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Tuesday 28 February 2012

Hidden Symptoms of Depression: The "I Have No Life" Oscillation

This is part of a series of posts on some of the less-talked-about symptoms that tend to go along with depressed mood. As I discussed in the first post in this series, the list of diagnostic symptoms for depression is well known, but not exhaustive. During depression people experience many more phenomena as well.

As stated in that earlier post, however, it’s also important to acknowledge that each of these “hidden symptoms” can also occur at other times in our lives. Don’t fret if you see yourself in these experiences.
Alone in a precarious existence...

Do you have a life?

“Get a life!” people sometimes tell us. What they usually mean is that we are occupying ourselves with trivia. If we had an interesting, busy life with a variety of friends and interests, we would not be so focused on and upset about, say, whether they parked their car crookedly.

So: Do you have a life? Do you have a sufficient variety of activities, interests, and friends that you can say that you have a reasonable human existence?

The answer depends on the people to whom you compare yourself. If you are thinking of a jetsetting actor/rockstar who spends every evening at a different gala opening, with a new partner every five minutes, then perhaps you don’t – and perhaps you prefer not to have one. If you compare yourself to more down-to-earth friends and neighbours, then perhaps you do.

“I have no life!”

During depression (and at some other times) it’s common to feel that our lives are not as full as we might like. Partly we are so easily overwhelmed that we restrict ourselves to a smallish existence. Partly, great hunks of our lives may have fallen away unexpectedly (job, relationship, plans), and that’s why we’re depressed.

Sometimes, though, the same life can seem full and satisfying one moment, and empty the next – without anything really changing. It depends on the perspective you adopt.

This is reminiscent of the scene in Woody Allen’s Annie Hall, when Woody’s analyst asks how often he and Diane Keaton’s character have sex. “Practically never! Only three times a week,” he moans.  Keaton’s analyst asks her the same question. “Oh, constantly,” she complains.  “Three times a week!”  Same reality, different interpretation.

The oscillation

During depression, it’s not uncommon to feel constantly that one’s life is not what it should be, regardless of one’s actual circumstances. The negative filter that pervades – and poisons – everything we see can make even quite a nice life seem like hell. This is the usual stance during the depth of depression. The negative evaluation may be objectively true (others would agree that your life truly is awful, even apart from the mood problem), or it may be tainted by the negative feeling of the depression itself.

In milder depression, however, and as a more severe depression lifts a bit, the sense of satisfaction with one’s life can flicker. You go out to dinner with a friend and you feel warm, loved, interested, and content. Yes, you have a life, and it’s a pretty good one. Then you say goodbye to the friend, head home, close the door behind you, and that whole feeling evaporates. Here you are, alone, friendless, and with nothing to do: this now feels like the reality of your life.

Sometimes this phenomenon takes place outside conscious awareness. People know that they feel reasonably well when they are doing things with others, and miserable when they are alone at home, but they don't notice the underlying thoughts.

But some people watch the process happening and are appalled at their apparent lack of a core sense of stability. “I have the same number of friends whether I’m with them at the moment or not,” they say. “How can that knowledge not stay with me and make me feel okay when I’m alone for two minutes?”

That question, asked in frustration, actually has an answer. In fact, it has two of them.

First, this fragile sense of one’s self and one’s life is a fairly standard feature of depressed mood (and of other times when parts of one’s life have fallen apart). It doesn’t mean we have no core, no sustaining personality, no ego strength. It just goes with the territory.

Second, our emotions at times can be very tied to the present moment. If we are engrossed in a project, or sitting in a restaurant with a friend, we feel engaged and loved. If we are alone and disengaged, with nothing to do, then we can feel, yes, lonely and disengaged. Then we can take that feeling and apply it to life as a whole. There are no friends with us in the room at the moment, therefore we have no friends.

How do we stop the oscillation?

We don’t, completely. We will always be affected to some degree by our thoughts and circumstances. But if we are experiencing this wavering of our perception to an uncomfortable degree, then we can do a few things.

Acceptance. Work at recognizing that this is a normal human experience, not a sign that you have no strength or sense of yourself. It will come and go, like all the other uncomfortable feelings. During depression it may come more intensely. It will tend to fade as the depression lifts.

Desensitization. Some people try to cope by staying frantically busy and never having a moment to stop and “face the void.” This actually perpetuates the problem, subtly reinforcing the idea that being alone is a disaster. Instead, gradually introduce solitude and disengagement voluntarily. If a weekend alone seems too frightening, then start with an hour, or ten minutes.  As your tolerance improves, you can ramp up.

Self-Talk. Remind yourself of the truth. No, you aren’t as social and foolishly busy as your friend Joan. But yes, you do have a life. There are friends and interests. Name them. Expect that this recitation of the elements of your life will feel flat and pointless at first. Keep going.

Welcome the dissatisfaction. Perhaps an objective judge would say that yes, your life really is a bit thin right now. Fine. Use the sense of emptiness as a cue. What would a non-empty life look like? Ensure that you leave room for solitude and reflection in this fantasy, even if they are uncomfortable right now. Take the goals you develop and break them down into achievable steps. You’d like to get another job, so you spend 10 minutes looking for your resume. You want more friends, so you check out the options for volunteering in your neighbourhood.

