There is an old quote attributed to the writer Henry James where he tells his nephew Willie, “There are three important things in human life. The first is to be kind. The second, is to be kind. The third, is to be kind.” When I first read James words, they resonated with me perhaps as they do with you, since there are few things more powerful than kindness in our world, and definitely few things more needed, especially for us as individuals.
If we are honest, kindness does not always come easy. While we may offer it to others, it often is far more difficult to extend to ourselves. This seems especially true when we find ourselves struggling with something like depression. Depression sucks. While that is not the most clinical statement, it is true. It sucks joy and color out of our days, our work, our relationships, our life, leaving in its place something painful and confusing, even shameful and isolating.
Depression and other mental health issues are surrounded by mystery, stigma, and shame, often leaving us trying desperately to understand what is happening to us and why we feel the way we do. The shame and confusion keep us from asking for help, so we make efforts to suck it up, get it together, or to push through as though we are not really depressed. Perhaps we even try and talk ourselves out of it, attempting to convince ourselves that there are people worse off in the world, that we have nothing to be depressed about and that we should focus on being positive. Don’t get me wrong, positivity and gratitude are great things, but this rarely works because depression is a medical condition and not just a bad mood we can snap out of. Trying to talk ourselves out of it would be the same as trying to run a marathon on a broken leg. We may tell ourselves that our leg isn’t that bad, that we should be grateful that we have another good leg, that things could be way worse and that we should be thankful. Still, we would be in pain, unable to run as we wish we could. If we ignore the fact that our leg is broken and continue running, it is not going to magically get better. If we are telling ourselves that our leg is fine, then we may even come to believe that we are just slower than everyone else around us.
These types of responses to our own depression and struggles are far too common. While positivity and gratitude are vital components on the journey towards healing, if we ignore our own pain we are likely to not get the help we need and the road will be more difficult. This is the opposite of having kindness and compassion on ourselves. Since it is difficult to heal from struggles that we do not acknowledge are there, the first step towards recovery is facing the truth about what we are going through. Then we have the opportunity to begin to extend kindness towards ourselves and receive the help and healing that we need.
In our efforts to move through depression, we do not need a drill sergeant to get our ass in gear. If Henry James was right and one of the most important things we can do is be kind, then we need to start with being kind and extending compassion to ourselves in the midst of depression and other struggles we may be going through. Here are a few practical ways to give it a shot:
Be kind to your past. Sometimes our current pain connects back to old stuff like loss, abuse, trauma, or hurts from old relationships. In our confusion and efforts to push past the pain, we often gloss over the hurt without giving it time to heal. Give yourself some space to grieve the pain from the past without judging or beating up on yourself.
Go easy on yourself now. Depression and struggles like it often build up over time, and they take time to work through. Easy and quick fixes sound good but rarely exist. Give yourself permission to not have to be better immediately and for recovery to take a little while.
Seek comfort. A great way to be kind is to ask what healthy activities or places bring you comfort and make those a part of your day. Perhaps it’s music, yoga, a sport, something else you enjoy. These are often things we start to neglect when suffering with depression. Caring for yourself, whether mind, body, or spirit is a great way to extend kindness.
Find support. One of the things depression does most powerfully is isolate us from others. Even if we are spending time with people, depression can make it feel difficult to connect. Find a few friends or family that you can talk to and share what you are going through. Pastors and teachers can be good options as well. Resist the temptation to push through it alone. Find people who you feel comfortable sharing the good, bad, and the ugly with. We are all built to need other people, especially when we are struggling.
Find help. See a counselor or talk to your doctor. Having family and friends as a support system is powerful, but having professional help towards recovery is vital as well. Depression is a real medical condition, and counselors and physicians are trained to help you in treating it.
Obviously we could add so many more options of ways to care for ourselves in the midst of depression. With whatever steps we take, being kind is a great foundation to have, especially starting with kindness towards ourselves. When we can begin there, it will be much easier to receive kindness from others, as well as extend it to them.
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