Stressing Life by the Rules

Recovery from depression meant a lot of change in the way I lived, and cutting out the stress of a tension-filled job was at the top of the list. Once I had ended that life of constant pressure, I could feel the relief at the start of each day.

A freedom and energy filled me, and I could step at once into the work of writing that I had long wanted to do. That sounds like a happy ending, but things are not so simple.

Depression was not overwhelming me anymore, but the illness is generous with the legacies it leaves behind. Over the last year, I’ve had to deal with many of those. As I’ve often written here, there was no getting away from depression by going to a new place, finding a new job or trying different relationships. The same proved true of trying to leave stress behind by changing the kind of work I did.

I’ve kept stress with me almost every hour of every day. Instead of chasing the unattainable goals of someone else’s rules, I’ve set up plenty of my own. And not just rules about work. I’m too inventive to stop there. I have rules to follow about almost everything. At any moment, I should be following a rule or condemning myself for breaking one. Nothing is too trivial to merit its guidelines for measurement.

The rules are remnants of battered self-esteem – or rather the weapons of choice to do the battering. I would never have been able to push depression aside if I had not changed my belief about myself. Out went the assumption that I was worthless, bad, inadequate, doomed to fail (and on and on), but it’s taken awhile to dismantle the structure of rules that I had created to bind up that bad person.

Under the rules of depression, I wasn’t allowed to trust myself simply to take life as it came. No, rules had to confine me in narrow hallways allowing movement to certain rooms and not others. If I followed the rules, I could open another door – break them and doors shut in my face, just as I deserved. A judge was always present with a verdict of guilty, whenever I broke a rule by trying to do something too dangerous to be allowed. Writing drew on inner feelings that couldn’t be trusted out in the open, so the rules didn’t allow that. Judgment was swift for an infraction. My mind shut down – don’t go there, strictly off limits.

Without the force of depression, most of those rules disappeared, and I was free to do what I really wanted to do. But I immediately set about creating a new set of rules, most of them shaped by timing and deadlines. To start binding myself up with time might seem strange, but it’s a good route to the sort of self-judgment depression encourages. It’s an old habit, one that dies hard.

Here’s how it happens:

I was all set up to work full-time at online writing, but first I needed to set my goals and deadlines. Write many blogs on several different subjects, build a big readership, start to earn an income and do it all in one year. Having determined that I must meet those grand expectations, I needed projects with tasks, lots of them, each with its own duration and deadline, each having the highest priority. After that I created a daily schedule with pastel-colored blocks of time devoted to each major type of activity or project. It looked so impressive in my online calendar.

Of course, it’s the perfect set-up for disaster. With a long history of depression, I’ve had trouble meeting deadlines and finishing anything, and the old sequence begins again. Set high goals, fail to meet them, feel worthless, set more, try harder, still fall short – or, get everything done three times more slowly than I’d planned and feel hopeless about getting anywhere.

I can’t possibly meet all the goals with all those deadlines. I can see that clearly, but each time I try to drop something, I feel I can’t because it’s so important. If I don’t meet all these goals, I will have failed to…do what? Meet the arbitrary goals I have set for myself, of course. I know they’re arbitrary, but I can’t seem to let go of them.

Finally I have to face the reality that my work rhythm doesn’t match the schedule and need to make adjustments. I decide to give myself much more time – I move the task lines in the calendar days. Now those colorful blocks are bigger, more generous – but I still keep the schedule. There’s an underlying fear of erasing the whole thing. How can I face the day with a blank calendar staring at me – where’s the structure, where are the goals and tasks, the deadlines. No, they have to be there, just better suited to my style of working. Of course, it’s all still far more than I can get done.

On and on it can go. There’s no end to rules, to shoulds, to don’ts and dos. I’ve accomplished a great deal in the last year, but I haven’t met all my self-imposed goals, so it doesn’t feel like enough. If I don’t get out of the stress-by-rules trap, it will never be enough.


