Succeeding with Mental Illness: Slow and Steady

Succeeding with Mental Illness: Slow and Steady

Slow and steady wins the race. Or so we’ve been told since we were children.

But does anyone really buy this? Does anyone really think that slow and steady wins the promotion? Or slow and steady gets the new car? Or that slow and steady cures mental illness?

No. We don’t buy this. We want things now. We believe we have to put in Herculean effort and hope that the world recognizes us and rewards us for it, immediately. Fast and furious wins the race.

But if you suffer from major depression, bipolar disorder or another kind of mental illness that can sap your energy, fast and furious may no longer be an option. When you’re too ill to get off the couch to answer your phone, fast and furious is just a foggy memory of someone else’s life. When you’re that ill, you feel like you’ve dropped out of the race entirely.

Here are three tips that can help you cope:

1. Let go of unrealistic expectations.
One of the things people with a mental illness have to let go of is the idea of the Life Grand Prize. I’m not saying you can’t reach lofty goals -- you may be able to, but aiming there from your couch probably isn’t reasonable.

It’s time to adjust expectations. The Big Win is now doing the dishes -- and there’s nothing wrong with that.

2. When you feel overwhelmed, stop and reassess.
People with a mental illness often feel like they can’t get off the couch because they feel overwhelmed. Their entire apartment is dirty and they don’t have the energy to clean it. There are five loads of laundry to do. There are six bills to pay. There is nothing in the refrigerator. And getting off the couch means attending to all of it, which is impossible in a very sick state.

But that’s okay. Because inch by inch, you can do it all. You just need to adjust your thinking. Don’t think about the entire apartment being dirty. Think only about the tiny task you can handle that day. Maybe it’s cleaning the kitchen. Maybe it’s doing the dishes. Maybe it’s wiping down the counters. It doesn’t really matter. What matters is that you take one, tiny step towards your goal. You inch there. You don’t worry about the mile. The mile will take care of itself. All you need to do is take that inch.

Because as it turns out, our childhood lesson was right:

Slow and steady does win the race, even if the outside world has tried to prove otherwise. Inch-by-inch we can cross the finish line -- even with a mental illness -- if we just put the finish line in a reasonable place. We need to beat back the preconceived notions of what we “should” do or what we “have to” do and look at what we can do.

And when we reassess what we can do and create reasonable expectations, we flourish in our success rather than dwell in perceived failure. This success spurs us onto future successes tomorrow, and the next day and the next.

3. Know that you can achieve success.
What people sometimes forget is that simply surviving a mental illness is success. Not everyone can do that. But just sitting on your couch, you have already succeeded. Now it’s simply time to take that next step. And how we choose to make that step can predetermine our success. So it’s important to adjust expectations and know that our success is real, even if it doesn’t look like someone else’s.

Medically reviewed in February 2020.

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