Goal Setting When Depressed Can Be Such A Downer

Getting things done when you're depressed - no, I mean really depressed.

Posted Jul 06, 2009

I make goals or ‘success steps' throughout the year. But what happens when I'm depressed or was recovering from a psychotic episode? Accomplishing goals when in the midst of mental illness is very different than when my mood's stable for some time or you've never wrestled with psychiatric disorder period.

From living with bipolar disorder and anxiety, and much trial and error, I now know I must keep these key points in mind if I'm to have a decent chance of reaching targets:

•Psychiatric disorders are illnesses. And like any illness, I must readjust expectations daily, sometimes hourly, in relation to my health and needs.
•Goals easily accomplished previously may be unrealistic, but perhaps not in the future.
•Tiny, tiny steps are crucial to achieving success, self-esteem and recovery.
•Address a hidden but significant barrier: my reaction to the 'smallness', the apparent insignificance of these first goals.

When I'm depressed, it's critical I choose goals I will likely reach. Otherwise, my quark-sized spark of motivation will kaput. Itsy, bitsy steps set me up for success and keep me going. Tiny equals big.

To go with the exercise motif: Aiming to walk to the end of the block and back might be the ticket. Sometimes (if I'm really honest) putting on my sneakers, staring at the door and dropping back down in the Barkalounger, is where I need to start. And in my case, it was. Sometimes my aim is to just get my workout gear beside my bed. Not so I feel guilty but to say: 'see...I am getting closer'. Then slowly, very slowly, I increase challenges as I'm ready.

Accomplishing these incremental objectives is rarely a problem. My reaction to them often is. I can harshly judge them and myself as stupidly small and meaningless. And give up even before I start.

A ghostly refrain creeps into my head if I'm not on my toes: "I should be able to do way more in a day. It's pointless. Why bother? These goals are embarrassing."

The hurdle becomes my negative self-talk, perfectionism and self-blame, preventing me from even trying. What helps? Compassion, gentleness, and reframing (which aren't easy even on my best days). My task then becomes (with the help of my therapist and Pema Chodron) to cultivate those habits simultaneously.

Something along these lines softens my hard hitting negativity: "Yup - it's true I've accomplished more challenging things before I wrestled with bipolar disorder. But that's it; I'm learning to manage an illness, which like other illnesses, changes my range of function."

This may be too ‘clinical-cognitive-behavioral' sounding even for me, but you get the picture. But... when I employ this slightly lighter hand, eventually walking through the doors of the gym and onto the treadmill become doable.

What would I expect from someone with acute back pain or recovering from cancer? Yes these are different maladies. But that's exactly my point. Mental illnesses are the hardest hit, by far, by derision, self-stigma and misunderstanding. So it's even more vital to allow ourselves to be toddlers in our steps toward recovery; to wisely perceive small actions aren't so small after all. To give ourselves credit, no matter how puny the victory looks. Because we know, intimately and irrevocably, the strength it takes to think, let alone move, when deep in the clutches of psychiatric illness.

And it's this self-care, this ‘unconditional friendliness' towards ourselves that allows us to progress, albeit slowly, but most definitely towards wholeness, health and harmony.


•Re-evaluate needs, values, strengths, limits
•Be honest & realistic
•Start where you are, go slow, pace yourself
•Re-adjust goals & expectations daily in relation to health & needs
•Create a plan & goals with these insights in mind
•Risk challenging yourself when appropriate
•Distract yourself from the ‘too' big picture
•Focus on accomplishments of small goals

A terrific resource with great tips from someone who knows, check out Julie Fast's book: "Get it Done When You're Depressed".

© Victoria Maxwell 2009