The surest way for me to not get anything done is to get overwhelmed by the guilt of not getting anything done. I’ve worked for years to solve this little quandary, and I’ve found a key element in the solution: forgiveness.
Forgiveness is something I’ve gotten much better at in recent years. I’ve never been one to hold grudges — I don’t have the memory to pull that off — but I would get irate with people in the moment for all manner of perceived slights and infractions. Recently, my mantra has become “everybody is doing their best.” It’s the idea that I don’t know what this particular person is living with, what they’re going through in their life, or what just happened to them the minute before. All I can do is believe that they’re doing their best, and that puts me in a place of compassion. (It doesn’t work quite as well when I interpret something to be intentionally malicious, but it’s still better than interpreting everything as malicious.)
You’d think it would be easy enough to apply this same mantra to myself. I mean, of all people, I should know that I’m doing my best. But I’m always the first to disagree. I think I could have done better, that I could be doing better. My mind calls bullshit as soon as I try to show a little compassion to myself.
But the fact is that I have Bipolar Disorder and ADHD, and consequently contend with addiction, anxiety, depression, insomnia, poor memory function, poor impulse control, poor focus, periods of listlessness, and sundry other mental health issues. Every day I very much am doing the best I can. No amount of anger at myself is going to make the circumstance any different. Some part of me believes that all that criticism is useful, that it’s the only way I’ll do better, but rationally I’ve come to accept that it’s not. It’s neither useful nor productive. At all. I really am doing my best, and feeling bad about it is a counter-productive waste of time.
There are two things that I find especially helpful. The first is just doing something. Breaking a task down so far that the first step is almost unavoidable. For example, I have trouble making phone calls, especially about important stuff like health insurance. The idea of the phone itself becomes a heavy weight as I wonder “what’s wrong with me, because seriously how hard is making a phone call?” If I can forget about the phone call and all the uncertainty it entails, if I can just focus on dialing the number, all of the sudden I’m better than I was when I couldn’t make a phone call at all. Now I have some momentum to move forward, and I can more easily see my way to forgiving myself.
That’s an extreme example, as I think most people probably have larger things weighing them down than making a phone call, but then again that’s where my loops begin: “any normal person can make a phone call, so what’s wrong with me?”
The second thing — and one that often follows the first — is forcing myself to accept forgiveness. I say the words “I’m doing the best I can” out loud. I repeat it until I believe it, which can take a while, especially at first. It gets easier the next time, and again the time after that, until I’m finally able to just say it once in my head. When I’ve accepted and forgiven my shortcomings, I can reassess my todo list in a different light. One where things that seemed overwhelming before can look completely different.
It takes some courage, and more than a few tries, but if you’re a person who gets dragged down by self-criticism the way I do, this mantra might work for you. It might not. It might be the wrong incantation, and even if it is right now it will probably change over time. It is possible, though, to break these negative loops. I’m cheering for you.
Getting past the self-criticism is the most important step I’ve taken toward peace and productivity. I’m no pro at it, and I have to tackle it almost daily, but I’m slowly figuring it out. Just in time for my 40s.