Depression -Is there room for empathy when you’re suffocating in its tightening embrace?

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I too often remember those times where depression defiantly stared down my sweet, unsuspecting morality with its accursed gaze. A inanely wide smirk etched from one side of its face to the other, as it goaded the latter towards its poisonous embrace….

It positively dared my sense of right and wrong to triumph over its awesome and  all encompassing power – I am sad to say that, on more occasions than one, morality has been stamped out by depressions violent beatings, and left to rot by the roadside.

This is the question that this quote suggests to me:

Can that inner battle between balancing our own sense of empathy with our depressive episodes ever be truly won?

It’s a constant battle is it not? The fight between self preservation and demonstrating compassion to our fellow human beings. A complete conundrum of magnificent proportions if you ask me – and not one where there is a clear cut, definitive answer.

How do we deal with this inner dilemma? How, when we’re entirely in depression’s suffocating embrace, do we see, never mind with comprehend, the suffering of others?

While I in no way have the answer to this question, I like to think that, while I can be a terrible person to be around at times, I have shown considerable self restraint in these moments of madness:

  • Only a few evenings ago, I took the (admittedly drunken) decision to take out my feelings on a close friend of mine. Nothing too insulting. But there was a notable passive aggressive tone to my voice. Yet this friend, being the patient and understanding person that he is, handled it very well and even neglected the apology I offered afterwards.

Yet, at other time, I have chosen to lie with the demons that haunt me, finding some strange sense of comfort in it’s lies and deceit. Like in the example below…

  • I could not ask for a better mum than the one I have. She is everything a mother should be; kind, nurturing and brave. I admire her more than anybody else in this world. Yet there have been times when I’ve neglected her because of my demons. Times where I should have been on hand to help her went unheeded. Instead, I shut myself away from the world, hid under my bed sheets and prayed that it’s thin linen would protect me from the outside world.

So the question I pose to you is this -are we permitted to neglect the needs of others if our demons are consuming every fibre of our being, our moral code and our sense of rationale? If we completely neglect the problems faced by our loved ones in the face of a depressive episode, then does this make us ‘bad’ people?

Does some form of self restraint come with the territory when it comes to handling our mental illness? Overall this is a question over just how much responsibility we should have over ourselves. Not for the negative thoughts that plague us, but for our external actions and behaviours that occur as a result of those thoughts.

What are your views on this? It’s a complex question and there is no single right answer, so please don’t hesitate to share your views. We’re all in this together, no matter how alone you may feel right now.


Emotional support helplines:

Samaritans :116 123

Rethink Mental Illness advice line 0300 5000 927 (Monday to Friday 09:30-16:00; local rate)

Sane Line:0845 767 8000

Mind also has a useful guide of support and services, which can be found by clicking the link right here

23 thoughts on “Depression -Is there room for empathy when you’re suffocating in its tightening embrace?

  1. You do raise complex questions with no simple answers. Thoughts that flitted across my mind are that compassion for self is important, as well as concern for others…putting self down after the fact doesn’t help while figuring out how to not repeat regretted actions does…I enjoyed reading your post and found the quotation very true…we tend to distance ourselves from other people’s tragedies.


    1. Hi Janice. Thank you for your thought provoking response – you raise a very valid point that even if we do neglect others in their times of need to save ourselves, we must be forgiving of our mistakes and move forward. A caring family member or friend would accept your apology and prompt you to do so in my opinion, Otherwise you’ll end up being caught back in that vicious cycle – none of us want that!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Thanks for addressing a relevant and complex issue so succinctly! In my experience, I’ve found that desperately attempting to practice compassion while I was suffering from a depressive episode turned me into a zombie of myself. I realized that I couldn’t help others unless I helped myself first. That may feel a bit egocentric, but really, by loving ourselves first, we are setting ourselves up to love others more effectively. Wishing you all the best as you continue to find the answer to that balance you addressed!


    1. Hi Grace. I understand where you’re coming from – whenever I try to help people when I’m at my worst I just feel robotic and insincere. Like I’ve a read a script beforehand and know exactly what to say and when to say it. So in that case maybe it is better to wait until I’ve recovered enough before attempting to help others.

      Thanks so much for responding to this entry, and more importantly, for providing such an insightful view on it!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I think we are useless to help others if we don’t take care of ourselves first. It doesn’t mean we have to feel 100% good before we can reach out to other people, but when we have fallen in that dark hole, I think it’s critical, and not shameful take see to our own needs. I think, if focused and with time, we can teach ourselves when we’re capable of helping others, and when we’re not.

