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Tuesday 11 October 2011

The Goals Escalator

People who are depressed, burned out, or who feel stuck in their lives often describe a sense of listless inertia. It’s hard to get out of bed, open the mail, work on ongoing projects, and even complete small chores. Most of us have been there to at least some degree at some point in our lives.

In this state, people can be shocked at how little they seem to accomplish in a day.

“I used to get out of bed, get myself organized and out of the house, work a full day, come home, make dinner, and accomplish a few things in the evening.  Now I can’t seem to get myself started. The simplest things, like cleaning out the hall closet, make me feel completely overwhelmed. But sitting and watching daytime television makes me feel worse.”

Naturally, people wonder if they will ever get back to something resembling the level of accomplishment they used to achieve. Even if this is possible, they don’t know how to get there. What they would like is a metaphorical escalator to lead them out of the pit.

Fortunately, there is one. As is so often the case, the key is something we might call the “middle path.” It isn't the total solution to depression, or to burnout, or to dissatisfaction with our lives. But it is a very useful tool.

During depression, burnout, or just a period of stuckness in our lives, it becomes quite easy to feel overwhelmed. Trying to write an essay, finish a tax form, clean out the garage, or open a stack of mail can bring about a feeling of hopeless anxiety.  And yet it can feel important to do all these things.  "I need to, but I can't."

The temptation is to flip from feeling overwhelmed to the opposite pole: avoid almost everything and instead watch television, play video games, stay in bed, isolate, or retreat in some other way. The hidden reasoning is often that doing so will allow us to recharge our batteries. We will eventually feel an upswing in energy and get back to living our lives.

Unfortunately, this avoidant activity tends not to recharge us. The anxiety continues and we feel more and more incapable of handling the challenges around us. A feeling of crawling desperation begins to take hold. Life can feel both gratingly unpleasant and ploddingly boring.

All of these feelings – hopelessness, anxiety, overwhelm-ment, and boredom – are recognizable precisely because we have felt them before. And we survived. So although they feel unpleasant, they are not, in themselves, dangerous. We can welcome them as guides to action.

But what kind of action? Imagine a three-layered cake, or Neapolitan ice cream (strawberry, chocolate, vanilla), or the layered B52s served in 1980s bars (Kahlua, Bailey’s, Grand Marnier).

The bottom layer is mired, inactive, avoidant boredom. Sitting in this layer makes the inertia more intense.

The top layer is frantic, anxious activity – or a skittering litany of all the things we should be doing if only we weren’t so stuck. This makes the feeling of being overwhelmed worse.

The middle layer is the upward escalator. We need to get ourselves out of the utter inactivity (or avoidant activity) to begin doing very small tasks – washing a few dishes, opening a single piece of mail, spending 5 minutes on the garage cleanout, walking a single city block.

But we also need to relinquish the ambition to be the person we once were – the level of accomplishment we have achieved for most of our lives. We must consciously let go of the intention to finish cleaning out the garage, to get fully caught up in our paperwork, to run all the way in a marathon.

Instead, we need to focus on what will almost always seem like a trivial task – something our “old self” could have dispensed with in a few minutes. The mission is to tolerate this sense of dissatisfaction at the level of challenge, and the inevitable thought that “I’ll never get anywhere at this rate.”

Finding this narrow middle zone of activity can serve as a kind of escalator. It leads upward, and we become capable of a bit more and a bit more.

All along in this process, it is important to monitor emotions. Feeling overwhelmed means we are sliding up into the over-anxious layer; feeling flat, dull, or bored means we are sliding down into the inertia layer.

Feeling very slightly challenged, confident that we can do what we have set out to do, and sensing ourselves being somewhat held back, as though we are straining on a leash a bit, tells us we are on the escalator again.

Will we get back to the capable person we once were? Yes, probably. Not as fast as we might have liked, and not without effort. But we will not get there by pretending we are as energetic as we have been at our best, nor by siting on the couch recharging.

We will get there by finding the middle route and following it upward.

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