Do You Have to Lower Your Expectations of Life to Recover?

Donna-1 recently asked me this question in a comment at Recover Life from Depression. It’s an important one to think about. I’ve often mentioned how crucial it has been to my recovery that I made basic changes in my work and way of living as a whole.

Did I have to give up on hopes for what I could accomplish and settle for less in life in order to get better? My answer is No.

But if you had asked me before I made the switch, I would probably have said, Yes. Leaving the work I had done for so long seemed like giving up on myself – and I didn’t want to do that. I had been feeling bad enough without wrecking the last bit of self-esteem and hope for the future that I had left.

That’s the way I thought about the prospect back then.

But since making those changes I haven’t felt at all that I’ve lowered expectations or given up on myself. Just the opposite. I feel I’ve gained a new life.

I do sometimes look back with regret, but it’s not about giving up that high-stress life. It’s about having held onto it for so long despite its terrible cost to my well-being.

There were strong reasons for resisting change, but they had more to do with what I thought I should do rather than what I wanted to do. There was a long history behind that way of thinking – all the way back to childhood. Early on, I started assuming that something was wrong with me, that I wasn’t a real person.

I had to make up for that by trying to be first in every project I undertook. I felt instinctively that doing what I wanted to do was dangerous even destructive. I could only justify myself by working on what seemed to be more socially useful – by taking on a purpose that was not my own.

For years I accepted this flawed belief about what I could and should do. I knew I was good at certain things and bad at others. I wanted to be a writer but believed I could never be good enough to make a go of it.

As if to prove that, I kept trying to write in my spare time but soon hit a wall of fear that I couldn’t break through. My mind stopped working, and I felt only confirmation of the belief that I simply couldn’t do it.

That was the real defeat, the lowering of expectations, the giving up.

Donna also pointed me to a post at PsychCentral by Shannon Cutts that gets at these beliefs from a different angle. She refers to the story you tell yourself about what you can and cannot do. You relive this story with each choice you make that follows its assumptions. You fix yourself into it every time you tell your story to someone else. You don’t imagine that you can rewrite it, and so you avoid anything new.

Jane Chin recently wrote two posts I find helpful in thinking about living in a trap like this. One talks about Why Failure is Good. If you always avoid the possibility of falling short, you will never learn that failures are survivable and can teach resilience.

The other is I Don’t Know What I Want to Be When I Grow Up. If you’re preoccupied, even well into life, with the question of what you want to be, you can avoid exploring any new interest because it couldn’t possibly be the final answer.

Both strategies can lock you into a narrow view of who you are.

Add severe depression and a collapse of will and motivation, and you’re locked in even more. Anything new feels so impossible. What’s the point? I can’t do anything well. The only prospect is more defeat, more failure.

It’s hard to follow the twisted logic because you’re hardly conscious of it most of the time. I lived that way for so long because I was often filled with drive and energy, but only when I felt secure that I was meeting someone else’s needs, not my own.

In my (hypomanic??) periods, I’d spin out ambitious goals and stay high with them through the first years. Each was a career that felt like the real thing.

After a while, depression would set in, and I’d start falling short in meeting the expectations I had set – and that others counted on. Especially over the last ten years, the illness got worse and worse, and it was clear to everyone that I was falling apart. No one is going to hire a person so depressed that he can hardly function – especially when they don’t know that depression is the cause. So when the possibility of retirement came up, it was the obvious choice.

But right after getting out, I felt the kind of relief from stress, the lightness, that made clear how much I had been fighting myself. I felt deeply energized and vital once again. Changing my life in this way was decisive in getting me out of depression.

There is, though, no instant cure for the illness. Recovery has to be supported every day, and that means, among other things, keeping the level of stress low. But that doesn’t mean cutting down my expectations of life. There are two kinds of stress. One bears down on you with the force of life that feels out of your control, a constant threat. That’s the one you have to watch.

The other comes from the excitement you feel when pouring yourself into what you love to do. That’s the kind of stress you can live with.

So, no, I have no feeling of expecting less of life. I’m finally doing the writing full-time that I’ve always wanted to do. Working hard in that way improves my life, and my wife’s as well, since depression has taken its toll on both of us.

How do you feel about making big changes in your life in order to get better? Does it seem like you have to lower expectations? Do you dismiss the idea as impossible to do, even if you wanted to?

Image by laslo-photo at Flickr

5 Responses to “Do You Have to Lower Your Expectations of Life to Recover?”

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  1. Anna says:

    I have little to say except “Thank you for writing this.”

  2. Matthew says:

    Wonderful post and site. You have provided me with the inspiration to start a blog that deals with my recovery from depression. Thank you.
    I too have stepped back and allowed others to care for me and make decisions. I have been afraid to expect more from life, but I am working hard to make a better life.



  3. Donna-1 says:

    These are very instructive and useful comments to a well-written post. I am wondering…without discounting the genetic predisposition aspect of depression…do you think that, in any sense, depression can be a result (or one of the results) of abdicating personal responsibility for our own lives, our own choices, and making others responsible for our moods? I can see very clearly that I have done this. But now I am making it a “priority” as Ms. Chin said, to treat myself and my opinion with respect and to pursue wellness on all levels. I can see where I have “used” my moods, even my psychosis, to manipulate others into taking care of me in the past. It honestly felt good to let others take control and make decisions for me. It is very difficult to climb up and out of that way of thinking. But I have a “kick butt” therapist who is helping me!

  4. Jane Chin says:

    Excellent post, John, thanks for including 2 articles I wrote to help others frame some questions around their life and work choices.

    I was thinking about this question the other day about “can medication ever replace psychotherapy” and my immediate answer was “no”. Because “normal” people get depressed too! Granted, their depression is situational and short lived and they usually climb out of it barring any genetic disposition to the illness.

    It got me thinking about the dramatic impact of our environmental signals and external stimuli that we allow to affect us on a daily, consistent basis. This coupled with a disposition for depression guarantees symptoms.

    The way that I see the equation, it’s not about settling for less in order to get better: the true statement is, “it is exactly because I know I deserve better, that I’m prioritizing getting better, from now on.” If I didn’t take care of myself and focus on healing first, there would have been no way (NO WAY) I’d ever imagine coming to where I am today.

    • John Folk-Williams says:

      Hi, Jane –

      I like the way you frame the idea – knowing you deserve better and so prioritizing healing. For me, though, and several others I’ve heard from, it takes a while to develop an attitude that positive. The starting point is often a collapse at work because of depression. Many don’t realize that depression is the problem and just feel like failures – a belief in keeping with low self-esteem during depressive episodes. Even if you do understand that depression is the problem, it can seem like you’re being defeated by the illness and have to do something “less” stressful or demanding or “less” than full-time – the feeling is negative. I got over that pretty fast because I really wanted to do something different with my life anyway. But if you love what you’re doing and find you can’t do it anymore because of depression, it’s a very human, understandable idea that you’re losing something rather than taking time off to heal so that you can have the better life you deserve. Therapy is helpful in turning around the negative framing. As you come out of depression, of course, you’ll naturally think more positively about the future. I have to say, though, that I’ve worked overtime on the idea that I deserve better, since my self-esteem was surviving on deficit spending. I “know” I deserve better, but I don’t always believe it.

      I’m not sure I’m making sense here – but you’ve got me rethinking the question. And that means I have to write more about it!

      Thanks for coming by.


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