Follow these steps, and the wild swings in our beliefs about our lives can begin to stabilize.

Next up:  The Collapse of Automaticity.

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Online Course

PsychologySalon has developed a cognitive behavioral guide to self-care for depression. Though not a substitute for professional face-to-face care, UnDoing Depression may be a useful adjunct to your efforts.  The preview is below. Visit our course page at for information on this and other courses. 

We also have courses for professionals and for the public entitled What Is Depression, What Causes Depression, Diagnosing Depression, Cognitive Behavioral Group Treatment of Depression, How to Buy Happiness, and Breathing Made Easy. 


  1. Beautiful and world class write on depression! Signs Of Depression

  2. Interesting, but this article is a bit off. It skips personality types such as introverts, and asocial.

    I literally have no friends, and has been that way since childhood.
    I literally have no hobbies, and has been that way for years.
    I literally have no activities I enjoy doing, and been that way for years.

    So yes, I literally have no "life" .

    1. you describe my life exactly

    2. however, you did read this so you acknowledged that just because you may be antisocial you did take the time to not only read this, but replied, so you do have a life, its just a life of your own. just because it may not be like everyone else does not mean you are not worth as much as those who are busy. everyone has a life its how we create ourselves and our surroundings that make us ,us! everyone is important n loved

  3. Anon - The post doesn't intend to describe the totality of depression - just one cognitive event that happens quite frequently.

    You're quite right, many people with depression wind up having quite restricted lives, with few to no friends or interests. This can look like a chicken and egg problem - which came first?

    Give most people a life with no friends, no hobbies, and no activities, and they would soon develop at least some symptoms of anhedonia and depression. But give another person depression and the anhedonia and lack of energy and motivation will create such a life.

    As usual with chicken and egg problems, the answer is "both are causal." Depression causes the lifestyle you describe (for many), and the lifestyle exacerbates depression. These vicious circles contribute to the difficulty of working with depression.

    1. So what to do about it? Wait to die?

    2. I make some suggestions toward the end of the article and in some of my other replies here. But in general I'd say that waiting - whether for death, a spontaneous upwelling of motivation, or for the elements of a life to appear - is a bad idea. If we want change to happen, we have to bring it about.

      The key, I think, is to avoid falling into the trap of believing we must feel moved and motivated in order to act. Most of us can come up with many things we have done despite having little to no desire, thus proving to ourselves that desire, while helpful, is not essential - not to get started, in any event.

      I advocate a less emotion-based approach (which I think of as a "push" focus) and more of an aspiration-based approach (more of a "pull" focus).

      The pull here is not instinctive or emotional, but intellectual. It asks "If I was the person I would wish to be, what would I be doing?" The usual answer is "I don't actually know." But most people can come up with seemingly-trivial bits to the answer. "I'd be doing something meaningful, which I have no clue about, and maybe seeing a movie once a month." So even though you don't really care about movies and feel no pull to go to one, go anyway. We already know that the vision of a great life is not apparent from our current perspective (at home, perhaps watching TV), so we need to change the perspective whether we feel like it or not.

      Much of the answer isn't particularly unique to the individual. Eat well, exercise, get out of the house, limit time-wasting activities, and see other people. Do all of that, whether you feel like it or not, and tiny sparks of motivation and interest will generally appear, pointing dimly in the right direction for further efforts.

      It takes a while to get a life. I liken it to walking from Vancouver to Calgary, a task that feels pointless and overwhelming. But if it is a necessary journey, it's best to get started.

  4. I just moved to fl about 7-8 months ago and with starting all over again, I feel I have no life, no one to talk or hang out with, no hobbies and no friends. What can I do.

  5. Obviously I don't know all the details of your situation, and so I don't generally offer psychological advice on this forum. In general, though, what I tell people in this situation is: Don't wait. Not for motivation, not for inspiration, not for passion, not for a great new set of friends to come knocking at the door. They aren't coming.

    Instead, join some form of structured activity. You'll seldom meet people on the street, or in coffee shops. Do some volunteer work, join a sport (even one in which you have no real interest - it's not about the sport), join a group of some kind. Meeting people is always a side effect of doing something else, so you have to do that other thing.

    What thing? It doesn't actually matter. Most things don't work. When you try something (and always try the same thing twice - the first time you're just comparing what's happening with what you fantasized; the second time you can see what's really there), you'll get a sense of where your next step should be. "Aha, these people are too competitive and I'd like something more relaxed. Let's go with the recreational league instead."

    No real interests? Recognize that our culture has been teaching nonsense: That your passions will jump up and bite you. They won't. Passions are not discovered, they are cultivated. (I've written more about this here: Don't wait for passion to show up and then do something. Do a variety of things and one of them will become a passion.

    And one last bit: The temptation is to see oneself as lacking something, as a container needing to be filled. But it's already full. Rather than looking for something to serve or fill you, spend at least some of the time serving others instead. It's the quickest way out of the "hungry ghost" cast of mind. Serving something bigger than ourselves is a good way to fight depression, loneliness, and a sense of lacking meaning in our lives.