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 wrote two posts [alas, no longer available online] 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

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

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  1. Aaron says:

    OMG, I have felt so alone in this. I thought there’s something wrong with me. I’m not a lazy person and have been working since I was 15. I missed the boat on an animation career and fell back on IT. Wasted thousands of financial aid on a networking degree since all I have only been able to land call center and phone support work. I despise this work so much, but cannot get away from it, as it’s the most lucrative. Still barely scraping by. In want nothing more than to work on another field in which I’m not answering phones all day. I also need to be able to support my family. No one pays wages as well though. Schooling is not an option since I cannot afford to pay tuition out of my own pocket. I have no idea what to do. I feel trapped in this depressing, self perpetuating cycle.
    I wish I could think of another career field, but nothing has worked out for 5 yrs. Definitely feel I’m not equipped to do anything else that doesn’t pay $10 an hour.

  2. Judith says:

    Good read. I am couch potatoing as my depression is bad today. I read your article. Had a new job I thought I could be at till I retire in 5 years. But I did not fit in the mode of the rest of the group. The boss said he received complaints but when i asked if i could see him he said no it was cofidential. I am thinking he did not have one. I quit as i felt if you can not (boss) stand behind your employees what is the use. Lasted only ten weeks and I quit yesterday. I left a few things undone that I could go online and fix but I am not sure I want to. He is wrong and I am feeling bad. I feel like the article I will have to take a low paying job to make it. Possibly take two or three. Depression hurts. Some days I want to say if you only knew what my life was like.. Thanks for your article.

  3. Hope says:

    Hope says:

    I know so well the debilitating feeling of depression and how for the last 20 years the questions I have asked myself and self analysis as well. But if I look back now as a teenager I too felt like all my onther friends were succeeding in school and I always felt inadequate, not quite engaging in the drinking and smoking pot. It was as though I knew I was quite delicate and fragile and always had to maintain that self control as to not loose it through drinking and smoking. I was always interested in sports in school and art and English. But was not the best student in math. I was very shy and usually hated to be centred out in class but this was noting new I was sensative and shy as a young child and always overly concerned with my siblings especially my sister since she had a learning problem and more sever than other kids. I do believe that the attention always was centred on her because as children she would be in tears because she generally would get frustrated when she did not understand certain things. I took it apon myself to look out for her and seldom had my own space. This could have effected me, because I was thought of as normal and she wasn’t. There are reasons for why we are the way we are, I have always been somewhat of a caregiver especially after having children. I have never had a steady career since then but bounced from working at our Marina Buisness to healthcare but never really satisfied with it all and then took up art and having been painting since, even opening an art gallery for 4’years at the Marina, tried my had at a cleaning Buisness on the lake we live on and after a year decided not to do it. I am 57 and refuse to give up. Have weaned myself off antidepressant this past year and it’s been tough. Have had so many different feelings and have been going through withdraw, don’t quite know who I am without them yet but hopeing to find that person again. Depression is not a choice it just happens and yes I to think and know I deserve better, But I need to change my mind set and stop thinking everyone else is doing so much better, don’t know whynI have gone back to that teenage mindset when I have grown into a mature adult. Now I am looking after myself and focusing on getting better its past my time to be doing this but as usual always have thought of everyone else. Tired of always leaving myself to last

    Thanks for listening

  4. ms saira says:

    Hi John,
    Those two links to posts by Jane Chin are broken; is there any chance you can relink them?
    Regards Saira

  5. ms saira says:

