Depression or Reflection? Know the Difference

middle age

People in middle age and beyond tend to look back on their lives and all the tumult involved with them. Happy times cause eyes to crinkle and shine, sorrows lead to gazes out in the distance. Both lead to sighs, some hugs, and the need to be alone for a while. While the process is going on for hours, days, weeks, or months, and from time to time, observers might jump to conclusions that the person deep in thought is depressed. The observers fail to consider that the person in deep thought is being reflective, assessing life’s lessons. The person reminiscing is sorting out memories to cherish and “Let’s leave that in the past” things to forget. The things worth forgetting are left in the past because they’re considered not worth fretting over. The problem, though, is that too many observers can’t tell the difference between the productive thinking activities that lead to greater serenity versus their assumption that recalling old wounds is a sign of misery bordering on the need for therapy. Critics assuming incorrect conclusions too often make insulting remarks to the individuals looking back on their lives and making sense of them. If you’ve ever heard or regretted making such statements, read on for healing thoughts to help everyone involved.

It’s one thing to be enduringly down, but quite another to reassess old beliefs and then to update/change them based on life lessons. The process involves some sadness plus grieving that leads to letting go of outdated and/or dysfunctional ideas. Overall it is an internal aka psychological cleansing and a sign of mental health. It usually leads to increased emotional healing and happiness plus shared values among friends and relatives who’ve been through mutual or even individual experiences with which all of them identify. Think of conversations that begin with the words “Remember that time when X did Y and then…?” or “Oh that reminds me of when X-and-such happened…” and similar fare. The conversations conclude with a sorting out of facts, correcting or laughing off mixed up memories, as well as many types of feelings. Old grudges abruptly end or they’re purposely morphed into alerts to behave in smarter ways. Relationships heal or change somehow. The conversationalists share a thinking process that leads to increased clarity and functionality followed by an enduring sense of satisfaction: Healing is about creating changed thinking and behavior that you choose.

Some far-flung therapists in different parts of the world have responded to the above ideas as follows:

Psychologist Steve Sherr, author of No Stories to Tell: The Psychologist Meets Infinity remarks, “Interesting observation. It seems like there is a lot of truth in this. That being said, there is often an awareness of missed opportunities and other forms of regret – ‘should’ve. could’ve.’ And speaking of depression, I highly recommend the book Lost Connections by Johann Hari. He was placed on antidepressants at an early age and all they did was make him fat. He went on to become a journalist and he investigated the topic. He explodes some of the myths and comes up with a framework in which he focuses on seven (I think) levels of lost connections that depressed people have experienced. It is a very helpful framework and an interesting read.”

A therapist who asked to remain anonymous insists that “You’re right. I know people who call such critics ‘Happy Idiots’ because they go on with life without evaluating the process or their experiences. They don’t learn life lessons. They don’t want them, so they reject the mentally healthy sorting out process done by happier peers.”

Psychologist J. Mark responded that “I wish this was true on a wider scale but unfortunately it isn’t. … if you live in a spiritually supportive bubble (I don’t mean religious) then those periods of reflection are met with validation and space and some degree of respect. But for the most part, my contact with people outside those bubbles tells me that the golden years are fraught with desperation and anxiety. When they worked they had work to buffer their uncertainties and to give them some [sort of] meaning. But once they stop working because of health or forced retirement there is an unraveling which can take all sorts of forms like despair and somatization of that despair which of course only makes them sicker and sicker. Speaking from my personal experience of watching my parents get old and die, and also listening to my clients tell me about their parents, I definitely see that when people allow themselves to grow old and to reinvent themselves they remain happier and healthier and much more connected and contributing and loving. “