The force for change and healing can start with excitement and promise, then slowly dissipate until settling back into the stillness of depression. There are great self-help therapies to achieve well-being, and I have great intentions to get them all done. So why don’t I do them?
I feel like a basketball. It hits the floor with a lot of energy, bounces high, then drops back, bounces up again but not so high and falls again, this time with less force. It repeats this in diminishing arcs until there’s no bounce left, and the ball slowly rolls to a stop. The energy of motion is gone. It returns to a state of rest and stays there until the next powerful push slams it to the floor.
The body’s whole purpose is to maintain a steady state. One measure is holding to the internal temperature of 98.6F. To do that it burns the energy you give it, pumps the muscles you command and those you don’t, keeps up the current of electric flow of information through the nervous system, and coordinates the flipping of thousands of chemical switches. All this brings you back to a physical set point, the steady state that keeps you alive.
There’s also an emotional set point, the steady state you return to after the exceptional power of excitement or grief have subsided. Depression pulls that set point lower and lower on the scale until you live permanently in a state most people regard as an extreme.
That’s the depressive set point I sometimes fall back to when it comes to all those therapeutic actions. They promise to lift my emotional and physical steady states into the zone of vitality, but something stops me.
I feel an inner certainty at those times of depression that I won’t complete the projects of well-being, that nothing will work, that my depression will absorb all the therapies and bury their promise of change. All the self-help books are gung-ho, trying to convince me that these steps will take me closer to a new life. And I usually catch their enthusiasm.
Yet the excitement fades when it comes to acting on the day to day remedies. There is this dragging belief that I won’t stay with them. The inertia is too great.
That’s what procrastination is – giving in to the steady state of depression. But maintenance consumes energy, it takes nourishment and work. That’s where my intentions, resolutions and commitments come in.
Forming the intention becomes the substitute for doing. When I decide to do something, it goes on my list of mental projects. I know I will get to it in time so the intention satisfies me to an extent. The intention makes me forget about urgency, unless there’s some powerful external consequence to delay, a disruptive force I can’t overcome. At least not right away. It takes time and skill. It takes the inner arts of depression.
Intending is not doing. Delay is not doing. But they do help me get nothing done. This is how depression can keep me busy and ensure that I will not change.
When I make the commitment to myself, the intention feels like I’m halfway there.
There are many dimensions to well-being, and each becomes a project. There are many projects for Exercise, Nutrition, Sleep, Stress Reduction or Relationships that will raise the set point of the emotional and physical steady states.
Each project can be broken down into measurable units – so many more or fewer hours of sleep, so much more or less of this food in my diet, so many minutes and repetitions of exercise, so many minutes of exposure to daylight, so many days of relaxing vacation, so much more time with my wife to deepen and sustain our relationship, so many new relationships of many kinds to form, and so on. Doing all these projects adds up to wellness instead of illness.
Then I start planning to get them done. I can envision the end point of each form of therapy and list out the process of getting there, phase by phase, divided into components with subtasks. All laid out in a project software spreadsheet, or a Getting It Done program or in less orderly hand-written columns on paper. I wind up with a long series of Next Actions, those one-step things, like getting out the door for a long walk. Each one is simple. You know you can do it.
But it doesn’t quite happen that way. I won’t do the Next Action for Stress-Reduction until I set aside time to start a different Next Project of Exercise. And the first of the sub-projects for that is taking long walks that will energize and move me toward well-being. Before I get to that one, however, I realize I have to finish a different Next Sub-Project – working out for 20 minutes 3 times a week on the elliptical machine, because I can’t continue to leave the machine there gathering dust.
But this is more complicated than I thought. I have to get in shape first, before I can get in shape. There are stretches to be done, and they have to be done right. The written instructions are hard to follow, so my Next Action is to find a video that demonstrates what to do in the correct manner.
Which means I don’t start the other Next Projects, which means that all those other Next Actions wait until I’ve gotten through as many of this project’s steps as possible. Which means I’m not doing anything else. But the Next Action in this project looks bigger and more complicated than I thought, which means I need more time to plan how to do it, which means I’m not doing it. But, of course, I intend to get it done.
I’m working at it all the time. I’m working hard to get nothing done.
Because along with the intention, backed by interesting research on the benefits of each therapeutic project, I know in my gut that I won’t really stay with it. I will make progress on my many intentions for well-being, but the results are moved into the future.
The future is a vast space, an infinite and empty time that absorbs all the intentions I can put into it. It’s a cushiony, comforting place, my being’s pillow for rest and sleep in the make-believe that all intentions will be fulfilled, that I’m halfway there. My intention survives, even if my will to do anything about it is lacking. Some day, I will do them all, one decisive step at a time, and I will emerge from depression to the higher steady state of well-being.
