You know her. Or maybe you are her.
You're always smiling and have everything together: a good marriage, a solid reputation, and a couple of kids who do well. You started the book club, you've just been promoted to vice president, and your employees rave about working with you. Your life looks balanced and complete. Your friends marvel, "She's a fantastic friend; always there for you when you need her."
Or maybe you're him.
You coach your daughter's soccer team and never miss your son's band performances. Your career is booming, your yard (although filled at times with kid's toys) is always neat as a pin by nightfall. You're in charge of the community Alzheimer's walkathon. And yet you hit the gym every morning before work, and every once in a while, bring the staff at the front desk their favorite brand of coffee as they exclaim, ”He's the greatest guy.”
There are more and more people seeking perfection—people who are striving to meet the pressure of intense deadlines or the high expectations of those around them. If you're one of these people, you may secretly be terrified of the one time you don't perform your best, while simultaneously the expectations of what your "best" entails grow higher and less reasonable. But you can show no fear, no insecurity.
So, you plow forward.
But could the creation of a perfect-looking, successful life be an ingrained strategy for masking painful emotions or experiences, even depression?
Perhaps you are hiding a deep sadness that lurks underneath that veneer of perfection. You may be rigidly compartmentalizing emotional pain or past trauma that you don’t want to reveal, even to yourself.
Perfectionism, over-responsibility, and not allowing anyone in on the real you? These are three of the basic traits of perfectly hidden depression, a term I coined in 2014. It's not meant to be a diagnosis, but a syndrome of behaviors and beliefs that are often found together.
You may be aware that this strategy is how you began coping with childhood pain and confusion. Or you may have been doing it for such a long time, the patterns are unconsciously and solidly entrenched in your thoughts and actions. It's simply who you are.
You may convince yourself that you’re being strong by swallowing your tears when your beloved pet dies. You may think your spouse is being a bit of a slacker when they suggest you should be less uptight about your child's grades. You may be proud of how you're constantly busy and never sit back and relax. Who has time for that?
Yet perhaps what you're doing is hiding depression. Perfectly.
How could you be depressed? Depressed people are withdrawn, noticeably sad, and lack energy. People around them are worried about them. They whisper, "She's just not herself."
I've heard story after story from people who have contacted me since 2014 and have identified with perfectly hidden depression. They described knowing something wasn't right. They may have even searched for the symptoms of depression. Yet they couldn’t relate. “My life is full. I love my family. I socialize and enjoy my career. I’m grateful every single day for all of my good fortune."
So what did they do? They crept away in shame, criticizing themselves harshly for even considering such a thing. Until they heard the term perfectly hidden depression.
And light bulbs began turning on.
Classic depression is real. And it's dangerous. But perfectly hidden depression is also real. And also dangerous.
Please seek help if this is you. We'll talk about it more in this blog and I hope you'll join me. You can learn to balance your fear with courage. To accept your pain without being overwhelmed by it. To admit vulnerability without losing your strength.
And to share those secrets and gain new understanding and self-compassion.
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