Many things impact and shape our identity throughout life. Depression is one of those things. When diagnosed with depression, our sense of self and how we slot into the world can feel unsteady and the way others relate to us might change.
What is identity?
Identity is our sense of who we are. Our likes, dislikes, experiences, opinions, values, and beliefs all contribute to it. Often it influences how we present ourselves to the world and interact with the people and environment around us.
Why is identity so important?
Our identity helps us to anchor ourselves within the world around us. It helps us with feeling ‘settled’; as though we belong somewhere. Our identity can influence our confidence, decision-making, boundary-setting, and life priorities.
How does struggling with identity feel?
Struggling with our identity is incredibly unsettling. We sometimes feel “cut loose”, unable to tie ourselves to anything. We might not know who we are, what we like or don’t like, where we fit, or where we’re going.
Thinking about goals or dreams becomes impossible. It can send us into a spiral of “I don’t know”. “I don’t know” spirals often become suicidal spirals as our thoughts quickly whizz to “there’s nothing I want to do”, “I’m rubbish at everything anyway”, and “life is pointless”.
Getting dressed takes forever because we can’t figure out whether we actually like any of our clothes or if they represent “who we are”. We may push others away because we no longer feel connected to them. Leaving the house is tough because we’re not sure where we want to go or what we want to do. Decision-making feels like we’re fumbling around in the dark, guessing every move.
It can feel scary – as though we’re floating in space, with no idea who we are or where we fit. We’re directionless and anchorless. We might feel low, vulnerable, confused, conflicted, anxious, upset, and hopeless.
Becoming “the depressed person”
One thing that can happen when we’re diagnosed with depression, particularly if we’ve been struggling for a while, is that people define us as “the depressed person” (even though we’re so much more than that).
Reducing us to such a simple yet complete description, quickly eclipses other aspects of our personality. One problem is that when we then begin to recover, we then become conflicted. We don’t want to be depressed, but recovery means losing that identity and if it’s the only identity we have then, even if it’s not an identity we want, the thought of letting go is terrifying.
Struggling to enjoy anything
Depression can prevent us from enjoying things we’ve previously enjoyed. Even if something has been a huge part of our life and identity for many, many years, depression can suck out any fulfilment, joy, or excitement we might gain from it. At the same time, the amount of effort needed to engage increases exponentially as our mood deteriorates. There’s a thin film of fuzzy grey coating everything we do.
We may disengage because we don’t have the energy or brainpower to stay involved with things we no longer enjoy. Our friendship group might revolve around these things. They might fill our free time. Perhaps they form an important part of our self-worth. If we then stop enjoying them, then all those things start to feel wobbly.
Being left behind
When we’re depressed for a long time, especially during key developmental stages, it affects our identity development.
While we’re unwell, our friends might move away, graduate, have children, receive accolades, work up a career ladder, buy a house, or get married. Perhaps they experiment with relationships, try different hobbies, learn new skills, go to different places and explore.
Meanwhile, we’re still desperately trying to support ourselves despite depression stealing all our motivation, enjoyment, and hope. We might not be able to study because our brain fog is thick and our thinking is sludgy. Medication makes mornings impossible, and our concentration is patchy that we rely on flexitime, limiting the jobs we can apply for. If we can work, then outside of that, we’re lucky if we have the energy to feed and clean ourselves, never mind exploring or trying new hobbies. We reserve weekends for recovering from the week.
We feel left behind. Those around us are moving on, figuring out likes, dislikes, values, beliefs and next steps. They’re working out their goals and gaining a sense of what they want.
In contrast, it’s a bit tricky for us to gain experiences that inform our belief system, to try new things and figure out what we like and don’t like, or to meet other people, when we struggle to leave the house.
Depression can affect the decisions we make. Decision-making feeling increasingly impossible, but we might also find that more and more choices disappear. Instead, our circumstances make them for us.
Needing to stay within the boundaries of the mental health team we know and trust can influence a house move. Food choices are dictated by the amount of energy involved in preparation and consumption. We don’t choose whether or not to attend social events – our energy levels and mood choose for us.
With each choice that stops being a choice, we lose another bit of identity. When we don’t choose what to wear, for example, because some clothes take a lot more energy to clean or match than others, we stop noticing what we like or dislike. As the world goes grey and flat, so does our sense of who we are.
When depressed, we can lose all sorts of things that previously contributed to our identity.
We can lose the ability to concentrate, focus, or retain information. This can affect our performance at work or stop us from studying. Some of us can’t work, which has a knock-on impact on our finances. Things that usually help us escape, like reading books or following films, stop being an option. Sometimes we lose our sense of love or affection, which can cause the breakdown of relationships.
As the various bricks contributing to our identity get lost, our identity falls apart.
Real or fake identity?
Many of us don’t want others to know when we’re struggling. We plaster on a smile. Sometimes we pretend to enjoy things that we don’t really like, and force ourselves to do things that we don’t want to do. We might change our image to fit in with those around us, attempting to restore a sense of belonging; we don’t ‘like’ much when the world is flat so might as well try and ‘fit in’.
After a while, the ‘real’ us is so enmeshed with this other version, that trying to tease them apart becomes tricky.
When depression swallows us whole, it’s difficult to rebuild our lives. But difficult doesn’t mean impossible. We might need support and might need to try a few different things, but ever-so-slowly, we can start to regain an identity
As we slowly start to re-find ourselves, we might discover new things that we’ve never tried before, that we actually really enjoy. We might find new groups of people that we like hanging out with.
It can be scary and feel almost like we’re throwing ourselves into nothingness. We don’t have to rebuild a life identical to our pre-depression life (if we can remember that far back!), or to return to a spitting image of the person we left behind.
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