When you’ve been struggling with anxiety or depression for awhile it can be hard to feel that there is any hope for things to change. Added to how stuck you might be feeling is the constant reinforcement in our culture of the idea of a quick fix. It's the "Here, just do this one thing and you will feel better indefinitely" kind of attitude. Don’t get me wrong, I’m all about people getting relief as quickly as possible. It’s just that this kind of attitude can be a setup when what is needed is patience, time, and realistic, achievable goals.
It’s a paradox but change can be both quick and slow at the same time. If you’re only valuing the long-term big change you miss out on appreciating the small changes that happen in the meantime to add up to that bigger change down the road. An image one of my mentors has shared is that of a ship on the ocean. If the captain changes the trajectory of that ship even the slightest bit, it may not be a big change in the moment but it sure has an impact on where that ship is going to end up.
So what does all of this have to do with you and whether there’s hope for change? Quite a lot! You are that ship on the ocean. When people express their hopelessness to me, what I find time and time again is that they are skipping over appreciating the small changes in trajectory they have already made. To make use of a popular cliché, they are overly focused on the destination and not paying attention to the journey.
It’s a matter of perspective: If I am hiking and only focused on the peak ahead of me then I will continually be aware of how I’m not where I want to be and how much further I still need to go. I’m not saying to ignore the peak, but suggesting rather that it can be helpful to sometimes pause and turn around and look back to appreciate how far I’ve come. It is helpful for us to keep our goals in mind and to orient towards what we want, but it’s hard to be hopeful if we aren’t also pausing to appreciate the steps we’ve made.
When you have been struggling with something for some time, often the next step is not to be free of that struggle completely. For example, if you experience social anxiety, going to a large party where there are a lot of people you don’t know and expecting yourself to be anxiety-free is a setup. What is more realistic is to build off of situations you already have comfort in, to take some steps that are a reasonable stretch and to tolerate some of the anxiety that you experience with that stretch.
Here are some suggestions for how to keep from setting yourself up:
- Keep your expectations realistic
- Break a long-term goal down into smaller next step goals
- Treat challenges with your goals as learning: these aren’t failures, this is what you are working with
- Get curious:
- What happens in the struggle?
- When is it easier?
- Be kind to yourself
- Notice these things:
- When you find relief lasting longer before you struggle again
- When you get out of a stuck-place a little sooner than past times
And finally, maintaining hope and shifting things we struggle with can be a lot to expect to do alone. This can be part of a counsellor’s role: to keep the hope for change and to help you see when change is already happening. Friends and family can also be a source of support; especially when they have the capacity to reflect back to you the strengths and potential you may not see in yourself!