Working on best functioning promotes the building of a more resilient and less dependent self. This is a different emphasis from a focus on trying to fix symptoms, such as depression or low self- confidence.
Last week I chatted to a young woman who said: “I just have to find a way to improve my self-confidence.” She had experienced many periods of low mood and had struggled to find energy to establish herself as an independent adult. She hadn’t managed to get her driving licence, or complete her university courses. Since her school days she had shifted back and forth from dependence on her parents to dependence on a religious or social group. I asked what she would work on if her goal was to function for herself a bit better each day. We chatted about how working on best functioning, such as her idea that she could cook daily simple meals, promotes the building of a more resilient and less dependent self. This is a different emphasis from a focus on trying to fix symptoms of depression or poor self- confidence. It got me thinking about Michael, another person who had worked to improve his day to day functioning and reduce his dependence on his wife Shelley to manage his life. Here is an excerpt of his story:
Being more real rather than feeling better (From Growing Yourself Up, J Brown. Ch. 12 Symptoms & Setbacks P 176- 179)
As Michael came to see the correlation between his dependence on relationships and his sense of wellbeing, he could shift his focus from trying to fix his symptoms to trying to grow himself up. This growing-up process was going to need to be taken one step at a time as the wiring to react to others was deeply ingrained. When he had focused on how badly he felt, how anxious he was, and how hard it was to sleep, he found that he would become increasingly overwhelmed. His symptom focus left him feeling helpless and looking to the ‘experts’ to come up with a solution. However, when Michael started to work on himself and not his symptoms, he took his focus off his feelings and started to work on his day-to-day adult responsibilities, such as getting to bed at a reasonable hour, eating three meals a day, doing daily light exercise and getting himself to work on time. These efforts were focused on using his inner resources at a basic level rather than looking to others to motivate him with praise and encouragement.
Prior to tackling his own self-management, Michael had fallen into a pattern of allowing Shelley to treat him as the patient. He was letting her manage all his appointments, as well as allowing her to remind him to take his medication and cook and clean up for him. Shelley talked through how she could return to treating Michael as her husband and not be a caretaker for him. This meant she started asking for his help again and shared with him her own daily ups and downs. She worked to even up the lopsided relationship rather than to focus on trying to fix Michael.
As Michael worked to better understand himself in his family he began to consider ways he could make contact with his father and begin to get to know him as a person rather than continue to write him off as a villain. None of these efforts was easy for Michael and his progress in managing himself and staying in contact with others was often slow. His anxieties about letting people down at work, and his consequent drain in energy and sleep disruption, were also slow to improve. Michael did, however, report feeling stronger as a person, with a growing acceptance of the sensitivities generated in his earlier relationships.
I recall Michael speaking about the struggle to accept how hard it was to function without lots of approval At times I get so discouraged with how consumed I get with my awful thoughts. I can see that both Mum and Dad, in different ways, struggled with their confidence and looked to others to boost them. I guess it isn’t any wonder that I struggle as well.
I wish I had been given a better deal from my family patterns but I get that I have to do the best I can with what I’ve got.
For Michael, and others like him who struggle with disproportionate fears and discouragements, it’s helpful to take the focus off feelings and to look at doing things that strengthen maturity from within. Following are three guidelines that can assist with this in the midst of challenging symptoms.
1. Function rather than fix
Look at the things you can manage to do each day that keep you responsible for yourself. When life energy is at a low ebb this might not be much more than feeding yourself three decent meals and getting out of bed when the alarm goes off.
2. Be a person rather than a patient
Take care not to allow others to take over basic responsibilities for you. Even when receiving medical advice stay involved in your choices and keep managing your own diary.
3. Keep in contact with others
The easiest thing to do when the pressure is high is to avoid others, especially those who are most challenging to your confidence. The more you are able to maintain some contact with a variety of people, the more you are able to experience yourself as a solid person. You can see that the focus is on taking small, realistic steps to be more of a self. It isn’t the same as a purely medical approach to mental illness which focuses on fixing the symptoms. Rather than analyse the severity of symptoms, the premise is that when a person can lift their functioning just a tad, their symptoms start to become less overwhelming.
Keep putting one foot in front of the other
To grow up in the face of the energy drain of anxiety and depression can be an enormous challenge. The most important principle is to not give up your responsibility for managing yourself to the best of your current ability, no matter how compromised this may be. The more you fall into becoming a patient, who is dependent on others and medication to solve the problem, the more you contribute to an increase in helplessness. This doesn’t mean medication isn’t sometimes a helpful choice but it should not be at the expense of working on managing yourself in the basic responsibilities of each day. And if you can see that a family member is taking on the role of managing your condition, it’s timely for you to step up and get back in charge of your own health care. This is not easy when you feel so lacking in personal resources but it will assist you to hold onto enough adult self to be able to keep moving forward wisely and compassionately.
‘A Focus on Functioning not Fixing’ – Jenny Brown