    Thank you so much for this article, as well as the others. Personally, I have found the requisite ‘making big changes in my life’ to be impossible. Although experiencing depression from childhood, I was not formally diagnosed until into my 30s, and I just grew up with a sense of being ‘different’. I didn’t truly differentiate until my teens, as having grown up with a depressed parent, my outlook on life seemed perfectly normal until I found my peers to be much more exuberant, bold and confident than myself. Sensing I was intrinsically ‘wrong’ I hid this despair behind a veneer of aloofness. The outcome has been that as with many long-term depressed people I have failed to thrive. I have never been in a long-term relationship, only wanted children when the possibility was already slipping away, and have never built a career path or developed a skills base. It has been with the benefit of hindsight, having lived one lifetime already at nearly 50 years, that I see that what mental illness has done is robbed me of passion, and the ability to love and forgive myself. Depression is a huge source of shame, because you know you are holding yourself back, or failing to achieve, but cannot figure out why. I have also learned through reading that in my 20s (when I had my first break down and withdrew from a degree) that I was experiencing some form of schizophrenia, in the form of hearing voices and unshared perceptions. Thankfully that period is well behind me- although it did resurface when I tried to take a degree course decades later, and I do wonder if it was a form of PTSD, although I don’t want to start gluing other forms of mental illness onto myself…
    What I can see now, looking back these four decades, is the way I tried to insert myself into a predictable environment, and then try to stop things from changing, as change would bring new experiences which I would not be able to handle. I remember doing a stint in the University Library, and although I enjoyed it, I felt that it would be a capitulation of my ambitions to ‘settle’ for that sort of quiet, uneventful career. Well of course that was eventually just where I ended up. I had a long stint of doing social care work after not graduating as my self-esteem had plummeted to such a low point that I couldn’t apply for any job that might allude to any sort of academic requirements. As such I was so grateful when I eventually found work in the public library system that I struggled to keep the status quo and stay in the same environment, even when this proved counter to my career development, financial security, and mental and physical well-being. I see now that going into this self-protective mode, while it did keep me employed for a good number of years, also ultimately frustrated and stifled any possible character and intellectual growth that throwing myself into uncharted waters would have necessitated. Could I have done things differently? Probably not- it’s important to forgive yourself, when most of us with depression are conversely often berating ourselves to the point of exhaustion. It’s OK to f*** up- the problem with depression is that every failure is coloured as a monumental life ‘fail’ and we are unable to pick ourselves up from this – I think it formed such a psychic split in me, ‘failing’ my degree, that I could only look for affirmation about how badly I was doing from that time forward (this is not to say I was doing well before my degree, but the script might have been modified with the right intervention).
    I remember being teased by my Mother with the rhyme ‘Jack of all Trades, Master of None’ when I naturally progressed from one passion to another during childhood. A depressed person herself, she had experienced a terribly rigid upbringing and was terrified of just about everything, and sadly had no real useful life advice to us to impart other than ‘do what makes you happy’ (?) while at the same time demolishing our natural enthusiasms for new experiences!
    I think the one hard learned insight I have finally got after decades of beating myself up for my failure to engage with life, is to stop beating yourself up! If you can’t forgive yourself and show the same compassion for your own self that you would extend to others, then no-one is going to do that for you. At the same I would implore mental health professional who are trying to help, to remember that we are not well, that our perceptions are at worst distorted (and that we may not be aware of this and will need constantly, but gently reminding), at best are not going to be as plastic as they would need to be to respond to treatment. Someone who is ill for decades is unlikely to get well after 12 weeks of treatment, regardless of how brilliant a therapist may be. And please don’t make that person feel guilty for being treatment resistant/failing to engage. We would not be there if we didn’t want to move toward recovery, it’s just that we don’t know how.
    I think I’m definitely better off working than not working. Making a living is a different matter. Though I would love to be financially independent, I know that is not the yardstick by which my improvement can be measured. My self-esteem would grow from making my own money, but it would grow just as much from other criteria being met: Rediscovering my passions, being able to sustain the energy and mental concentration to see those bear fruition; contributing to the world outside me in a meaningful and reciprocal way, learning new skills and gaining the confidence to try new experiences, and building relationships back into my life again. I think a true yardstick of my recovery would be to try something and fail, and this time think “Well, that didn’t work out”, shrug, and move on.

    • Judith says:

      Good read. Oh to be able to say, “Oh that didn’t work and go on with out feeling bad.”
      Thanks for sharing I know it was a long time ago you shared but thanks.

  6. Anna says:

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

  7. 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.



  8. 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!

  9. 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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