years they put it down to 10 months of sleep deprivation mixed with alcohol and major depression I’ve said and done terrible things to Sarah in the period after this and now she is moving on with her life and as much as that hurts and I still love her with all my heart I hope she finds someone to give her back the happiness and joy she so deserves after all I had put her through it’s only been in the last few weeks I’ve been remembering who am and was again after the psychiatrist changed my medication 2 months back and I’ve been opening up to every one instead of keeping it all inside pretending everything was okay I now see all the damage my depression has caused and it tears me apart inside that’s something I will have to carry with me like I said I’ve only realised all of this in the past few weeks with every passing day I’m becoming me again I feel like I’ve found myself and it feels like I was trapped in a nightmare within myself for so long I am still getting moments of depression but that’s all they are now is moments I’m accepting that the accident has changed my life the pain I endure is a little harder to accept and my life and my heart doesn’t feel whole without my huny I still think of her night and day and wish I had found the help I needed before it was to late it amazed me at how much I could relate and feel what I was reading after slowly finding myself my eyes are open to just how destructive depression can be especially if you don’t get the right help or share what’s really going on inside
Thank you for your comment. I'm so sorry to hear you've had such a difficult time, but am pleased to read that you feel like you're making progress. I'm so sorry that your health had such a negative impact on your relationship, but I want you to know that you are not alone in this: I know I can certainly relate to a lot of what you said. You have shown great strength by accessing proper support and speaking out about your depression, and it sounds as though you're taking really positive strides in the direction of recovery. It can be so painful to look at what we've lost and the people we've hurt as a result of mental illness, but it's important to remember that none of these things were done with malice. You never intended to hurt anybody, and you are doing the right thing for everybody now by focusing on your recovery. I wish you all the luck in the world.