I always keep a table reserved for motivation when I’m trying to get better, trying to work or trying to do pretty much anything. He’s supposed to be here at my command, but the idiot is always late.
While waiting for the no-show, I get distracted by daydreaming, dog walking, snacking, emailing, mulling things over, sky watching, desk cleaning, web surfing and a dozen other things that suddenly demand attention. I wind up feeling scattered, frustrated and depressed – all because of the missing motivation.
All too often, that’s the way my day goes. I don’t feel right and can’t finish anything. Yesterday, though, I listened to an interview with Julie Fast about how she gets through a day of depression. She has a way of waking me up with a few gallons of cold water over my head.
“Motivation is a myth,” she claims. And that clicks. When you’re depressed, she explains, you’re never going to feel motivated. Depression keeps inventing reasons why you can’t do anything, why you should give in to the need to be alone and shut everyone out. If you wait until you feel motivated to do something, you won’t get it done.
I get that. A day of depression is a shapeless mass you never get hold of. No goal is worthwhile, planning is pointless and often a catatonic, trance-like state seems so attractive. That’s where depression takes me while I’m waiting for the right feeling and motivation to arrive.
Whether reading Julie Fast’s book, Get It Done When You’re Depressed, or listening to her talk, I’m always struck by the energy and action she embodies. How can she be depressed when she’s constantly talking about doing, structuring, getting out of the house, making the most of every hour, acting as your own drill sergeant to keep you going? Who can do all that when really depressed?
Yet in listening more closely to what she says and how she says it, I can also hear an edge of almost desperate determination. She has to try to speed things up, force herself into action, do things she doesn’t in the least want to do because she’s fighting depression 24 hours a day. If she lets her guard down, she knows she’ll be overwhelmed and just stop. As she says, what are the choices? Hospital, suicide or forcing herself to refuse to give in. So with every bit of energy and determination she can muster, she tries to fight back. It’s hard, endless and often frustrating.
It’s about knowing your limits and not trying to take on the world all at once. Doing whatever you can do, no matter how bad you feel, is the basic idea. Taking one small step – like getting out of bed – can be a huge accomplishment because taking that one step can lead to another, then another. What she finds is that by playing the role of a well person, she starts to feel better and think more positively.
Trying to change her mindset or mood before taking action doesn’t work. Instead, her outlook begins to improve only after forcing herself to start the day. She also relies on a structure that limits the time she can spend on any one thing, just as a child needs structure for the school day, as she puts it. That’s how she can function.
Not everyone will find her strategies a good fit, but following through on any action-oriented strategy that works for you is the basis of her approach. And she’s not alone in emphasizing action over purely cognitive strategies.
Michael Yapko puts it a little differently in Breaking the Patterns of Depression. You can have all the motivation in the world, but motivation doesn’t mean much if you don’t learn new skills to deal with the specific symptoms of your depression.
As he puts it, all effective therapy is about learning and actively using new skills rather than defining problems. The orientation is toward a future vision of the life you want, not the painful past you already know. It’s about practical solutions and breaking self-destructive patterns of living right now, not about unearthing unconscious motives.
Like Julie Fast, he emphasizes the critical importance of action because depression is all about inaction, about not doing, avoiding. If you force yourself, you will start to feel better simply by activating your body and mind.
Avoidance of the experiences and situations that are most troubling is a major cause of depression, according to Steven Hayes, originator of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, or ACT. This is another approach that points you away from analyzing problems and toward direct action to change the way you live. The workbook for this method is appropriately titled Get Out of Your Mind and Into Your Life.
My tendency has been to avoid the situations that seem impossible to handle when I’m depressed, especially those that require talking to a group of people or going into an unfamiliar situation. But the ACT approach says that avoiding never helps you to feel better but only to dwell on feeling bad about yourself. The idea is to accept what you want to avoid and start to practice ways of adapting and returning to that aspect of living.
As Fast and Yapko do, Hayes identifies specific methods to get started with small steps, gradually building the skills to get past each activity you feel is impossible. Pick one thing you want to avoid, prepare for taking it on, then start by trying to do it for just five minutes, let’s say, gradually lengthening the time you spend.
To make this work, Hayes emphasizes the importance of spending time getting clear about what you value and what you need to do to live those values for the kind of life you want. Then the skill building and action take on new meaning as a way of confronting what you struggle with so you can reclaim your life.
I suppose all these approaches come back to motivation, and that comes from envisioning yourself as restored to a fulfilling life once again. If you can be clear about that, the hope is that you’ll keep that vision alive. It’s the purpose behind fighting so hard to face what you’ve believed you can’t handle.
That’s hard to do. I can’t count the times I’ve backed out of dealing with those situations, but I have to agree this strategy hasn’t helped for long. And waiting for the strength and motivation to take it on has proved useless over and over again.
What’s your experience? Has this idea of forcing yourself into action awakened a new energy – of has it simply been impossible?