I may not be depressed, but I haven’t fully shaken the habit of ruling myself into a kind of captivity. It’s self-willed rather than compelled by depression, but it’s still hard to manage. Fortunately, I know full well that it’s a legacy. The only purpose of the rules is to bring back the sense of worthlessness I’ve struggled to overcome.

So I’ve added the rule habit to the cognitive therapy list. Just as I learned to shut up the voice that kept condemning me as no good, I’m learning now the skill of undoing self-defeating rules.

Part of the problem is the perverse comfort of familiar misery tempting me back from the risks of a new and more fulfilling life. The deadly skills of living with depression were refined over decades, and I mastered them completely. I’m well on my way to kicking the old habits and learning the skills that support a richer life. But it’s taking more time than I’d hoped. ……

Taking more what? Time?? So who set a deadline on healing, John? It’s happening – amazingly, truly happening. So drop the deadline!


Have you had a talk with yourself lately about rules and deadlines, time and stress?

14 Responses to “Stressing Life by the Rules”

Read below or add a comment...

  1. Chris Benton says:

    Hey – you are impersonating me – stop it at once 🙂
    The analysis of EVERYTHING to death drives my wife to despair , “just get on with life it will happen and everything will be ok . We have enough money to cope with gaps in work and you need to start winding down because its overwork that got you here !” , “so I agree and go and draw up a spreadsheet analysing expenditure and income over the next 10 years to prove that we can survive and expand the spreadsheet and find she is right. By which time I’m stressed out , tired and she is worrying about me – AGAIN !
    Plus ca change !

  2. DepressionInMotion says:

    Some of the things you list in this post resonate with me. I too work in an extremely stressful job (IT) that is demanding and tends aggravate my depression. My job consumes my energy and leaves me drained at the end of the day.

    I am at a cross road and I know I need to make the change you talk about. But I always assumed that if I just quit my job and start from scratch that I would be able to build the life that I dreamed for myself.

    But in the back of my mind I know that will not happen only for the fact that it is not addressing the depression head on. It is like you said you cannot run away from it. You have to be able to look at the source of your sadness rather deflecting your emotions on other parts of your life.

  3. Anon says:

    Hi, John.

    I have been reading silently here for some time. Thank you for sharing. My ‘usual’ (chronic) problem is anxiety and I see now that sometimes depression moves in (to stamp down anxiety?). The depression is where I am now. I am familiar with the things you speak of in this post. I have the rules, too. Or I did. I don’t have timelines and such anymore because I am too depressed to meet them. Now I have a list and I just check things off as I can get them done. Of course, I wish I could move a little faster, but I can’t right now.

    I also have the self esteem thing, a group of bad and judgemental thoughts about myself. I call this ‘The Peanut Gallery’ (because I don’t like them and I don’t want them to be important anymore). I think my Peanut Gallery (inner critic) comes from my parents because they were mean to me and had unreasonable expectations. I talk back to them now, but I am still looking for new ways to do things.

    Anyway, I’m not sure where I hoped to go with this comment, but I just want to say I can relate. Thanks for sharing.

    • john says:

      Hi, Anon –

      It sounds like you’re doing well in pushing back against the mood distortions. Realistic about what you can get done – putting the critics off in the peanut gallery – I can’t tell you how long it took me to finally be able to do those two things.

      Thanks for breaking your silence!


  4. Lincoln says:

    Thanks for this post, particularly its earlier emphasis on work deadlines. Too often, my depression and anxiety can lead me to dig a hole at work, then my depression and anxiety convince me that I can never catch back up. And realistic goal-setting–both personal and professional–is a constant challenge. Thanks, too, for always emphasizing that recovery is a process and can only be gradual. Amazingly, waiting 20+ years for an epiphany that would surely set my life in motion and on the right track hasn’t yet paid off. Thanks for your great site.

    • john says:

      Hi, Lincoln –

      Thanks for those kind words! Digging a hole at work is a good way to put it. That’s the first thing I seem to do – get buried down there and never quite climb out.

      I’m so glad the site is helpful to you.