But I have this sinking feeling deep down that none of the projects will change anything in the end. My steady state of depression has its perverse comforts. Its present moment is also a deep space, an infinite time to be busy with preparations.
Until then, my elliptical machine gathers dust and cobwebs. Those ubiquitous and industrious spiders of this part of the world never stop their doing, never bother with intentions. They have no psychological action to substitute for Getting It Done. No web, no food.
I, on the hand, have beautiful intentions. I will enjoy all that well-being when I add those great therapies to my life and complete every wellness project. I know I will – in a future full of such wonders. Except that I know I won’t because deep down I know they won’t do any good.
Do you ever go round in those circles when it comes to all the great therapies you know you should do? I managed after many years to break out – though I can still fall into the trance of inaction. How about you?
Image by Alex Bellink at Flickr
Thank you so much for this wonderful article. I have sent it to other friends that need it as much as I do. It came right on time in my life. Words will not be enough to thank you for your help. Well being demands commitment and hard work, the price in return is worth working for.
Thank you, God bless you sir! please keep helping us to be better humans beings.
John Folk-Williams says
Hi, Jonathan –
Thank you – That’s very kind of you to say. I’m glad the post has helped you.
I hope you’re well.
I am the queen of procrastinating! I, like you, spend a lot of time and effort planning what I want to do, what I want to change and then don’t actually get round to…well…..DOING it!
After discussions with my psychiatrist about my frustration with this, he told me no more than three action points a day and spend five minute on each one. So I started this with gusto and then…….fizzled out. And that is why I am now on the internet, avoiding doing the washing up, avoiding going swimming, avoiding the housework, avoiding that exercise DVD.
How did you know I was settling into that “road to **** paved with good intentions”? We’ve been in the process of getting a house ready to move into, moving, getting a house ready to sell… and I’ve been amazed at the stamina and strength I was finding to do so much work. Now that I’m in the house, I feel inaction creeping back. I want to stay in the house, not get out and enjoy the neighborhood. I want to leave stuff in boxes, not clean shelves and sort it and get it put away, I want to let painting the doors go for just a few more days. I also had a business setback and I’ve thought about the best things I can to to rev it back up, but I’m not doing them. Things like that will make me feel better, more organized and more compentent, I know. Thanks for the push. i’m getting up off the couch and opening and dealing with at least one resettling task right now. Bye.
We go to great lengths to fool ourselves, don’t we? Entropy is an essential feature of the universe…and, all too often, of my intentions.
John Folk-Williams says
Hi, Donna –
Entropy – good way to think of it. As the work of forming intentions moves ahead, heat is released and disorder of the source increased (or something like that). That is, the intention falls apart while it’s being put together (or something like that). 😐
Planning never got anything done, nor did being well-intentioned. Only the doing gets something done. But there is something purposeful in the planning, isn’t there? It occupies that abstract niche of recovery just long enough to make me feel that I at least expended a little mental energy in the right direction. Even if the set point remains stuck. We go to great lengths to keep ourselves fooled, don’t we?
John Folk-Williams says
Hi, Anonymous –
Yes, we do work at fooling ourselves, and planning is definitely purposeful. Creating a list of must-be-done’s is quite satisfying and does make it possible to thing – I’ve really got that in hand.
Thanks for commenting –
Hi, John. I almost laughed out loud reading this, while my elliptical sits collecting dust! My solution, so far, has been to try to rid myself of a lot of “shoulds” and try to trust my heart as to what it is I need to do. There are so many therapeutic options out there and God knows I’ve tried quite a few of them, but I’ve discovered that there’s really no magic bullet, no single, huge “Aha!” moment that’s going to change how I feel. I’ve gone through the despair of feeling like there’s too much work to do because there are too many things wrong with me and that nothing will work because I’m so____(fill in the blanks). And yes, I found out that those negative judgments only kept me dog-paddling in place and never getting anywhere. With a lot of help, I’ve been slowly learning to believe that those judgments weren’t mine to start with so that Voice is quieter these days. I’m finally listening to myself and starting to trust that I will do what I need to do, when I need to do it. It’s all a process, I think, that takes however long it takes. I don’t think healing is a linear thing, like if I do A, B and C, I will be happy. I think it’s maybe more like making soup – put in a bunch of ingredients that sound like they might taste good together and you could get something really wonderful.
John Folk-Williams says
Hi, Judy –
I love that – healing is like making soup – definitely without a recipe. You’ve obviously gotten good at it! It’s strange how many things I actually get done as soon as I stop making plans to do them – and each is a healing thing, even if I never imagined it was. Getting rid of the constant negative judgments has also been essential for me and listening to my own voice. You put the next step so well “starting to trust myself that I will do what I need to do, when I need to do it.” Exactly.
Thanks for telling this story –