Depression: Why Your Symptoms Don't Define You

Medically reviewed in September 2021

One of the difficulties for individuals and families struggling with depression or other mental illness is that the symptoms are manifest in behaviors, thoughts and emotions: the very information we use to define who we are. Unlike the symptoms of strep throat, which can be diagnosed from a medical exam or lab test, symptoms of depression are often expressed through your personality and your subjective experience.

Depression is a particularly tricky disorder because it is often accompanied by symptoms that affect your self-worth: negative thoughts, feelings of hopelessness and worthlessness and an inability to enjoy activities that once brought you joy. In my clinical practice, I often help clients sort through their subjective experience to differentiate between symptoms of a mental health disorder and their core sense of self.

While this sorting activity is by no means a clear-cut process, it’s helpful to recognize that just because you feel depressed doesn’t mean you are, at the core, a depressed person. I’ve had clients who will say “I’m lazy because I don’t want to do anything”, “I’m dumb because I can’t concentrate on my schoolwork,” or “I’m selfish because I don’t want to get out of bed and take care of my family.”

If you are experiencing similar negative thoughts, feelings or behaviors, ask yourself the following three questions to sort through whether it’s a symptom or not:

  1. Is my feeling, behavior or thought on the symptom list for my mental illness? If so, it’s probably a symptom.
  2. Is my behavior, thought or feeling helping me get what I want in my life? If not, it’s probably a symptom.
  3. Have I always felt, thought or behaved this way? If not, it’s probably a symptom.

If you are struggling with low moods, negative thoughts, low self-worth, low motivation or other depressive symptoms remember this: just because you think or feel something, doesn’t mean it’s true. You are not your symptoms.

If you are not currently getting help for your depression, please reach out to a mental health provider immediately. Depression is treatable and can make all the difference in living a life that brings you fulfillment and happiness – and a life you simply tolerate. You deserve more!

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