High Functioning Depression – What People Don’t Understand


Do you know, depression has many faces? 

A psychotherapist and author of the book entitled, “You 1, Anxiety 0: Win Your Life Back from Fear and Panic,” Jodi Aman stated that  “Depression affects all personalities and can look very different in various people.” 

What appears outside does not necessarily reflect what is going on inside a person’s mind. What you see is only the tip of the iceberg. 

Perhaps your typical view of people with depression is someone who appears sad, lethargic, in despair, someone who can change their behaviour at the drop of a hat, disinterest in things they used to love…but Psych2goers, have you ever heard of high functioning depression or also known as smiling depression?

But here’s the thing that you should also know: Sometimes you are clouded from seeing the inner turmoil, not because it’s not there, but because it is hidden. Yes, indeed, you can still feel all of those depressed feelings, but still show up for work, while grinning from ear to ear and interacting with others in a way that contradicts what you are feeling inside. 

So, Psych2goers, let’s try to delve deeper into this, shall we?  

  1. What people see: Jokes and smiles 

Have you ever been in the presence of a super funny friend, who always throws out the right kind of joke to hype up the atmosphere? You open up their Instagram account, and see the profile description: “Relationship goals: A relationship!” 

What is actually happening? 

Behind those self-deprecating jokes and smiles, are difficulties accepting and expressing painful emotions. The smile and external facade is a defense mechanism, a courageous attempt to conceal their true feelings. They may feel dejected due to drawbacks in their lives, but oftentimes, they would brush such feelings aside and sweep them under the rug. They don’t want to be considered as “weak”. The sufferers themselves might not even realize about their depression (Ma, 2014). 

2. What people see: Caring for others

You are in your lecture hall. Your eyes dart to a charming batchmate, he appears playful, and flirts with girls all the time. He is rich, handsome, and every girl adores him. He goes clubbing and sleeps with different girls every other weekend. But, deep down, you are attracted to this person. You believe that you can be that special someone who can fix him and make him a better person. You want to care for him. So, you decide to attend his birthday party this weekend. But at the same time, you are approached by a very decent guy. He is very nice, always knows the right word to say at the right moment. He asks you out for a date on the same day of the party. Now, you are conflicted. But at the end, you choose to attend the party. 

What is actually happening? 

Each and everyone of us desires love. The definition of love for each person is different. However, you may come across people who sabotage the many chances to give and receive love. “Why?” this question may pop up in your mind. 

The answer is: inner child experiences. We love along grooves formed in childhood.   

Your childhood experiences are your source of affective style and beliefs about love. We look for people who in many ways recreate the feelings of love we knew when we were small. 

Let’s take a moment to reflect on your childhood experiences.  How do you feel at that time? Happy, loved, heard, or seen? Or did they make you feel shame, guilt, and fear? Perhaps you have been abandoned by a primary caregiver, causing you to believe that you are actually unworthy of this person’s time and affection and that is the reason why they left you. 

When you step into adulthood, (if this belief that you are unworthy of attention and affection is not addressed), consequently it can influence your adult relationship attachment styles. In other words, your beliefs about yourself, others, and relationships emerge from your childhood. Therefore, you tend to choose partners who won’t necessarily simply be kind to you, but instead, someone who will feel familiar. 

3. What people see: High achieving 

You received a message from your high school best friend, she sent you a photo of a congratulatory party for getting promoted to the CEO position of a conglomerate company. She has a smart and wealthy husband, all her kids are well-mannered and high achieving as well. She sent another message stating, “What if it is a mistake? What if I’m not really qualified?”

You responded with, “You are totally qualified.” 

“But I feel like a fraud.” 

What is actually happening? 

This is a typical scenario of a person experiencing impostor syndrome. Impostorism is experienced by approximately 25 to 30 percent of high achievers; and it is estimated that 70 percent of adults may experience imposter syndrome at least once in their lifetime. It is not an official psychiatric diagnosis in the latest edition of Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM-5), rather it is a phenomenon (experience). (Gravois, 2007). 

Despite the abundance of success, people with impostor syndrome usually attribute their accomplishments to external or transient causes; for example, good timing, luck, or effort that they cannot efficiently employ. 

What can be the cause of this syndrome? 

People who struggle with perfectionism, neuroticism, and self-efficacy are the ones most commonly experience impostorism (Psychology Today, n.d.). 

4. What people see: Constantly busy

Your roommate is busy doing house chores during his rest days from work. He cooks, does the laundry, and vacuums the whole house. Then, he plays with his Lego. After a while, he proceeds to play with his game console. 

What is actually happening? 

Your roommate is actually struggling alone with depressive thoughts. In order to distract himself, he constantly feels the need to be doing something because it gives him a sense of control (Granneman, 2018). 

5. What people see: Unshakable in “tough times”

Your son is working around the clock in the covid ward. He lives with you since his workplace is near home. Everytime he comes back home, he seems fine, he never complains about anything to you. He is as sturdy and as solid as a rock. 

What is actually happening? 

The reality is, the person is actually numb and apathetic to the outcome.  Perhaps it’s because they think even if they complain, it will only drain themselves even further and they don’t want to spend their resting time reliving the toxic experience at work. 

6. What people see: Working long hours 

Your best friend has just had a bad break up from her significant other. She then spends long hours, and also does overtime work. She also signs up for marathon runs every week. 

What is actually happening? 

This can be a defense mechanism against her emotional pain. She wants to distract herself from her own suffering. She rather spends time doing productive things, to the point of probably burning herself out; rather than sitting with her emotion and processing it accordingly. 

Final thoughts 

As humans, we all hide ourselves behind a mask to a certain extent. All of us have our own problems that we cope with on a daily basis and choose not to reveal those problems to others. Psychologically speaking, people with high-functioning depression have learned to utilize the skill of compartmentalization. Perhaps, after undergoing a certain bad incident at work, instead of just crying or unleashing your emotion on the spot, you tend to suppress your feelings for a little while until you get off work. To explain it in a metaphorical sense, you put anger or sadness or fear into a box in your emotion closet and stick it up on a shelf until it’s the right time to deal with it. When you are in a safe space to pull that pain out, you let out whatever you need to feel. Undeniably, it is a very crucial skill that you can learn in order to navigate this life. (Rutherford, 2019). However, do know that, your emotional and mental health are just as important as your physical health. If you or your loved ones found that the above signs resonate with you, and you find that it affects your daily function, please don’t hesitate to seek professional help. 


Granneman, J. (2018, May 4). 15 Signs of an Anxious Introvert. Psychology Today. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/the-secret-lives-introverts/201805/15-signs-anxious-introvert.

Gravois, J. (2007). You’re not fooling anyone. The Chronicle of Higher Education, 54(11), A1. Retrieved November 5, 2008, from http://chronicle.com

Ma, L. (2014, November 12). The Secret Pain of “Smiling” Depression. Psychology Today. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/the-guest-room/201411/the-secret-pain-smiling-depression.

Rutherford, M. R. (2019, December 8). Do You Have High-Functioning or Perfectly Hidden Depression? Psychology Today. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/perfectly-hidden-depression/201912/do-you-have-high-functioning-or-perfectly-hidden-depression.

Sussex Publishers. (n.d.). Imposter Syndrome. Psychology Today. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/basics/imposter-syndrome.

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