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What bred your anxiety or depression, with three hopeful steps to taming it.


The Problem

If you’re anxious or depressed about your situation or the situation out in the world, then I’d like to share 3 simple steps that I think will give you hope. I should know: I’m a clinical psychologist and these three steps gave me hope when I was anxious and depressed.

First though, to explain why they’ll help, let me go back 35 years.  Back in 1987 I was 26 years old, a graduate in Economics and Politics, and out-of-work.  From the outside, I was a privileged white male in an affluent society. But from the inside I felt like a failure. In four years, I had abandoned three career paths.  I was stuck. I didn’t know which way to go next.  And in the news, I was reading about the Cold War, the Arms Race, and the impending collapse of the Soviet Union.  No wonder I was anxious and depressed, both about my own situation and the world’s!

35 years on, I now listen to a rich variety of life-stories from anxious and depressed clients, and I remember the same feelings I had in 1987.  I type their session notes and give them surveys, then pool and crunch their data, and look for themes to help them feel better.  The thousand or so stories I’ve collected show me that anxiety and depression are usually understandable responses to difficulties people have with each other, rather than diseases or disorders.

A theme runs through my client’s stories.  They often tell me they feel different from those around them and that they struggle to fit in.  They say they’re under pressure to fulfil expectations, get things done and achieve, to avoid losing their relationship, their job, or membership of a group. Nothing they do seems quite good enough, but doing less than their best seems unthinkable, because they fear letting others down.  They want to receive back as much as they give, but they fear asking for more because they expect that friends, family, employer or community will reject them, leaving them emotionally or financially worse off.  So instead, they give more than they get, they overwork, and they sacrifice their needs.  As a result, they become secretly angry, anxious and depressed.

The Trend

If that sounds familiar to you, I reckon it’s because you’re part of a trend. My evidence? For one thing, searches in Google Trends for the words “pressure”, “time”, “work”, and “anxiety” have shot up since 2004, as have searches for words like “treatment”, “mental health”, “balance”, “medication” and “mental health”.  For another thing, in June 2022 survey by Deloitte found that nearly 70% of C-suite executives were thinking of quitting for a job that better supported their wellbeing:  But why should you care about this trend? Because by understanding it I think you’ll better understand your feelings and how my three steps could help you.

As I see it, this trend is the outcome of a long historical process for our species, with three anxiety-producing elements:

  1. We complicate our world with science and engineering to c
    reate opportunities for longer and more enjoyable lives. But these opportunities cost money and could disappear. So we need to work harder and faster to grasp them. Our aspirations create anxiety!
  2. We replace the natural order with a cultivated order that’s hard to maintain: the very food we live by comes from an unimaginably complex distribution system. Complexity makes that order fragile and unpredictable., so we now live in a volatile, uncertain, chaotic, and ambiguous (“VUCA”) world: We hear on the news threats to our lives and livelihoods from people near and far away.  Such uncertainty creates more anxiety!
  3. We feel the pressure to maintain that fragile cultivated order by spending precious time and energy cooperating to stop either systems breaking down, or people getting angry or organisations taking action against us. Pressure creates yet more anxiety!

Yet this pressure is far from what people want!  My clients usually say they just want the simple things in life.  First, they want to get away from the painful situation they’re in.  Then they want a happy family, good friends and everyday pleasures, paid for by respectable work. And last, they want to grow, to serve others as much as to serve themselves.  Surely they should be able to find a better path to what they want?

My clients are in much the same place I was in 35 years ago.  Back then I wanted a “goal path” that could give me hope of getting the simple things in life myself.  I got a goal path that continues to give me hope today. So I think we all could use a goal path to give us hope. Furthermore, I think that travelling our goal path, we’ll find better ways to get what we truly value and we’ll waste less resources on things we don’t.  That way, each of us will leave more resources for the world.


The Steps

So here are the steps to create a goal path! If you prefer to use paper, find a pile of post-it notes, a marker, and a flipchart or wall to post notes on.  If you prefer digital (or don’t have a handy wall) open a document you can insert textboxes into.

Step 1

Ask yourself “what’s important to me in life?”.  Write the 5 or so things you value most in life, in big letters, on post-it notes and stick them on the wall. They are your goals, and they could be as solid as “good food”, or as intangible as “fairness”.

Step 2

For each goal, ask yourself “why is this important to me?” If it helps you reach something else you value, post that new goal above the first on the wall. So, if good food gives you pleasure, then put pleasure above good food on the wall.  But if your goal helps you get away from something bad, post your new note below the first on the wall.  So, if fairness helps you get away from injustice, put injustice below fairness on the wall.  Your new goal is “to get away from injustice”.  Keep asking “why is that important” for each goal in turn, whether your goal is to go towards it or to get away from it, and posting those answers on the wall, until you find yourself repeating goals that are already on the wall or saying, “this just is important!”  Now you have found your main goals, and your ultimate goals.

Step 3

Rearrange your post-its ensure that your highest goals are at the top and the goals that depend on them sit underheath.  The things you want to get away from (“antigoals?”) should be underneath them, with the worst things at the bottom.  Put your “self-focused” goals on the left and “other-focused” goals on the right.  To show you what I mean, here’s a goal path I made earlier…

This goal path will be more complicated than the one you’ve made, because it’s made from 140 of my clients’ goal paths, after I found the goals they had most in common. I’ve also added some lines between the goals to show how they relate.  The result is a map, where goals are like cities and paths are like roads. It shows where a lot of people want to get to in life, and where they want to get away from!


The Purpose

So how is having a goal path useful? For one thing, you now know where you’re trying to get to in life.  If you remember where you’re trying to get to, you’ll be less distracted by other stuff.  Secondly, you’ve shown yourself that there are ways to get to where you want to go, which should give you hope.    Thirdly, you’ve made visible the conflicts you experience every time you choose between one path or another.  You can start resolving those conflicts by finding out what common destination both conflicting goals lead to. Then you can ask yourself which of your conflicting goals makes a bigger contribution to the distant goal. That may be the more useful path to take.

A goal path makes visible the lifelong journey each of us travels in search of fulfilment. It reveals the dilemmas we all face between getting what we need and giving others what they need. It shows how our aspirations create the pressure that leads to those Google searches for treatment, balance and therapy, to resolve anxiety, time or work problems.  And, amidst the complexity of daily life, it reminds us that we’re ultimately searching for simple things, the long term goals which can resolve our conflicting everyday aspirations.

Back in 1985, I found that my own goal path culminated in two goals, to maximise my life’s value to me and to maximise its value to others.  But each goal seemed to require sacrifice of the other!  Then I realised that if I learned psychology to sort myself out, I could use what I learned to help others sort themselves out and reconcile both goals.  So I got therapy and decided on my fourth career path.   I started to feel less anxious and depressed.  I started to dream of transforming the practice of psychology using software, and 35 years later I’ve developed the software I’m using in my own practice.  Of course, transforming the practice of psychology is still to do!  But … I have hopes!

May your goal path give you hope!  It will show you the dilemmas you need to resolve, and the paths you’ll need to travel in your life’s journey.  Experience and therapy have taught me hard lessons from my own journey that I’m happy to share.  So if you want help with your goal path or help to get to your goals faster, contact me here at Kipapa!

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