Performative Depression

A lot of depression is performative.

(Cue the outrage and the performative descriptions of great suffering. Or not, because believe me, I’ve seen this show).

One of the factors in the rise in depression in developed countries over the last couple of decades might be the social media. It’s very easy to reach large audiences, so the performance gets instant viewers.

Consequently, it’s harder for the sufferers (of this very real, terrible and also often very performative affliction) to get better. The audience is always there, and a social media premium on posting more “depression porn” is high. This is a performance that always has shades of self-righteousness, moral and physical superiority, and “how dare you!” in them, and that’s very addictive.

(Cue the “how dare yous” and “you have no idea how terribles.”)

7 thoughts on “Performative Depression”

  1. I’ve long believed in both metaphoric illness (illness that mimics a non-medical situation in a person’s life) as well as goal-directed illness (illness as a way of achieving something that can’t be gained by being healthy) so… yeah, a bunch of depression is people convincing themselves they’re depressed for attention because if they weren’t depressed… no attention.
    I also kind of believe in emotional weather (collective moods influencing weather patterns)… but that’s a separate topic.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Among the chronic depressives I know, the glaring common feature is the inability to forgive. If grudge-holding were an olympic sport, they’d be gold medalists! I think it may be causative. When I have talked to them about it, they are extremely resistant to the idea of even trying to forgive anyone, even while acknowledging that this is contributing to how bad they feel. They hug those grudges close, like their best friend and their life-savings all rolled into one. And then they can’t get along with anyone but dogs.

      I think it serves a purpose for them: if they constantly focus on, catalogue, and mull over every bad thing anyone has ever said or done anywhere near them, then anything they fail at in life is not really their responsibility. After all, people have treated them badly…

      But I have also witnessed depression that seemed performative, and there is perhaps some overlap. I have the misfortune to be inextricably acquainted with someone who has Borderline personality disorder. They need constant personal affirmation and attention, and if they’re not getting it, go through a very public display of cutting, drinking, suicidal ideation, and half-assed suicide attempts. It’s like dealing with an adult-sized two-year-old who can buy booze. Terrifying.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Sometimes it feels like everyone suffers from anxiety and depression. Like, is there anyone left who’s mentally healthy? Or are we increasingly calling the normal ebbs and flows of mood caused by life’s twists and turns a mental illness? Then, what is mentally healthy even supposed to look like? Being a creepy, perpetually jolly Stepford-wife-like robot? (And what happens with the people who really are terribly sick and cannot function? In places like the UK, it takes months to access mental health resources.)

    My eldest son is in college. He has been alone at his apartment since the lockdown in March, and his roommate rejoined him only recently. My son has been perfectly fine, doing schoolwork, entertaining himself online, exercising with weights and resistance bands at home, going outside for walks and grocery shopping. It turns out he’s doing way better than a vast majority of his friends who seem to be mentally falling apart. Mind you, no one among them is on the street or going hungry, these are all middle-class kids who have been safe and sound the whole time, didn’t have to go out to work, etc. So what is it? Is there an expectation of perfectly smooth sailing through life, without the slightest wave? I understand being unsettled, it took everyone a few weeks to get their bearing, but we’re months in now, where are the self-soothing mechanisms, the belief that you can weather whatever comes your way, that you will be OK? Or is the death of the nation-state and the transformation of the economic system the real source of this overwhelming dread that individuals simply cannot deal with? Something in between?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Your son is the definition of mental health. You should write parenting books, for real.

      Many people are definitely devolving. It’s sad to watch. And I’m not talking about those who have lost their jobs or are experiencing economic hardship or health issues. It’s the cases where the dramatic reaction isn’t warranted by any objective factors that I don’t get.

      Liked by 2 people

    2. I think there’s some truth to this. It is like how we handle death and grieving: in many cultures, these are still normal. When I visited friends in Vietnam, the first anniversary of my friend’s mother’s death came. She got out the DVD of the funeral watched it, weeping, and that evening we walked to the late mother’s home. Several relatives were there, they took the padlock off the door, and we all went in, lit candles, and prayed for the repose of her soul. When we left, the electricity had gone out and we had not brought a flashlight– we stumbled our way home by starlight. Friend was fine. The proper memorial had been observed. The video of the funeral was fascinating, showing the dead woman placed into the casket, all the relatives paying their last respects, the casket filled with rice hulls, and then the face uncovered for one last time– the adult daughters of the old woman all falling on the coffin, wailing. None of this was abnormal.

      When my sister died… our GP offered us antidepressants. I gather this is fairly normal in the US. We think grief is an illness to be medicated. People do not want to experience it. But my friends… they video funerals the way we video baptisms or weddings. She re-watches it every year, to deliberately re-live the grief. And this is normal. It is a sign of devotion to her mother, I think.

      On a similar theme, my friends back in VN would be aghast at spending so much time alone. Most of them have never even slept in a room by themselves. Some of my friends shared a student apartment that amounted to two rooms, shared by at least six people. One of them rode an overnight bus back to her hometown after being awake more than 24 hours, rather than spend a night alone in her student apartment (everyone else had also gone home for the holiday). Because ghosts. No matter how much I protested, they also would not let me sleep alone at the hotel– always one or more of the women shared the bed with me, because (despite my protests) they were certain I’d be too scared alone.

      Maybe we are not anxious and depressed. Perhaps we are just lonely, and like caged animals and isolated birds, that’s just our version of picking out all our feathers, or chewing our feet. The situation is unnatural, so it evokes pathological behavior to match? We have no idea what to do about loneliness, so we diagnose and medicate it.


      1. “When my sister died… our GP offered us antidepressants. I gather this is fairly normal in the US. We think grief is an illness to be medicated.”

        Anti-depressant medication is a part of an appropriate treatment protocol for pathological clinical depression, not for normal transient grief

        But normal grief is time-limited. Life goes on, and the normal psychological process is to finally leave the grief behind with the dead, and let it go.


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