Henry Ford once famously said
If you think you can do a thing or think you can’t do a thing, you’re right.
Right through Covid, mental health has been one of the most challenging things I have had to coach. Depression, anxiety, negativity, loneliness and a sense of loss or darkness all combine in some people to varying degrees of complexity, and now are exasperated by the piling economic woes that like a tsunami army are marching towards us.
I have been coaching John – not his real name – for the past two years. He has been living much of his life with anxiety and depression. John is fragile and some recent events seem to have broken his resilience. John is now also overwhelmed by negative feelings – shame and self-doubt. His relationships are crashing around him, his business is collapsing, his life feels so empty yet his head is so full of thoughts.
John has lost count of the number of times ‘well-meaning friends’ have said to him, “Cheer up. Keep smiling. Count yourself lucky. Be positive. Snap out of it.” As though his depression would suddenly lift and his demons be immediately vanquished, if only he stopped indulging in all his punitive, negative thinking.
If the cure for depression was that simple, I’d sign up everyone on a crash course in optimism.
Unfortunately, mental illness is complex, manifesting itself in a myriad of ways and cannot be solved by one motivational chat. Depression has a way of sucking the joy and meaning from life. Chronic feelings of hopelessness, apathy or despair are part of the condition. It may also bring physical symptoms, such as weight loss, sleep disturbance, fatigue, and aches and pains.
Like John, I know personally know what it’s like to be crushed under the weight of anger, disappointment and to fail in so many ways. I know what it’s like to be self-critical to extreme and never pause for breath. I know what it’s like to lose a family, friends, a marriage, business, and feel everyone blames you. I know what it’s like and what it takes to reach the highest echelons of global corporate leadership, whilst hating the culture and demands. I know what it’s like when negative self-talk sinks its teeth into your very soul and just never lets go! I know what it’s like to face so many challenges that your resilience snaps and you plunge into despair and anxiety.
I know what it’s like to hate yourself, to put on a brave face for the world, as the dark clouds thunder through your brain and you feel your head is likely to burst. I know what’s it’s like to wage war on the demons within you whilst allowing others to label you ‘uncaring’, ‘angry’, ‘lacking in emotion’ – just because you feel that admitting personal emotional weakness would somehow make you a lesser person, since you were taught not to cry.
I also know what it’s like not to understand depression, as a parent and as a carer; to look at those you love and wonder why they just don’t get on with it, rather than wallowing in their self anxiety. I know what it’s like to have family members suffering, and those around them – like me – not understanding the tortuous and tormented journey they are on.
My journey in understanding Mental Health is a very personal and complex one. It started by denying its existence, learning to work through its consequences, whilst burning relationships and relentlessly marching on in search of career fulfillment or that illusive holy grail ‘happiness’, which I thought would come when I had truly achieved whatever it was I was trying to achieve.
I have used many of the well-publicised ways of trying to combat negative thoughts, both personally and professionally. I have tried meditation, mindfulness and exercise, but for some, these activities can seem like impossible challenges when you’re having a tough time or depressive episodes. I often tell people, “If you cannot afford ten minutes of time for mediation, then you need to give it an hour”, yet I remember sitting in Buddhist meditation classes, wondering when my sense of inner peace would kick in; when I would feel at peace with the world; when would that ‘aha’ moment arrive … and you know what? It didn’t.
In the meantime, I have used food and alcohol as a crutch to help me get through the bad times.
Learning to concentrate on daily tasks, let alone banishing all negativity and worry, seems like an impossible challenge at times. Sometimes the blackness overwhelms the normal things so much so they no longer have meaning for you. Learning to ease back on the throttle that manages your relentless approach to life, might let the hounds of hell catch up and consume you.
It was not until I realised that what I sought was inside me not outside me, that it became clear that what made me happy was being at peace with the world; that I did not have to prove myself to my mum, dad or family; that I had made mistakes but I forgave myself; that other people had no control over me and that by loving myself more, I could love others more. I understood at an early point in my journey – and amidst challenging circumstances – that I had to draw on inner strengths, source resources and find accomplishments that allowed me to be different.
I am not the same person I was 20 years ago, nor 10 years ago, nor yesterday. My research into behaviour and change has been transformative. It has allowed me to study myself and others. No one is prefect and we all have a dark side.
Over the past 10 years I have worked with literally thousands of people in over 30 countries on change, behaviour, competence, health, strategy and mindset. I have learnt the vital impact our personal health has on our relationships, our performance, our future, our whole lives.
As we go through life, we all try to understand where we fit into our tribe, our herd, our pack, our crowd, our club, our team, our organization, our company, our own head. We have an insatiable thirst to understand and establish our status, our exclusivity, where we fit in and what is this life all about.
As an Irish catholic, it was drummed into me from a very early stage that ‘Christ is the way’. However, for me that never answered that difficult question why am I here? Depression tempted me to question God. To me, He was supposed to be the deliverer yet the voices of despair sounded so much louder than His. It seems to me that some of the ‘churchy’ misconceptions about clinical depression and anxiety spring from a genuine desire to understand them ‘scripturally’, but for me, as a behaviouralist, this was a quest I needed to answer myself.
As a motivational coach, as a behavioural researcher, as a leadership educator and as a business strategist, I have learnt how to quell my own demons and understand the power and flow of my own negativity and potentially depressive personality. These days, I try to share my learnings, my greater understandings, my personal experiences to help others – be they people or organisations – to understand themselves better and to thrive by use the power of new mindset.