    Great question

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That’s an entirely understandable and reasonable view to hold Bradley. I think that’s the tricky part – not feeling shame at recognising when I am unable to help others. Lately I have been so focused on my own mental health issues that I have neglected some of my friends who have mental illnesses themselves! I think I’m slowly reaching the point where I’m being more forgiving of myself, yet I have a long way to go. I don’t suppose you have any tips?

      Thanks for your comment. It is appreciated!


  4. It’s a good question. As I was reading it, my thoughts went something like this:

    I have a long term physical illness. When I am sick, I have to withdraw from the world because I can’t cope with it. That may be because I am feeling dizzy or sick or because I have a migraine type headache or it may be because being with other people will bring on those kind of symptoms.

    Some people are puzzled by this because, when they see me, I appear quite well. However, those who know me well never question it. They don’t expect me to function like everyone else – much like we don’t expect someone who is blind to be able to see us.

    Now if we start looking at depression as an illness, rather than something that is ‘all our fault’ and hence something that we ‘ought’ to have control over, then the answer to your question becomes pretty obvious. If one is not functioning ‘normally’, then one cannot be expected to function ‘normally’!

    That said, there comes a point for me, and I’m sure for you, where spending every waking hour alone becomes counter-productive. I think we humans have a deep need for one another. We also need to feel that we have a purpose and that we are valued. Hence, being able to give out, even in just a small way, can help halt the negative thought cycles that can overwhelm us during the times when we just don’t have it in us to help anyone. It’s about regaining a sense of power – not in a negative sense, but a positive one. At such times, I think it’s important not to think too big – not to have too large an expectation of ourselves. Rather, it’s about focusing on the one small thing we can do today, even if we couldn’t do it yesterday and find we can’t do it again tomorrow.

    To give an example: When I was first ill, it was as much as I could do to lift a mug of liquid. This quickly became a source of frustration for me. It meant I couldn’t pour water from a kettle to make a drink for myself, let alone anyone else. If I wanted a hot drink, someone else had to get it for me. This state of affairs had the potential to become a burden for those around me as well as doing absolutely nothing for my self-esteem. So my husband found a small kettle and a small jug of water – both no bigger than a large mug – and put them next to my bed. Problem solved.

    It’s about knowing and accepting our limitations, whilst also acknowledging the worth of what we can do.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hey Ros. Once again, you’ve provided an insightful answer to my questions!

      You have a very valid point regarding your own physical disability. For instance, I have a friend with fibromyalgia, and I while we try to meet up as often as we can, it is not always possible because of the pain he endures because of it. So in that sense, you’re correct. Why should a mental condition be treated any differently?

      Having control is also very important too I agree. I have struggled a lot with meditation recently. Concentration issues and stuff like that. I almost gave up on it. Until I decided that it was just a blip – sure enough I pulled through and now I can slip into the right head space quite easily!

      Your final line on the subject is the perfect way of putting it. Thank you. And I genuinely mean that. It’s helped put my mind at peace somewhat.

      I hope things are going okay with you also

      Liked by 1 person

      1. You’re welcome. I’m glad to have been of help. I’m doing well at the moment – or well for me, anyway! Last winter was not good and it’s taken me a long time to recover my strength, but it’s good to be feeling a bit better at last 🙂


  5. **Does some form of self restraint come with the territory when it comes to handling our mental illness?**

    Other folks have addressed your question really well, so I thought I would share a slightly different perspective.

    As someone who lived with an ex-husband with some severe, poorly treated (through his own choice) mental illness, I would say that taking care of yourself is a priority, and those who love you will reap the benefits of your self-care.

    When someone takes care of themselves, learning their limits, strengths, coping mechanisms – seeking guidance of physicians, counselors or other health professionals – they are in essence working to get ‘ahead’ of any future difficulties or struggles. When someone is in the middle of an episode, control of yourself is going to be difficult, if not impossible.

    I struggle with Anxiety and PTSD from my past relationship, and I am working really hard to learn better communication skills regarding those things before, during and after an episode. People I love and who love me want to help, but they do not always know what is the best thing for me in that moment. They are much more effective if I can communicate to them what my needs are, and recognize I have needs, and recognize that it is OKAY to have needs. Sometimes, too, I just need space, and learning to communicate that too has helped me avoid the hurt feelings with people who had felt I was purposefully ignoring them.

    So, to summarize:

    Self-care, including what we can do for ourselves and what professionals can do for us, helps us. Helps those around us, and gets ahead of problems when they can be ‘got ahead of’.
    And… communication. Learning to understand our needs and communicate those to others.

