The Sadness Switch

People who are upset, depressed, sad, or filled with anxiety often unintentionally prevent themselves from being helped by performing a sort of bait-and-switch on themselves. It goes like this:

Sad Sam laments about his feelings to a friend, colleague, loved one, etc. That other person says “oh, you just need to get some sun/find a better job/sleep more/etc.” Some sort of generic but positive actionable advice. And Sad Sam says “That’s not it at all! I’m depressed, it’s not as simple as ‘get more sun,’ I have a real chemical/medical problem.” That’s a legitimate response, by the way! If someone truly has depression, they’re also sick to death of people in their life saying “just get more sun” and junk like that.

But! If Sad Sam laments about his feelings and the friend says, “well, it sounds like you have depression, maybe you should seek some sort of professional help and/or medication,” then Sad Sam is just as likely to say “I don’t have depression, my life is genuinely bad/rough/difficult/terrible!”

You see what happened? Whichever solution they’re presented with, they claim they have the opposite problem and it’s therefore unsolvable.

But that switch is false. First off, both things can be true – you can have a real medical condition that affects your mood, energy levels, thoughts and even actions, AND you can have a tough/difficult/crappy situation you’re living in. In fact, there’s probably a high correlation between those two things, so it’s not uncommon at all for one person to be experiencing both simultaneously.

But the “solution” to both is exactly the same, so switching the focus from one side to the other doesn’t work. The reaction to both is this: I work every day to get better or I give up and die.

That’s it. There’s nothing else.

If your external situation is crappy, you work to make it better or you give up and die. If your internal situation is crappy, you work to make it better or you give up and die.

What the actual methods are will vary from person to person. For an internal situation, possible improvements can come from medicine, therapy, spirituality, meditation, or Taylor Swift (seriously, listen to This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things and tell me you don’t feel at least a little bit better). For an external situation, possible improvements can come from physical exercise, getting a new job, moving out of a bad environment, or increasing your social activity. Lots of those things will have overlap into both situations – physical exercise both improves your mood and likely improves your situation in life for a variety of reasons.

But the point is, since the solution to both internal and external sadness is “put in the work or give up and die,” it’s a false defense to deflect from one to the other. If your car is both out of gas and has a flat tire, and someone says “oh, you have a flat tire, if you fix that your car will move,” it doesn’t really make sense to say “No, I’m out of gas – so my car will never drive again and it’s totally hopeless!” Look, the core advice is this: your car can drive again, but you have to fix a few things, regardless of which things they are.

So get to work. Or give up and die. But very, very preferably the former.

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