Weaponizing Apathy: How Being High-Functioning and Depressed Can Be a Superpower – and a Curse.

CW: mental health, depression.

I distinctly remember the conversation – it was grey outside and I was living in a place where there were damp mattresses in the street and bare electrical wires in the kitchen. My sort-of-boyfriend got onto the topic of feeling ‘sad’. His words – he didn’t really read a lot, and to be honest, we were a terrible match. I didn’t have space to stand up in my room, so we were stood in the kitchen, and he was definitely prettier than I was. This pissed me off.

With strange admiration he went on to how he loved the feeling – being “depressed”, that is. That this was fostered through music choice and perseverating on negative thoughts. Like he got off on it. This pissed me off even more than beholding his beautiful face.

I actually laughed. Really laughed. Enjoyed the glamorisation, how millennial it sounded. Liked his word choice too – child-like. The phrasing was something along the lines of, ‘Yeah man, I really like feeling depressed I think it’s beautiful I just listen to really sad songs and go on this like, sad journey for a few hours.’ I understood, but something didn’t resonate.

I think I found humour in what he was saying because it so well encapsulated the strange paradox my generation has on mental health – a faux-understanding that has generalized to equating sadness with depression. More of us are actually depressed than previous generations, however I would argue (tentatively) that solely acquiring knowledge through Instagram infographics can fail to recognise how depression has many faces, varies largely from person to person and can actually be an adaptive response to things being pretty terrible. It’s also a lot messier to understand than just your neurotransmitters being mangled (but you can read about that here).

I’m going to give the example of myself; when I’m suffering with a low mood, I have all the classic symptoms of depression bar one. I have an itching inability to sleep, feelings of hopelessness, over/under eating, lack of enjoyment, and irritability. However, I actually tend to do more. I’m more motivated. My mum calls it ‘leaning in’. Professionals call it ‘high-functioning depression’.

This sub-type of depression is particularly common for people high in the personality dimension ‘perfectionism’. To explain, perfectionism is best conceptualised in four parts: setting high standards for yourself, believing others also have high standards, reacting negatively to your own mistakes and, discrepancy – believing there is a large difference between how you actually are, and how you ought to be. This personality trait has been linked to a multitude of negative mental health outcomes. It’s thought to influence mental wellbeing through facilitating impossibly high standards for yourself which impact your self-image and self-esteem.

Dykman (1998) explained the process of perfectionism into depression in terms of ‘goal orientation’. Basically this means that people are over focused on meeting  high personal targets, which they can’t accomplish. When mistakes are made, it seems perfectionists ruminate on what went wrong.

However, oftentimes even people with high levels of ‘maladaptive perfectionism’ are still able to achieve pretty extraordinary things. There’s new research coming out that shows people who are perfectionists and suffering with high-functioning depression actually use the very thing that made them depressed (over-focus on goals and achievements) as a slightly bizarre strategy to actually get them out of their prospective funk. Success with goals tends to increase self-esteem and alleviate some of the depressive symptoms. However, success and seeing failures as learning experiences are key to this alleviation.

What is so interesting about ‘high-functioning depression’ is that, evolutionarily, it could be seen as an adaptive response to adversity. Instead of being unable to function normally, quite the opposite happens. I think this analogy sums it up nicely: ‘The shit has hit the fan, so let’s construct a completely new fan, with several speed functions.’ Although differing motivationally, high-functioning depression still has the same emotions and thoughts associated with depression. It’s just trickier to spot.

Particularly pertinent with this type of depression is that people are much less likely to get help from loved ones and professionals. This might be because that, with high-functioning depression, you differ motivationally to major depressive disorder and seasonal affective disorder – both are characterised by extreme low motivation for daily tasks, unlike high-functioning depression. It also might be because of the link with perfectionism; people suffering feel embarrassed at letting others know how they are feeling, because it bursts the outside view of being ‘perfect’ they have tried so hard to maintain.

So, you might have a friend that has gone off the grid, isn’t answering your calls or texts, yet has managed to produce three garage tracks in a two week period. Or maybe you’ve got a friend who has gone super-Saiyan on their degree this year. Maybe it’s your mate who has been really pushing their art and suddenly got a load of followers on Instagram.

Ask them how they are. Reach out for a cup of coffee and an honest conversation. Depression has many faces, and sometimes those who are deemed ‘successful’ are struggling the most.

If you think you or a loved one is struggling with mental health, please don’t hesitate to contact the following charities and helplines:

CALM: 0800 58 58 58

Mind: 0300 123 3393

PAPYRUS: HOPElineUK 0800 068 4141

Rethink Mental Illness: 0300 5000 927

Samaritans: 116 123

Image courtesy of Kira auf der Heide.

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