Genie Mathews

Life Mastery Coach, Spiritual Educator, Wisdom Keeper

Tough Love and Depression

This is not the blog I intended for today, but my cousin started a conversation on Facebook and I felt this was the direction I needed to go in today.

He asked this question:

Does anyone ever get so depressed or anxious that you can barely bring yourself to take care of anything, even yourself?  And does it help you feel better, or motivate you, when someone tells you that they know you are depressed but you still need to take care of your responsibilities?

The fact is that no, approaching a person during a depression or anxiety event with shame and guilt is not motivating or healing or able to solve anything.

Here is the thing some people don’t understand – when dealing with a person in depression or anxiety, you are dealing with the depression illness and the anxiety illness, not with the person.  Can you reason with an illness?

Someone in a depressed or anxious state is suffocating underneath layers of their mental illness – guilt, shame, unworthiness, hopelessness, helplessness, sadness and self-loathing.  Logic and reason do not penetrate these steel-like blankets of emotional chaos.  The depression must be addressed before the person can be reached.  

What good is piling another layer of guilt, shame or demands going to do in this situation besides increase the suffocating depression or anxiety?  This kind of “tough love” only makes things worse.

My cousin then asked, “What if they say, I know you are depressed but…”

We know what follows the but; but you should just get over it; but you just need to buck up; but you just need to deal with it.  BUT, that approach never, ever works.  Period.

Can we reframe that question?  I know you are depressed so…

…so, how about let’s take a walk?

…so, how about I fix you something healthy to eat?

…so, let’s go for a drive.

…so, let’s see if someone else can watch the kids.

…so, tell me what you are feeling.

…so, what can I do for you?

…so, how can I support you?

One small act of kindness, compassion and love can actually be enough to remove some of those layers and get a person moving out of a depression or anxiety episode.  Anything that you can do to help the person get grounded and participating in this moment and out of their heads is a change in direction that can really help.

And what if that person refuses offers of support – refuses to take a step towards healing – won’t let you help them? Won’t take their medicine?  Won’t get out of bed?

This happens.  And, sometimes the cycle just needs to run its course and loved ones just have to live with it.  You may think that if you are stern or commanding that this person will fall in line because you’ve given them no choice.  But, remember, you aren’t dealing with them, you are dealing with an illness that has no allegiance or care for you and your commands.  If there is any occasion to use tough love, it may be on yourself in regards to not giving up in your attempts to be supportive even when that support is rejected over and over.


And, for those of us that live with depression and anxiety,  when we aren’t depressed or in the midst of anxiety, we need to make sure we acknowledge that our illness can be exhausting for our loved ones and caregivers.  Mental illness is an illness.  Like cancer or MS or addiction or any physical disability that requires support from loved ones, it can take a toll on those helpers.  We need to express gratitude for the support we receive, but also make sure that everyone is practicing self-care and stress relieving techniques and not pouring from an empty cup.

And what if the “tough love” giver is a manger or co-worker or someone who isn’t emotionally invested in our wellness?

First, this is why self-care and stress relief is vital to our success.  Fewer incidents of depression or anxiety can be achieved when we take care of ourselves during regular days.  This means fewer interactions of “tough love” at work.

Also, if you find you are working in an environment where mental illness is not understood, step up and offer some training.  Your first hand experience is invaluable and you might find that it becomes easier for you to be open about your journey and that others become more open about their own.  This may also allow you to plan ahead and have a plan-of-action in place that supports your emotional needs and the work-related needs of your job.

The truth is that no one is tougher on themselves than a person with mental illness.  Beating ourselves up is part of the self-loathing and hopelessness layers that we unwillingly pile on ourselves.  Tough love directed a person in a depression is like kicking someone when they are down.  Piling on is illegal in football and not a welcome approach to mental illness.

Education and compassion are vital in being a support to someone with any illness or disability.  Tough love just doesn’t work.  Best to leave it to trained professionals and you do what you do best – love the person in your life who has depression or anxiety.





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