I am the kind of person who is fuelled by the validation of others, who wants to be liked and respected. I am the kind of person who would rather let someone else monopolise the conversation than be assertive. I am the kind of person who is forever seeking approval.
I haven’t always been like this. Most people would have described me as an extrovert in the past, as someone who couldn’t wait to get their opinion across and take the lead. However, I have been aware of my need to be accepted for as long as I can remember and I have noticed it increase in recent years, as my anxiety and depression have worsened. It seems to show itself in such a wide array of situations that it has been hard not to notice it.
The main way this frustrating habit exhibits itself is through continually questioning; “do you like this?/did I do that right?/are you sure that was okay?”. Even though I heard the answer the first time, one lot of approval just isn’t enough, and I feel myself asking the question for the second and third time.
I’m also affected by non-verbal communication. Depression makes me very aware of the judgements of others and I take non-verbal signals as cues to how others are judging me. It can be something as little as not returning a smile that can make me start to wonder if I have done something wrong.
One of the major problems with an excessive need for approval that I have noticed is that it’s almost as if we can’t do much on our own initiative but must always get permission. I sometimes feel I must ensure that things I do are approved by others, such as deciding what clothes to buy. When I go against the recommendations of those closest to me, I feel guilty for this and I will overthink the issue for hours.
The other issue with this need to be liked is that I can end up doing things I don’t actually want to do. I find myself agreeing make plans and then later regretting my decision; sometimes I have the balls to back out of the plan, sometimes I don’t.
However, the main thing I am trying to remember is that whilst approval feels good, you can’t base your self esteem on it. You need to try to be strong and independent in your decisions where depression and anxiety make you indecisive.
When we are depressed, we tend to compare ourselves with others in negative ways. For these comparisons, we pick people who we believe are much better than us in some way, and discount comparisons with people who give us good feelings, leaving us feeling bad about our performance.
I am constantly comparing myself with people who aren’t depressed; ‘normal’ people. I think to myself that they have everything together and seem to be able to cope with the complexities of life much easier than I can. This leads to me feeling even more depressed, which does not help matters.
Social media can play a huge role in this; even though we all know instagram is just a highlight reel of someone’s life, that doesn’t stop us comparing ourselves against them; ‘look how happy they are/how many friends they have/how much money they have.’
There is actually a theory, Social Comparison Theory, that states we determine our own social and personal worth based on how we stack up against others. As a result, we are constantly making evaluations about a variety of things; attractiveness, intelligence, wealth and success. Most of us have the social skills to control any envy, however when we are depressed it can be easy for our feelings of self worth to deteriorate.
When you feel you are comparing yourself to others, the best thing to do is to think ‘am I comparing myself to someone who is on the same current level as me’ for example, if you suffer from anxiety, you should compare yourself with someone who has anxiety. This can help to reduce the negativity felt from comparing yourself to others.
Anxiety and depression have made me and others I know overly sensitive to both pessimism and criticism. When you have to put a lot of effort into maintaining a positive outlook, even the smallest of comments can bring you down.
I know that I have a more intense reaction to criticism than your average person, and for this reason I believe I have developed coping mechanisms to avoid/deal with this.
- Criticising myself first is possibly my go to tactic when I can see a conversation is heading down a path I do not want to go down. I find I do this so much I barely notice it anymore. The best example for me is my height; I’m only 5ft so I now tell people ‘yes, I know I’m short’ just before they are about to comment on my (lack of) height. Additionally my humour is self-depricating and I’m sure this is a reflection of my sensitivity to criticism.
- I am a people pleaser pure and simple. I am constantly apologising and fearfully polite to strangers. The other day I overpaid my haircut by £10 just because I was too polite to say anything – I just handed over my card, smiled and nodded. Generally being a people pleaser makes me feel as though I am a more likeable person, and tends to avoids any negativity or criticism.
- Avoiding the source of criticism altogether is a great tactic; you just stay home and nobody can be mean to you! On a serious note I have noticed myself doing this more and more recently, avoiding situations where I believe I could ‘fail’ or where I have to meet new people who I believe will be judging me.
So my coping mechanisms have been established and are now entrenched in my personality, but does this make them healthy? Obviously it’s nice to be liked but I am aware that I am walking to fine line between being a people pleaser and being a pushover, and from time to time I fall on the wrong side of that line (i.e. In the hairdressers).
I find the feelings and emotions of others contagious when I am down or depressed, and this is the reason I find pessimism so difficult to deal with. When you have depression you spend a lot of time building yourself up to put a happy front on for others, but when these people aren’t being positive themselves it can be even harder to maintain your optimistic persona.
It is therefore necessary to try not to be so easily affected by the moods of others, whilst still keeping a relatively active social life, as hiding away does not help the problem.
I often feel as though I am faking my way through life, pretending to be okay and alright when really I am battling to hold it all together. Admittedly, to some extent we are all masking our true emotions to obey certain social rules or to be polite.
When we become depressed, it can feel as though we have been faking our whole lives as our negative thoughts take hold. We begin to devalue our current and previous successes. I know I do this and as a perfectionist, I think less of things I believe are not up to standard. I become overly focused on the flaws in my achievements.
However this is not entirely accurate, it is merely our depression making us think this way; for example, I know that there were times I had to fake happiness in my job, but when I think objectively, I realise I must have had some talent that I didn’t fake to get me there in the first place.
The key question that interests me is, are we really faking it, or are we just lying? The ability to lie and fake things is an important social skill, sometimes it is better to sugar coat things or to at least be diplomatic to risk hurting people’s feelings – too much honesty is not always helpful.
