The Challenge of the Ordinary

Mysterious Roving Rocks of Racetrack Playa

When I’m depressed, I dwell most on the failings of the past and the expected disappointments of the future, but there is also the challenge of the ordinary moments of the present. The challenge when depressed is to recognize the things I do well but unconsciously, the daily actions I’m good at but ignore when judging myself harshly.

I’ve borrowed this thought, though adapting it to a different setting, from a recent issue of Evan Hadkin’s excellent Living Authentically Newsletter. As he says, there are many small things we forget we can do well. These are the behaviors and knowledge we’ve learned so thoroughly that we never think of them as accomplishments. They’re just what we do and who we are.

There’s special value for a depressed person to look closely at how awareness works when it comes to these small things.

When I think about getting through a day, I can spot three very different ways my mind responds to what I’m doing.

  1. Mindful Awareness: Mindfulness is a non-judgmental awareness of thoughts, feelings, sensations, actions in the immediacy of the moment, as they happen. It is a way of shifting the focus of attention to the details of being in the here and now. Instead of focusing on what I’ve done in the past or aim for in the future, I can experience myself as fully as possible without trying to evaluate anything. I get into this kind of awareness only a few times a day.

  2. Depressed Awareness: In sharp contrast, depression is all about judging negatively. Memories of the worst moments of my life can seize full attention. Moment by moment my thoughts reproach me for being unable to do things right. As I project my life into the future, I’m convinced things will turn out just as badly as they did in the past and just as pointlessly as I feel they are in the present.

  3. Unconscious Action: Then there are times when I do things well but quite unconsciously. They only come to the forefront when I make a mistake of some kind. Then depressed thinking has new material to take hold of. Apart from that, I might even get a feeling of satisfaction from the accomplishments I consider routine and pay no conscious attention to. As Evan puts it, these are the things you’ve learned so well that they’re second nature. You can do them without a lot of thought.

Robert Frost put it this way when asked how he went about writing his poems. He said it was like seeing a friend approaching from a distance. You have no idea what you’ll say until you’re close. Then the right word just comes to you.

There are small things like this you do well without thinking. There is knowledge you have that you pay no attention to because you think everyone else knows it too. There are work skills you take for granted because you think everyone should be able to do them.

A depressed mind ignores what you can do – and do well every day – and focuses on the perfection or distant goal that you can never achieve. No matter how close you get, it’s never good enough, and all you can think of is what you haven’t done.

Dismissing What You Do Well

The other day I was reading an online exchange between a depressed man and a group of therapists who specialized in mindfulness as a form of psychotherapy. The man talked about his severe depression and condemned himself as a loser who had wrecked everything in his life. Yet he was an accomplished songwriter, entertainer of many talents and obviously a fine writer, as he proved in the detailed descriptions of his life.

Yet he thought of himself as a loser because he had not yet received the “validation” of commercial success. He ignored the skills that had become so deeply engrained that he could do them well naturally and spontaneously. The only thing he was focused on was a form of success that he had no control over.

When I say that he could use his musical talents unselfconsciously, I’m not suggesting he didn’t think about his songs. The conscious part is the song as end product. The unconscious part is putting to use the many skills he’d mastered to be able to write a song at all. He didn’t have to think about them, so he dismissed them as irrelevant.

It’s like driving a car. The skills are a matter of unselfconscious habit. If someone asks you to teach them, you might be hard put to explain what you do. You just do it.

Tracking What You Can Do Well

I’ve been wondering if keeping track of what you do well would be helpful in depression therapy. This would mean setting aside the endless reviewing of what’s wrong and making a note of each activity you normally carry off without paying much attention.

These might include things you dismiss because you think everyone must know how to do them. It’s no big deal, just a ho-hummer. So I can cook this meal, drive this truck, sew these curtains, sing this song, jog two miles, or grow these flowers in my garden. Am I supposed to feel good about this little stuff?

The hard part is dropping the judgment label you attach to each activity, words like routine, trivial, no-brainer. No labels, no measuring, nothing but the fact that you just did this thing.

Evidence Against Depression

The point is to put together an accurate record of how you live, the skills you have, the things you can do. Perhaps just writing them down day by day would give you a few moments break from a depression mindset, with its cascade of self-criticism or the dead stillness of indifference.

Most depression therapies focus on symptoms of illness, but there is one that takes a different approach. Well-Being Therapy starts you off with a diary for recording the positive side of your experience. You write down each moment, no matter how fleeting, when you had a sense or feeling of well-being. (It usually takes a therapist to help you spot those moments since they tend to be swept aside as irrelevant.)

This idea is similar but focuses on actions and skills instead of feelings. I think it could be helpful for me as evidence to balance the obsession with everything I’ve ever done wrong. It’s hard to disentangle the facts of what I do from the pervasive contempt my depressed mind has for anything I try. So the help of a therapist would be just as important as in Well-Being Therapy.

I’m always looking for ways to talk down the inner critic who continually recites the inventory of my disabilities. Maybe this list of capabilities would be another useful tool to add to all the others I’ve been using for years.

What do you think? Might it be helpful to you to track the ordinary things you do well?

7 Responses to “The Challenge of the Ordinary”

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  1. Evan says:

    Glad the newsletter stimulated some thinking for you.

    • John Folk-Williams says:

      Hi, Evan –

      This is just one example. I should do better about acknowledging the stimulating ideas I’ve learned from you. It’s a long list.

      I hope all is well.

      My best — John

  2. I’ve found my “ordinary” of daily cooking to be an unexpectedly helpful boost: I cook most of my meals from scratch to avoid certain allergens (gluten and soy), and while the extra work seems like too much at times, knowing that I’m “doing more” in my ordinary/essentials seems to help my mental state/focus.

    I nearly drowned (in the newness) when I began this 18 months ago, and now it’s second nature. So daily cooking emphasizes my competency to myself like few other “ordinary” things can.

    • John Folk-Williams says:

      Hi, Amy Jane –

      That’s a perfect example – I think that when you do realize how much you’re doing and how well that the “ordinary” turns out not to be so ordinary after all.

      Thanks for taking the time to comment.

      John

  3. David says:

    Hi, I would like to know the link to the transcript of that online exchange. Regards,

    David

    • John Folk-Williams says:

      Hi, David –

      I hesitated to include the link because they use real names in that group. It’s part of LinkedIn, and I’m not sure if you have to be a member to get the page. I think they’ve gone public, but if not the discussion is protected anyway. This is the discussion link [WP seems to mess up links in the comments for some reason]. The participants have added a lot since I read this so there is much more to get from the discussion than my couple of sentences. I hope you can get access directly.

      John

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