“Just Do It” Doesn’t Work When You’re Depressed
And not being able to take that advice can make you feel worse
The well-intentioned Brad Stulberg, a performance coach and author, has recently written some pieces on “Behavioral Activation,” a premise revolving around the idea that motivation and energy follow action. Don’t wait until you feel like doing something, he says — just do it. The old adage “Move a muscle, change a thought” is one of the hallmarks of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, and recovery. (The Behavioral Activation System, or BAS, played a key role in the chapter on confidence in my first book.) As he writes:
The extreme example of clinical depression is useful. For many people, it manifests as a feeling of nothing mattering, an intense apathy, a fatigue so bad it is painful. But depression hates a moving target. The best way out is to force yourself to get going, even, and perhaps especially, when you don’t want to.
Got that? If you’re depressed and can’t do anything, simply force yourself to do something. As someone who has suffered from clinical depression, I can say:
“Force yourself to get going” is great advice for some people, but the one thing you cannot do when you’re depressed.
No matter how much self-discipline you have, you can’t simply “force yourself to get going” when depressed.
Saying “just do something!” to a depressed person is as helpful as “sit down and do your work!” to someone with ADHD, or “stop thinking about that thing!” to someone with OCD. It’s “stop worrying!” to someone suffering from anxiety. “Just get a higher paying job, poor people!”
It’s a great slogan for a coach to share with clients. But for those suffering from actual clinical depression, it’s overly simplistic and, in my opinion, destructive. I say this because over the past month (ever since the dog bite episode), I’ve been stuck in a downward spiral of feeling bad about myself because I couldn’t get moving: I’d try, fail to do something that was once so easy, and feel even worse about myself, making it increasingly harder to try again.