However, I know there are times when I have outright lied to maintain my positive persona;
- I have lied to work; ‘I’ve got food poisoning so I won’t be able to come into work today’ when really I’ve just managed to stop crying long enough to make that phone call.
- I’ve lied to friends; ‘I’m sorry but I can’t make today because I’ve double booked’ when the reality is that I’m still lying in bed and I don’t feel able to get up and face the world.
- I’ve lied to family; ‘I’m so sorry but I can’t make your birthday meal tonight because I’m snowed under at work’ when really the thought of making polite conversation for 2 hours is just too much.
So to everyone I’ve lied to, I apologise. I felt it easier to lie than to admit that I have a mental health problem for fear of what you would think and how you would treat me. I suffer from severe depression and anxiety, and I am trying to be more vocal about that.
As we become depressed, or sometimes before, we can believe that we must do or have certain things or we must live in a certain way. For example, I believe that I must never fail, that I must always make others happy, and that others must always like me.
This is draining and takes constant brain power to maintain. There can also be irony in our ‘musts’; at times I can be so in need of success and scared of failure, that I can withdraw completely and not try at all.
The key here is to change your ‘musts’ into preferences. For example, I would prefer not to fail, but if I do this isn’t the end of the world’. Reducing the strength of your musts can result in you being happier when you are less controlled by these internal rules.
Another thing that can change our perspective is the way we treat ourselves. Depression can cause us to speak negatively to ourselves and to take the blame for most things, whether they be our fault or not. However most life events arise due to a combination of circumstances. When we are depressed, it can be helpful to take a step back and think of the real reasons as to why something has happened. This way we can
learn to accept alternative explanations instead of blaming ourself instantly.
Self criticism can lead to the following problem; I only accept ‘me’ if I do ‘it’ well. The ‘it’ can be anything you judge as important. For example, “I’ll only accept myself if I pass these exams with a first”. This means that your successes lead to self-acceptance, but failure leads to self-dislike.
This kind of thinking leads to ‘I’m only as good as my last performance’ which is something I suffer with immensely. However, whether we succeed or fail the essence of our being has not changed, it does not make us a better or worse person, and this is what we have to remember.
If we have been threatened or experience a major setback, we may need a lot of reassurance before tying again. The problem is that this same process can apply in depression in an unhelpful way; if we experience a failure, we may think we need to have a major success before we can reassure ourselves we are back on track.
Small successes may not be enough to convince us, however getting out of depression often depends on small steps and not giant leaps. Typical automatic thoughts that can undermine this step by step approach that I suffer from are;
- Anyone could do that apart from me.
- I used to do so much more when I wasn’t depressed, managing this one small thing today seems insignificant.
- Other people could take things like this in their stride, however it is such an effort for me.
- Small steps are alright for some people, but I am used to giant leaps and nothing else will do.
The problem here lies with comparison. You are comparing yourself to people who do not suffer with any mental health issues. Therefore you have to compare yourself like with like; other people may accomplish more, and so would you if you didn’t have depression, but you do. So, given the way your brain is and the effort you have to make, you are really doing a lot if you achieve one small step.
If we can do things when we find them difficult to do, surely that is worth even more praise than being able to do them when they are easy to accomplish? We need to learn to praise our efforts, rather than our results.
It is in the nature of depression to make us think negatively about ourselves and our future. It is possible that it is these symptoms that are stopping us from from taking the next steps. We therefore need to change our behaviour and learn to tackle things in a different way.
- Getting out of bed; if staying in bed really helps you to feel better, then this is fine. However most of the time, for myself at least, it does not. Instead I simply use my bed to hide away, and this is of course followed by feelings of guilt for not doing the things I have to do. Although your bed can feel like a safe place, it can actually be much worse in the long run, if we use it as a place to brood over our problems. It is therefore important to use your bed as a positive place (eg, as a place to read) and as a place to rest.
- Distraction; when we feel depressed we tend to dwell on certain negative thoughts, a way to get around this is to distract ourselves. This can be done by increasing our activity, as when we are depressed when can sometimes feel agitated and unable to relax. At this point it is best to get up and do something, even if you only take a walk to the shops if that is all you can manage.
- Planning positive activities; it is important to try and plan one positive activity a day, as sometimes it can be hard remember to do things that give/used to give you joy, when you spend all your time just struggling to do the mundane things in life. It can therefore be helpful to give yourself some time at the end of the day to do something you feel you could enjoy.
- Knowing your limits; at various times in my life I have become exhausted from working too much, and was unable to cope with the demands placed upon me – this is nothing to be ashamed of. We all have our limits, and unfortunately when we are depressed these limits may be lower than they would normally be. Limits vary from person to person and although some people may seem to be able to cope with anything (and make us feel that we should be able to do so as well), this does not mean that we should.
- Coping with boredom; some depressions are related to feeling under stimulated, or being socially or emotionally isolated and lonely. The key is to hold onto the relationships you do have, and ensure that you at least talk to your friends on the phone once a week. When boredom occurs, you need to spend some time coming up with a list of activities that you used to find pleasure in. My personal list is self care orientated; I used to enjoy getting ready, doing my hair and applying make up, however these tasks now seem like a chore so I try to avoid them. The idea is to try and see these tasks in a positive light, and by reintroducing them slowly and perhaps doing these tasks mindfully, we can learn to enjoy them again.
- Dealing with sleep difficulties; sleep problems are a typical symptom of depression and can take various forms, for example, some people find it difficult to get to sleep, whilst others wake up ridiculously early (myself included). We need to plan for sleep. Ensure that we are relaxing an hour before we go to sleep, that we have planned for the day ahead.