Depressed woman holding happy faceWith the spread-out (and spread-thin) nature of our lives, we can go weeks or months without seeing friends and family face-to-face. And with social media feeds all around us, it’s fairly easy to keep up appearances while we’re suffering from depression.

Instead of telling anyone how we’re feeling, we keep smiling. We keep posting. We keep faking it. Heck, it’s practically a virtue in our culture. Fake it till you make it. Man up. Suck it up. Get over it. Pull yourself together.

You know, all that classic, misguided coach advice.

Society tells us we should be able to fix our problems and stop whining. People don’t really want to know what’s going on when they ask, “How are you?” They’re just being polite, right?

The polite thing to do is simply return the favor.

So we overcompensate with the happiest photos we can manufacture on social media. Or we maintain an overly chipper attitude at work or home. In other words, we’re unintentionally lying through our teeth.

Because if we did what we really wanted — not post anything at all or actually say all the negative stuff that depression is forcing us to think — people might think something’s wrong. Then we’d have to deal with it, rather than avoid it at all cost.

Facing Depression’s Stigma

While the stigma of depression has lessened over the years, it’s still hard to admit when we might be sick or in need of help. Especially when it comes to mental health issues. And if you’re a perfectionist to begin with, it can be twice as hard.

Maybe you’re the reliable person who holds everything together in your family. Maybe you feel like you should be able to control how you’re feeling — to “fix” yourself.

So you keep suffering in secret. And you make excuses instead.

I can’t sleep because I have a big project at work. I keep canceling on friends because I have too much to do at home. I’m constantly yelling at my spouse because he doesn’t understand me. I’m drinking too much because I need to unwind.

You think as long as you can fool other people into believing you’re okay, maybe these oppressive feelings will just disappear. But depression doesn’t typically work that way. Ignoring it can make you feel even worse.

While you’re busy crafting a happy narrative for your media feed or smiling like the Cheshire Cat, your inner life becomes more and more unbearable. It can take months to realize the extent of your depression — and the havoc it’s wreaked on you.

What Depression Is and Isn’t

There’s no such thing as “stereotypical depression.” It affects each person differently. And some of us are so good at hiding it that we’ve convinced ourselves we’re okay. It’s no big deal. I’m just a little sad.

But depression isn’t just “being sad.” It’s a whole host of complicated emotional and physical symptoms that can manifest in sleeplessness, irritability, fatigue and overindulging, among other things. But with so-called “smiling depression,” no one sees your symptoms. Only you know how you’re really feeling.

Maybe you haven’t felt like yourself lately, but you’re not sure why. That nagging feeling is a good indicator that it’s time to see a doctor and figure it out. Or maybe it’s not you at all — maybe it’s a friend or family member you’re worried about. Something just feels “off” with them, even though they say they’re fine.

Whether it’s you who’s suffering or a friend, a simple online depression inventory may be a good starting point. But the internet can’t determine all the factors at play in your life. That’s why it’s important not to self-diagnose or brush off these feelings based on a Google search. Your doctor is your best resource.

Disabling Depression’s Stigma

Once you’ve seen a medical professional, he or she will help you determine what’s going on and which treatment is best. Just be sure to heap loads of kindness on yourself (or your friend) during this time. Depression isn’t a choice, and absolutely no one is to blame.

If you are diagnosed with depression, open up to a few trusted people in your life. They won’t think you are weak or whiny. In fact, they will probably share some of their own difficult experiences — the very same people who seem to have it all together. This can help reduce any shame or stigma you’re feeling.

Alternatively, if someone you love is diagnosed with depression, the best thing you can do is be ready to listen when they’re ready to share. Don’t pity them or pass judgment on them. Just be there for them. And support them without suffocating them.

Talking about how we really feel won’t magically take away our pain — just like medicine and therapy won’t immediately make us feel better. But naming our illness, sharing with others and finding the right treatment will allow us to have hope again. And where there’s hope, healing can begin.