We all know what it is like to feel tired: everything we need to do, however small, feels like a struggle that will require far more resources than we have available. It is noteworthy that we usually describe psychological tiredness in terms of physical tiredness, although the two are very different experiences. To be tired usually suggests a feeling of being drained or depleted, while for those us not exhausted by manual labour, physical tiredness is often a rather exhilarating experience associated with enjoyable feelings. It can be argued that our failure to make this distinction is a sign that we are reluctant to accept the reality of tiredness as an emotional rather than physical phenomenon, denying the fact that our psychological wellbeing is under stress and thus our psychological health is under threat.

It can be difficult to admit to an experience of stress in the workplace, as such an admission may be seen as a sign of weakness by others our ourselves. However an experience of tiredness is a sign that the demands of our situation are exceeding our resources, and if we consistently fail to address such a condition then depression or physical illness are the almost inevitable outcome.

Mental illness carries a strong stigma in our society, and yet when we read the symptoms of depression there can be very few of us who do not recognise that we have experienced them. It is often the case that a person suffering from what is clinically defined as depression will not feel ‘depressed’ as such, you are more likely to complain of exhaustion, fatigue, boredom and weariness. If you start to experience disruptions to your sleep patterns or changes in your weight in association with an ongoing feeling of tiredness then it is quite likely that you are depressed. Depression is experienced as a feeling of hopelessness or helplessness, or more acutely a loss of feeling altogether, rather than in feeling dejected or down.

What we now call depression was known historically as melancholia, and was seen as a distorted and prolonged form of grieving. Grieving was traditionally seen as being stimulated by the loss of a loved one, with the sufferer experiencing progressively a sequence of dejection and sadness, a withdrawal of interest from the world, a reduction in physical activity and the loss of the capacity to feel or relate in a caring way.

Grief is an unfolding or developing process, and the Change Curve commonly used as a tool in organisational change management was originally developed to describe the phases passed through in the course of bereavement. The way that this pattern of experience and behaviour can be seen to manifest under such a broad range of circumstances, reflects the fact that we experience grief whenever there are changes in how we experience and understand the world. It is often the case that such experiences of grief are marked with feelings of anger. It is also useful to remember that both grief and depression can also manifest in signs of severe agitation and anxiety.

Unlike grief, which will naturally move through a process of resolution, depression is often much more persistent, with the sufferer collapsing into a masochistic phase of acute self-blame. Here the sufferer sees the worst side of everything they have or have not done, seeming to actively undermine any sources of self-esteem. It is as though the depressed person feels the need to be punished in some way for a harm that they have done, although it is unlikely that it will be apparent what the nature of this harm may be. When we feel threatened it triggers responses of anxiety or anger, under the influence of depression such anxiety may be heightened and anger is turned back on ourselves.

Not all depression develops through a gradual erosion of resources; a first experience of depression is sometimes caused by a cataclysmic change in circumstances. It is noteworthy that more men commit suicide over the loss of a job than the loss of a wife or child. It is unlikely that this reflects that men value their jobs more highly than their families, but more an indication that they have a greater investment in them as the source of meaning and status in their lives. While it is essential that we engage wholeheartedly with our work, if we over identify with it or make too much of our self-worth dependent upon it, then we expose ourselves to the risk of profound trauma when things go against us.

In depression all sense of meaning in life may be lost, as may any optimism or confidence in the positive outcome of any activity or turn of events.  Such a breakdown may be a sign that the beliefs and stories that we use to give our lives purpose and meaning have become out of date, or no longer hold value for us. We may need to develop a new sense of who we are and what our life is for, and I will explore this elsewhere in a post on personal myths. Such work may not be possible in the throws of depression, where there is likely to be a surrender to the apparent meaningless of existence, but it is a sign of the positive aspect of depression whereby it demands of us that we are more real about ourselves and our place in the world, calling for a radical re-evaluation.

To feel tired then is a warning of lowered reserves, which we assign to the body to reassure ourselves that our psychological health is not at risk. However we need not be scared of the feeling of tiredness, for in the same way that athletes train themselves to near exhaustion so as to create greater strength, flexibility and stamina, leaders need to develop psychological resilience to become more emotionally robust, flexible and resourceful, and you can only do this by consistently testing your limits.  Nevertheless, feeling consistently tired shows that you are spending your resources faster than you are earning them, and is an indicator that you need to act in ways that will generate more resources rather than deplete them.

Depression is both rooted in, and manifests as, a loss of confidence in our ability to face and affect the future in a way that can provide reward or pleasure for us. It is a deeply painful and lonely experience, and is included here so as to offer support in identifying and accepting the full range of emotional experience, so as to avoid repression or projection onto others. There are many differing possible causes of depression: in addition to those outlined above there may be genetic or physical causes, dietary influences, or it may be rooted in childhood or other intense traumas. Whatever its source, it is strongly recommended that you seek appropriate professional support if you or someone you know appears to be suffering from depression.

This pieces isn’t written in my usual ‘voice’. I wrote it some years ago as part of some work I was doing with a Professor at a business school for a book on the inner work of leadership. I don’t believe the book was ever published, so have decided to post pieces here – many of which are explorations of different emotions as part of a chapter on emotional intelligence.