In his 2010 book The Weariness of the Self: Diagnosing the History of Depression in the Contemporary Age, Alain Ehrenberg examines how psychiatry (and by extension culture) has viewed and diagnosed depressed “selves” over the last hundred years.
Ehrenberg asserts that today people in the West are less bound by morals and appeals to outside forces than by an obsession with self-improvement and an inner-directed responsibility to reach one’s full potential.
I am in charge of my life and must perform at peak levels, even when I don’t feel like it. Free from old-fashioned moral constraints and the fear of God’s punishment, I have too many options and courses of action. The idea of limitless potential leaves people vulnerable to depression, or “the weariness of the self,” when they don’t live up to unattainable standards of super-excellence.
As Ehrenberg summarizes our current situation:
In the end, the story is very simple. Liberation might have gotten us out of the drama of guilt and obedience, but it has taken us straight into the demands of responsibility and action. And so the weariness of depression took over from the anxiety of neuroses. (229)
People still suffer from anxiety; Ehrenberg doesn’t deny this. But patients aren’t considered “neurotic” today. They aren’t troubled by the internal battle between Id, Ego and Superego. Today depressed patients struggle with inhibition and indecision. The depressed can’t act quickly or adjust to the frenetic pace of hyper-reality. In America not moving fast enough is a cardinal sin, akin to saving too much money or eating less carbs. Hence the status of “outsider” attached to the depressed.
Ehrenberg by no means calls for a return to less morally ambiguous times. He aims to develop an outline of the history of depression and lets us draw our own conclusions. One thing’s clear: in gaining more control over our bodies, our minds and our lives, we’ve developed new ways to torture ourselves for not being good enough or smart enough or successful enough. Especially compared to our Facebook friends.
The rain, rain won’t go away. For some of us—the brave ones—depression affords time to reflect. It’s an umbrella in a hailstorm when most people barely feel a drop.