As human beings – just like any other animal pack – we are as motivated by status, exclusivity, a wanting to belong. We all want to do our best and be successful, yet so many of us fail to achieve our targets.
Why is it that some people are more successful than others? Why do some seem in control of their lives?
My friends Paul and Anne – not their real names – just seem to coast through life without any angst or demons, while my life sometimes feels like a bad surfer on a bad day – never quite able to stay on the surf board long enough to enjoy it, always falling off, and immediately feeling like I am going drown as large waves endlessly beat me to hell and back.
So why do some people succeed where others crash and burn? Why do some people thrive with risk when others become paralyzed? Why do some people hesitate when others strike? Why is it that some people are filled with apprehensions while others are so certain?
Questions such as Who am I?, Why Am I Here?, What, footprints will I leave behind? feature in many workshops I do. I often tell many people that a life that is unexamined is often unlived and unfilled.
As Oscar Wilde said,
The aim of life is self-development, to realize one’s nature perfectly.
The girl who smiles all the time
is the one who’s never fine
The boy who surrounds
himself with friends
wishes that his life would end.
For those who say they never knew
the saddest leave the least of clues.
Too many times our lives are best represented by this story.
An old man, a young boy and a donkey were going to town. The boy rode on the donkey and the old man walked. As they went along, they passed some people who remarked it was a shame the old man was walking and the biy was riding. The man and boy thought maybe the critics were right, so they changed positions.
Then, later, they passed some people who remarked, “What a shame, he makes that little boy walk.” So, they then decided they’d both walk!
Soon they passed some more people who thought they were stupid to walk when they had a decent donkey to ride. So, they both rode the donkey. Now they passed some people who shamed them by saying how awful to put such a load on a poor donkey.
The boy and man figured they were probably right, so they decided to carry the donkey. As they crossed the bridge, they lost their grip on the animal and he fell into the river and drowned. (source unknown)
The morale of the story is that no matter what you do, people will always have an opinion. We spend 80% of our time thinking and worrying about things that could/might happen, about pleasing others or being bothered by others or always chasing the sun, without understanding that if we stand still and live in the present the sun will come back to us again. We allow the words and actions of others pollute our brains. We carry so much baggage in and out of relationships. We backpack the past and carry it with us, or we are jumping endlessly into the future without ever understanding where we are at.
Our brains are hyper-actively reviewing, reliving and replaying so much noise that our priorities are often lost in that very noise. For most of us, we go through the day, and sometimes dark nights, just thinking – thinking in a random, disordered and sometimes frivolous and very self-critical way.
We can be so horrible to ourselves. That’s what the mind does. It thinks. And you’re either aware of the thought or you’re not. But you’re thinking all the time. If you are depressed then its negative depressing thoughts that are flowing relentlessly through your brain.
Depression drains your energy, hope and drive, making it difficult to take the steps that will help you to feel better. Sometimes, just thinking about the things you should do to feel better, like exercising or spending time with friends, can seem exhausting or impossible to put into action. It’s what I term the ‘Catch-22 of depression recovery’.
The very things that help us the most are the very things that seem the most difficult to do. There is a big difference, however, between something that’s difficult and something that’s impossible.
We know that recovering from depression isn’t quick or easy. So many of us don’t realise we have more control than we think – even when our depression and anxiety are severe and stubbornly persistent. What we must accept is that the first step is to start small, then build from there. We may feel lethargic and without energy, but by drawing on all on our strengths and resilience, we should talk ourselves into going for a walk and force ourselves to go, or pick up the phone to call a loved one, go play with an animal or a child. A small first step and then another and another.
The future can be great.
Taking the first step is always the hardest. But going for a walk or getting up and dancing to your favourite music, for example, is something you can do right now. And it can substantially boost your mood and energy for several hours – long enough to put a second recovery step into action, such as preparing a mood-boosting meal or arranging to meet an old friend.
By taking the following small but positive steps day by day, you’ll soon lift the heavy fog of depression and find yourself feeling happier, healthier, and more hopeful again.
10 Things to do to improve your Mental Health
- Reach out and stay connected
- Look for support from people who make you feel safe and cared for
- Make personal face-time a priority
- Eat a healthy, depression-fighting diet
- Challenge negative thinking
- Try to keep up with social activities even if you don’t feel like it
- Find ways to support others
- Join a support group for depression
- Do things that make you feel good
- Get moving
THE MENTAL FILTER
Three Questions I would ask you to consider
- Are you bothered by feeling down, depressed or hopeless?
- Do you have little interest or pleasure in doing things?
- Have you had trouble falling or staying asleep, or sleeping too much?
If you answer is a strong yes to these, then please talk to someone or seek help from your GP to establish if the feeling is temporary or you need some professional help.
About Dr Maurice Duffy
Irish. Author, Professor, Coach and Business strategist. The person Australian Captain Steve Smith credited with helping him back from his cricket ban. Coach to two Ashes wins. Coach to CEOs, Politicians and some of the best know international sports starts including Olympians. BBC ‘Thought for the Week’. Coached business leaders and organizations in 80 countries. Works with charities to do with Mental Health. Lives in North East England with his wife and 11-year-old son.