    In those moments when self-restraint isn’t possible in the moment, these are things that can be done ahead of time to lay the groundwork for healthier interactions.

    Thanks for the great post and great questions!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Hi Masqued.

      Thanks so much for your comment and for providing an alternative perspective on the questions I posed!

      I can see where you’re coming from. While it can be unpredictable as to how we handle the many situations that will confront us in life, we can train ourselves to have a clear and healthy form of communication with others. I like that idea. It’s a hopeful and, more importantly, realistic one! I think it’s something I’ve subconsciously worked towards and I am glad that you are to.

      Preparation is key -that’s what I’m going to take from your detailed and honest response. Thanks a lot for that!

      I hope that you continue progressing in your struggle with PTSD – by the sounds of it you’ve already made a lot of headway in that regard 🙂


  6. Wow great thoughts. I find myself battling this internal dialogue quite a bit. I really don’t know the answer, but I know the heart is capable of something…it may not be a lot, it may be the 2% milk of empathy, but it’s worth it to deliver.

    I’ve actually tried ducking out to keep myself from harming others only to realize I harmed them more.

    It’s like masqued says above me. Communication and understanding is the groundwork. Tough stuff, even feels painful at time…but worth it take action. To ourselves and others.

    Awesome post.


    1. Thanks a lot for the compliment! The question just came on me one evening out of the blue. How exactly do I apply my morality in situations where I’m barely keeping myself going? Like you I find that there is always some small part of me that wants to help others. Masqued’s advice is definitely something I will take on board – we can both work on clearer communication. Hopefully we’ll get to the point we both want to be one day.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. In my mental illness, I can be there for a hug or someone to share their sorrow with me, even when i am depressed. But if someone needs me to babysit, help them move, actually leave my home, then no, that I can’t do when I’m depressed. I’ve learned to say no because I have to say no. I don’t feel guilty about it because I can’t help it.


    1. I think that it’s a good thing that you have a firm idea of your boundaries. It’s that line that protects your mental state of mind after all! I think I’m still trying to figure out where my limits lie.Hopefully one day I will 🙂


  8. It happened to me when I learned the schedule of my surgery. It was frustrating, it felt like my agony was taking away my sanity. I shouted at my mom and forgot the all those sacrifices she had done for me. There are instances that we cannot restrain ourselves to thw inner demon consuming us. But it is important to have self-control, even if we are hurting, our family should not suffer.


    1. I think your specific example is one where even the most patient of people are bound to feel a lot of stress and thus lash out at others. So it sounds pretty understandable in my opinion. All we can do is learn from those instances where we lose self control and identify what triggered us and how to avoid it happening again.

      I hope that your surgery went well!


  9. A therapist at a training I attended once said that being selfish and self involved is part of having a mental illness. For years I struggled with guilt and shame over my perceived selfishness while trying to live with untreated depression. That one statement not only normalized my experience but allowed me to let go of feeling bad about it. However, I don’t believe in using that as an excuse to remain the stagnant and treat others bad. I feel that there are going to be slip ups, but we should strive towards helping ourselves to get well as best as we can and learn better ways of coping.


  10. A really thought-provoking read. This piece reflects what I have been going through ever since I was in high-school. Although I was given the basic privileges such as shelter and education, looking back I now deeply regret how I allowed my inner demons to sabotage my perception of both myself and other people leading me to isolate myself and develop paranoid tendencies.. This led to people who meant the world to me turning their backs on me..even until now this problem occurs.. Yesterday, due to my trust issues, i sabotaged the relationship with someone who could’ve been ‘the one’. Now I’m on my own and regretting how much of a b*tch I was. It is not, in my personal opinion right to hurt others regardless of what one is feeling. It hurts when the sudden realization hits you when you calm down..


  11. Very well written. I have defended myself on several occasions by blaming my illness for my lack of self control. Thoughts about whether or not my illness is an excuse for all of my behaviors have made their way through my mind, but never have I analyzed it this deeply. You have really got me thinking now! Mental illnesses are so intense and overbearing because they are in your mind. Your mind is where you process everything.. feelings, thoughts… It is certainly hard to function correctly when you have something fogging your mind, fighting to take a hold of you. I don’t think it makes us bad people, but I do think that after reading your post I will try to be more self aware of my choices involving other people’s needs.


  12. I think nothing makes us more self-involved than pain. Happiness seems to radiate and we are drawn to share. In-between moods and times seem to make for a combination of being self absorbed and being capable of empathy and consideration for others. But pain – well that requires all of our focus attention. The mind and body want out of pain and will submerge into in hope of finding a way out. I think everyone is different …. and just because you can, does it mean you should?


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