Focus on What You CAN Do, Not on What You Can't

When life gets you down

It sucks not to feel 100%. I have known this in many different ways before, but life has given me a fresh reminder in the past month. I’ve had some health issues recently, including back pain/spasms, and it has been limiting my usual activities. Those of you who know me know that I tend to be an active person, engaging in all of the typical Boulder Colorado activities: I regularly go to yoga, ride my bike, like to climb, hike, snowshoe and ski. Every year I am here I’ve become more and more of a Boulder cliché. But these recent issues have put quite a damper on that. Instead, I’ve had to spend a lot of time resting and healing. Which, for those of you who know me, know that I am terrible at.  

But this isn't about my recent health issues, it’s about what they have reminded me of. See, when I heard that I had to rest, my brain translated that in a negative way and I immediately started to focus on all of the things that meant I could not do. I couldn’t climb like I do every week, I couldn’t ride my bike in the beautiful fall weather, I couldn’t go snowshoeing this morning during our first early snowstorm of the year.

So what did I do? I watched Netflix, ate some chocolate, and felt sorry for myself. And the more I did that, the less energy and hope I had that I was going to be able to heal and get back to those activities again. I let the uncertainty of the healing process get to me. And I projected my current circumstances out indefinitely into the future. I assumed that I couldn’t do these things now, so I would never be able to do them again. Not consciously of course, but that was the story on the tape that was playing in my head without me realizing it. A story of doom and gloom and hopelessness.

And that is a tape that I have heard before, during another much darker period in my life.

The dark spiral of depression

I have alluded before, in previous blogs, to the fact that I suffered from depression many years ago. As anyone who has ever experienced clinical depression knows, it is a difficult and tricky thing to overcome. There were many times during that period of my life when I would bury myself in a TV show, or a bottle of wine, or some ice cream, just as a way to escape the pain of my everyday existence. Maybe you too know what it’s like to lose hope?

How negative thoughts keep us down

During some of these difficult times, I would feel miserable and hopeless and not know why. Over time, and with professional help, I started to realize that a big part of my hopelessness came from the stories that I told myself. Stories about how I would never get better and things would always be this way. Stories about all of the things that I couldn’t do because of the way that I felt, because of my low energy, because I might burst into tears at an inopportune moment.

Each story would feed off of the next, creating a more miserable and hopeless story that would further suck the energy out of me.

Just like with my recent health issues: I spent all of my time focusing on what I couldn’t do. And I forgot all of the things that I still could do.

Focus on what you CAN do, not on what you can’t

Luckily for me, I lived with the paragon of positivity, modeling endless optimism for me every day: my little dog Jake. When he was four, Jake herniated a disc in his back and pinched his spinal cord, losing the use of his back legs. Once he had healed from surgery and gotten a zippy little wheelchair, I thought we were out of the woods. But life had another couple twists to throw at us. Not long after, he came down with myasthenia gravis, a degenerative nerve disease that attacked the muscles in his esophagus, causing him to be unable to swallow and keep down his food. Over time this led to a bout of pneumonia which almost killed him.

Don’t worry, this story has a happy ending. Jake is now 14 years old and loving every minute of his spoiled rotten life. See, the difference between dogs and humans is that dogs don’t have a sense of self pity. None. Zero. Zip. Zilch. Nada.

Instead of focusing on the loss of the use of his back legs, Jake just took off in the wheelchair the very first time I put him in there, thrilled that he could now roll around and pee all over the world again. (Typical dog priorities). And he never looked back.

Don’t underestimate the power of small changes over time

Now I know that if you are currently in the thrall of depression, this seems like it would be impossible. To just jump up and start zipping around and doing all of the things you used to do. I get it. I know the allure of the bed or the couch or the TV or the bottle can be very strong. Especially when the chemicals in your brain have you feeling so low already. But don’t let that blind you to what you are still capable of doing.

Try taking a page out of Jake‘s book. I did.  And over time, I felt better. I started with little things that I could do. I would turn off the TV on a Saturday morning and instead drink my morning tea in the backyard, swinging in my hammock. Some days all I could do was go to the grocery store, and that was a success. Some days I would take a walk around the block, and then eventually I would drive to the nearby state park and go for a walk in the woods. Little by little, one thing that I could do led to another. And before I knew it, I was doing things that not so long before I thought were impossible.

The same thing happened to me this week. I started to feel hopeless, limited, like I couldn’t do anything. And that blinded me to the things that I could still do. At first it was rest that my body needed. And then gentle movement. I was able to go to a yoga class and adapt some poses for what my body could handle. Could I do a full crooked crow pose? No. But I got out of the house and I moved my body. And just that started to help me feel better. And then I started being able to go for short walks. Could I go snowshoeing or sledding in the fresh snow? No. But that didn’t mean I wasn’t able to get out and enjoy it at all.

Just like Jake, I focused on what I was able to do, rather than what I wasn’t.  And that simple shift in perspective brightened my mood and gave me a sense of hope, rather than succumbing to the hopelessness.

Let yourself be supported

Now, could Jake do everything that he could do before? No. At least not by himself. He got tired more easily going uphill when we would go hiking. But that didn’t stop him from wanting to go. And in his own way, he asked for my help. And so I would carry him in my backpack for the uphill portions that he couldn’t do, and let him wheel around happily on the flat and downhill portions.

You are not a burden

Sometimes the story that people struggling with depression tell themselves is that they can’t show their true feelings to others, for fear of being a burden. They don’t ask for help for fear that it might inconvenience someone else. So they suffer in silence.  What they often don’t realize is that in doing so is that they also deny that other person and the world the gifts they still have to bring.

In the case of Jake, yes, I had to literally physically carry an extra 25 pound burden up every trail. But not once did I begrudge him the effort. Because the sheer joy and excitement that he brought to my life was always worth it. My mother calls him the Eternal Optimist, and he is. He reminds me every day of what could be.

If he had given up and laid around the house and not wanted to come on adventures anymore, I may have been free to go a little faster with a lighter pack. But my life would have been all the emptier for it.  He was never shy about asking for help, whether it was running full tilt at the stairs, knowing that he couldn’t get up them, but that I would pick him up and help him, or sitting at my feet and whimpering until I picked him up on my lap where he could no longer jump, he never hesitated. And I’m glad he didn’t. His asking for help allowed me not only the pleasure of giving it, but the pleasure of enjoying his company.

So what gifts do you still have that you might be depriving the world of? Think about it. Because we are always better off with you here. Always.

Never Give Up

If you stick it out, you never know what might be in store…

Therapy can help

If you are reading this and thinking there is no way you can have the unbounded optimism of a Jack Russell Terrier to pull yourself up by your bootstraps, don’t worry. Me either. That’s OK, you don’t have to do this alone. There are many people who can help: friends, family, support groups, professionals.

I would be happy to speak with you and help you figure out a path back to health and balance. I have helped many people climb out of the difficult hole of depression. Click the button below to set up a free consult and we can get you back on track.

For more information about how to work with depression, visit the Depression Treatment page.