“I feel like I’m doing everything I can, but I’m getting nowhere.”
As a Life Coach who specialises in mental health, this is one of the most common statements I hear at the beginning of a coaching programme with a client. It also reminds me of a conversation in Alice in Wonderland,
“One day Alice came to a fork in the road and saw a Cheshire cat in a tree. ‘Which road do I take?’ she asked. ‘Where do you want to go?’ was his response. ‘I don’t know,’ Alice answered. ‘Then,’ said the cat, ‘it doesn’t matter.”
For Alice, the risk is the walk itself, regardless of the path chosen, feels like progress, seemingly proactive.
I do not dispute the people I work with are doing everything they can and getting nowhere, the challenge here is not needing to do more, it’s needing to do less, and being more thoughtful about what you choose to do.
We are switched on 24/7, working days no longer exist, free time can seem a fable from the time of Alice, information floods our senses through mobile devices which we commit to checking increasingly throughout the day, everything and everyone is coming at us from several angles, and they all seem to want something from us. Most notably, our attention. We swot at them like flies, counting each one and feeling the flush of success at just how proactively we are winning at life, if indeed we convince ourselves we are.
We are busier than we have ever been and this leaves us feeling overwhelmed, out of control and stuck in a rut, which gets deeper every day as we dig ourselves further and further down, seemingly with no means of escape. We think if we work harder, we stand a chance of making it out and there may be days we feel like we have won. With dirty hands and sweaty brow, we are tired, deserve rest, sleep a good night’s sleep, and wake to find ourselves back at the bottom, hands clean.
What we fail to see, is reactive masquerading as proactive. We are dealing with events or stimuli as they arrive and we then react as quickly and efficiently as we possibly can. Being proactive means responding to life as it happens rather than reacting it. To achieve this, we have to slow down and increase the time and space between the trigger and our response. Reviewing the situation and making a judgement before responding, at times, choosing no response as the better option.
The skill of being proactive is valuable to us all and no more so to those who, like me, have been challenged by their mental health. As someone who has experienced depression, upon reflection, I know only too well how I would respond to the start of a period of depression by ‘stepping up my game’. If I can deal with more and more, surely what I need to deal with decreases and the freedom will give me the time and space to be well. The challenge, as I understand it now, is those things we need to deal with never end if at no point we decide what is and isn’t important.
Add to this, when we experience depression one of the primary skills we will need is to be proactive, specifically with the self-care we need to implement to support us in making it through. My own experience of depression highlights one interesting aspect of my illness, it would force me into a period of self-reflection, understanding myself and what is important to me, at the deepest level. It’s not unusual for someone with depression to question the reason for their existence and this in itself is a question worth answering. Whilst self-reflection is a primary objective of being proactive, depression robs us of a clear connection to the other elements of being proactive and forces into a reactive state. Doing what needs to be done to survive another day, often not being able to see past midnight.
I also recognise the times I was ready to climb out of my depression and the fear that came with this, there was comfort in the symptoms of my depression. What I am about to say can be challenging to hear, for myself and others, there is a necessity not to ‘wear’ depression as an excuse not to take action. You know when you are not well enough to be proactive, and you know when you are. When you are, you owe to yourself to move forward.
As with all these skills for a future without depression, cultivate them in times of wellness, and you increase your chance of not experiencing depression in the future, I truly believe this. If your mental well-being is impacted, being proactive, at your earliest opportunity, will support either a confident U-turn or a speedy exit. In the book 7 Skills for the Future, author Emma-Sue Prince writes ‘being proactive boils down to these 4 things(which I have paraphrased):
- Self-awareness – understanding your reactions and responses. Also being aware of and accepting your strengths and weaknesses.
- Willpower – achieving self-control daily and committing to being proactive.
- Responsibility – for your life and living it based on what you value and what is important to you, rather than triggered feelings and emotions.
- Self-mastery – over your thoughts, emotions and beliefs, and therefore your actions.’
Understanding yourself, what you value and what is important to you and then making decisions on your actions based on this. Listening to the language you use internally and externally, is it the language or being proactive and owning your actions, or of being reactive and your actions a reaction to your environment. You’re aiming for ‘I did Y because it was right for me’ rather than ‘I did Y, because X happened’. This level of understanding supports you in answering my earlier profound question on existence, ‘what am I here for?’ Take time to define what you want to achieve in your life, set goal, break them down, and then be accountable for achieving them. It’s going to take willpower, but you owe it to yourself to achieve the life you desire and deserve.
I truly believe those who have experienced the depths of depression benefit from understanding themselves at a deeper level than those who have not experienced it. It’s time to use this to our advantage and apply what we know of ourselves to achieving a better life. We have to commit to using this information for our own good and being proactive is pivotal to this.
Once Alice understands where she needs to be, she can select the path, commit to the journey and reach her final destination. And my clients can leave exclaiming,
“I feel like I’m doing everything I should and I’m getting there.”