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When It Feels Like Your Mental Health Is a Burden to Others

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Seth J. Gillihan, PhD - Blogs
By Seth J. Gillihan, PhDClinical psychologistJuly 19, 2019
From the WebMD Archives

If you live with a condition like depression, anxiety, or bipolar disorder, you’ve probably worried about the toll your condition might be taking on your friends, family members, or partner.

You might worry that your condition is too emotionally heavy, like your own dark clouds are keeping them from enjoying the sun. Perhaps you fear that the stress will wear them out mentally and physically, and even affect their mental health.

Maybe you’re concerned about how it’s affecting them financially, since treatment for mental illness often is not covered by health insurance. And if you’ve had to take time off from work, your contribution to the household finances may no longer be what it was.

You might feel like you’re holding back your loved ones from living more freely, like if they have to take time off from work or devote time to your care. Maybe you feel bad that others are having to pick up some of your responsibilities.

Or maybe you just feel bad about not being the person you used to be when you’re around them—perhaps you’re missing your usual spark or having a hard time maintaining a conversation. Being more irritable or less emotionally available only adds to your guilty feelings. 

To tell you the truth, I know about these experiences from my own life when I fell into a major depression following an extended illness. I felt like a burden on my wife and kids, and it was easy to understand the guilt that people often feel toward their loved ones because of their struggles.

Your guilty feelings might even lead you to believe things that can make suicide seem like the right choice, such as:

  • No one would miss me if I were gone.
  • My kids deserve to have a different parent.
  • Everyone would be better off without me.

These kinds of thoughts are simply not true. People would be devastated to lose you. Your death by suicide would make their lives unspeakably worse, not better. If you have kids, they deserve to have you, struggles and all. (If you’re having these kinds of thoughts, seek out the support of a qualified professional if you haven’t already; call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-TALK, or text 741741 to connect with a counselor at Crisis Text Line.)

Even with my professional training and experience, it was a struggle to see the lie in my self-loathing and sometimes suicidal thoughts. When I told my mom that I was heartbroken to see how my depression was affecting my kids, she told me something I’ll always remember: All of us go through things that inevitably have an impact on the people we love. We affect one another. It’s part of sharing a life together. It’s part of being human. And it’s okay. We can keep showing up, exactly as we are.

Question Your Thoughts

So notice when you’re thinking things that lead to guilt about your mental health. Those thoughts are probably way more critical than makes sense. Remember that thoughts are not facts, but rather stories your mind creates that may or may not be true. When possible, talk to someone you love and trust about your thoughts; they’ll probably be able to help you spot overly negative thoughts about yourself. In my own situation, my spouse let me know I was contributing a lot more to the family than I believed (I assumed I was a net negative). 

Do What You Can

If you’re struggling to do the things you used to do, focus on doing what you can. For example, maybe you don’t have the energy to do as much with your family or friends as you used to, but you can still find ways to share time together and show your love. Don’t let your guilt about your diminished abilities cause you to withdraw from what you are able to do.

Open to Love

Finally, open yourself up to love from the people who care about you. People often discover just how much others love them when they face their biggest challenges. I often hear about this support in my therapy office; many of my patients are there because someone cared enough to help them find treatment. During my own struggles, I saw the depth of my family’s love for me, and was repeatedly amazed to learn what “in sickness and in health” truly means. My closest relationships deepened profoundly during that time.

Giving and receiving love is possible even in the darkest of times. I don’t mean a begrudging or halfway kind of love, but a love that fully embraces you—all of you. It’s a love that continues to see you through whatever circumstances you find yourself in. It’s unconditional. And chances are, the people who care about you have more love to give you than you even realize. Allow yourself to open up and receive their love.

Meditation for stepping into the flow of love: Sit comfortably in a quiet place. Allow your eyes to close. Take three slow, calming breaths. Now, as you breathe in, think to yourself, I am loved. As you breathe out, send your love to others as you say in your mind the words, I love. Continue for 2-3 minutes, and repeat as often as you like. [Adapted from A Mindful Year: 365 Ways to Find Connection and the Sacred in Everyday Life.]

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About the Author
Seth J. Gillihan, PhD

Seth J. Gillihan, PhD, is a licensed psychologist and host of the weekly Think Act Be podcast. He is author of The CBT Deck, Retrain Your Brain, and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy Made Simple, and co-author with Dr. Aria Campbell-Danesh of A Mindful Year: 365 Ways to Find Connection and the Sacred in Everyday Life. Dr. Gillihan provides resources for managing stress, anxiety, and other conditions on the Think Act Be website.

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