If at First You Don’t Succeed, Try, Try Again: The Happiness of Trying
Saturday, February 27, 2016 written April 17, 2016
If you unpacked the contents of the oft-repeated phrase, “I’m trying,” at least one “doing,” if not multiple actions should emerge. But I’ve noticed that many clients report that they are “trying,” when in reality what they mean by “trying” has to do with the experience of an emotional and visceral sense of effortfulness. Sometimes, when a person feels stuck—in a dead end job, a disconnected relationship, poverty, a negative housing situation, or even a sense of being lost in the world—just hanging in there constitutes a sense of trying. At this most existential level, staying alive while experiencing the low mood, lack of motivation, and sense of helplessness that defines depression, means “trying.”
Because ‘trying’ is really a ‘doing,’ it is necessary to literally, physically act. But often problems loom as so monstrous or enormous that the fix seems completely unfeasible. In the face of something overwhelming we tend to retreat, heads down, and avoid doing anything at all, perhaps hoping, if any hope remains, that somehow, serendipitously, a savior will arrive with the answers, or, because of the passage of time, things will somehow resolve on their own.
Sometimes, however, a small change, a baby step, an opening of the front door, an act of reaching out to someone else, yields an almost miraculous result: something gets set in motion and that motion can gather steam until some real momentum pulls us out of the dark pit of despair in which we had sunk and settled for so long. Oddly, doing something, even if seemingly unconnected to the big problem, can make a significant positive difference.
As an example, Sally felt stuck in her small apartment after retirement. Neither the layout nor the immediate neighborhood had any appeal—no shops, coffee houses to walk to, etc.–and she longed to return to the neighborhood in which she had formerly thrived. At the moment she could not find anything affordable there. She also felt lonely and bored. Because she knew she had to do something, even if not directly related to changing her housing situation, she applied for a part time job, just to get out. She started to work a few hours every day. At the end of each short shift she found herself relishing the return to her small and cozy apartment where it was quiet after the stimulating interactions with other adults while at work. Since she had spent some time in a more stimulating world while working, the quietness of her apartment’s neighborhood now felt relieving. Ultimately, she still wanted to move, but it didn’t seem quite so urgent a problem. Additionally, because of the increased income a slightly more expensive apartment would become possible.
Basha felt very depressed because she had been laid off and now badly needed a new job, but she had a baby, and the cost of full time child care and the sadness of leaving her baby for a 40-hour a week job felt overwhelming. She just wanted to stay home. Whether she had the baby-blues, or just felt plagued with worry she spent most of her time on the couch. But when it was time for her college reunion, her husband urged her to go so she picked herself up and went, just to mingle and to get her mind off of her worries. There she met a former classmate who was directing an organization needing a consultant with Basha’s skills. They wanted a part time person. They offered flexible hours, and the option to combine working from home as well as in the office setting.
When we feel stuck, we have likely constructed a set of thoughts that box us in and make our lives appear windowless and without doors. It seems like there is no way over, under or around our situation. But stuckness can often function as a defense mechanism. After all, if I think that I can do nothing to remedy my situation, I can let myself off the hook to take an action that might feel uncomfortable or uncharacteristic of the way I usually behave. To find the windows and open the doors in my life, I have to gather my courage and push my own walls.
As an example, Jerry felt overwhelmed by the amount of work he felt expected to do on his IT field tech job. He frequently took home a beeper, whether or not assigned, and responded to all problems in a timely fashion, including on weekends when he had made other plans and had to disappoint family and friends by cancelling at the last minute. In his mind, if he complained about having too much work his company would fire him. He felt stuck between that proverbial rock and hard place: over work or get fired. His black and white thinking maintained his sense of imprisonment. He stubbornly clung to his negative thought pattern even in the face of evidence that his work was highly valued by his company and their voiced awareness that he would need an assistant.
When we cling to thoughts that maintain our dysfunctional living, we need to find the payoff for our misguided loyalty to those thoughts. In this case, Jerry feared confrontation and hardly ever asserted himself. So long as the thought of getting fired persisted, he did not have to test himself in a situation where he would have to say that he could not keep up the current pace.
When helped to realize that an option existed to merely have a conversation with his supportive boss about how much Jerry valued his job but needed some help in prioritizing tasks and adding some work/life balance, he began to see this middle path. While we may have some all-or-nothing choices in life, most times options for compromise exist. To find those we options we must move beyond our comfort zone when it has shrunk so small as to make us ineffective and dissatisfied.
There are lots of kinds of helping hands. Real ones—person-to-person—have great advantages. Sometimes a helping hand gets offered, and sometimes one has to ask for it. But when even multiple helping hands do not constitute enough to move someone out of a rut, medications can provide a different kind of helping hand.
As an example, SSRIs (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors) generally work by preventing the neurotransmitter serotonin—produced and moved by one brain neuron to another–from being gobbled up so quickly by the receiving (reuptake) neurons. When serotonin bathes the brain with its soothing balm longer, mood is lifted. In one article I read a long time ago, a study at Yale University mentioned that the brain suffers a kind of temporary damage from unmitigated stress, worry, and anxiety. Stress hormones like adrenalin, when cumulative, can cause serious effects on our brains and bodies. This “fries” the brain, as working too hard can cause burnout. Feeling fried and burned out are real, physical, organic realities. You might think of an anti-depressant as a helping hand, soothing the fevered brow. This helping hand might make the difference between a serious lack of motivation (someone staying under the covers, unable to move out of bed to shower or prepare food, or greet the day), and the ability to rise.
Some people have brains that may be boosted by the presence of others’ helping hands, alone or in combination with an elevation by psychopharmacology. The beauty is that almost anything and everything, kind and heartfelt (even if tough) can help, at least a little, if one is open to it. A cup of chicken soup, a talk, a card, an invitation to walk, the offer of a hair wash, a drive in the countryside, the sounds of an inspiring piece of music, a prayer in company, etc. Everything has the potential to open up an avenue toward a new place of wellbeing in the mind and heart, and within the fold of our human companions.
Try something! Watch for what happens.
Guest saddle: What are the “helping hands” you value most? How/to whom do you reach out your helping hand?