  5. Ellen says:

    Hi John,
    Interesting topic. I guess with me, I desperately need the structure of a job in the ‘real world’. That brings its own problems, but on my own, I am too much at the whim of my moods, and when I give in to them, they spiral. So at the moment, it’s real world all the way.

    I have tried freelancing and working from home, btw, and while it has many good things, I just cannot pull it off. It’s maybe the opposite of the problem you describe – I have difficulty setting rules or goals and sticking to them.


    • john says:

      Hi, Ellen –

      The key for me has been adapting to limitations while emphasizing what I can do well. I think everyone needs a structure – I happen to be better at creating that on my own rather than fitting myself into an organization. For most people it’s a job that’s fulfilling in some way. I’ve found it’s possible to over-promise in either setting, but when I do that in a job I’m disappointing other folks – big no-no.

      Thanks for your comment.


  6. Wendy Love says:

    You do have a most interesting style of using words. They are like a bunch of little dinkie cars each with their own road to travel…lots of bridges and tunnels and hills and valleys! I enjoy your writing style very much.
    I hear what you are saying about self-imposed rules. I do that too. I have spent more of my life self-employed than working for others and so that is a familiar thing for me.
    Now, due to the depression, and thanks to a husband with a pension, I have no deadlines at all. It is quite freeing. But since I still enjoy being productive I do set goals.
    Maybe you should call your rules ‘goals’ instead. A lot less pressure there….
    I have a question for. Within this structure that you set for yourself, do you also build in rewards and rests and activities that are therapeutic for you? For me those are the things that fuel me for the journey. For me that would be a walk, a cup of tea, a mindless TV break , a chat on the phone with someone I love, or a few minutes with a nice little book that I am reading purely for pleasure. Do you have something like that built into your day?
    You are a gifted writer. I would hate to see you ‘ruled out’! (couldn’t resist that one).
    Wendy Love

    • john says:

      Hi, Wendy –

      With that sense of never finished work always in mind, I’ve had trouble feeling OK about taking rest time, but lately I’ve been taking a couple of hours a day for physical activity. My wife is always adding to gardens, and there’s an endless number of outdoor jobs to do – much of it heavy labor. I love to get tired out that way. All the anxiety about getting things done disappears. That may sound like a strange way to relax, but it’s perfect for me.

      Thanks as always for your thoughtful comment.


  7. Christine says:

    High expectations of oneself or from parents may result in depression, anxiety or both. It’s best to live your own life at your own pace.

    • john says:

      Hello, Christine –

      Exactly right – it seems to take a while to pull the false expectations out of oneself and live in a more balanced way.

      Thanks for your comment.


  8. Stephany says:

    How did you change over from the paycheck in the ‘real world’ to the one where many of us need to earn income outside of the typical thinking box?

    I must ask, did you have to worry about paying bills/rent/mortgage while doing this transition?

    Those are my first thoughts when i read this post.

    Because, this goes far beyond depression as a reason to pull up the boot straps to survive in this world.

    So many people, have reasons for being ‘down and out’.

    When reading about someone scraping it up from the bottom, surviving, paying the bills and via blogging–etc it gives some hope, but as you know life is not paid by hope alone.

    Just thinking out loud, knowing that if there is no side comfort of the regular life bills being paid, people with depression or angst or just bad situations really have no ability to rise up and do the out of box job, etc.

    • john says:

      Hi, Stephany –

      We’re very much in the real bill-paying world and it’s been a big risk trying to make this transition – teeth-skin survival tactics all the way. We’ve learned to live on a whole lot less with – including a wee bit from online writing. The risk always made me hold back from a change like this in the past, but that’s odd since I’ve always been able to raise money to pick the direction I wanted to go in. I built my own career problems, in other words. And as this post describes, even leaving behind the last gasp of that work, I am still quite capable of reproducing conditions that bring back a similar stress – though I’m getting free of that too. So I do have hope, on both the income and recovery sides.

      My best to you – wonderful to hear from you again.


By clicking the Submit button below you agree to follow the Commenting Guidelines