I could feel Jarod’s pain come off him almost in waves. “I just cannot believe I am going to work for $15 an hour when I have 19 years of education and a law degree. I don’t want to see friends and admit this is what is happening to me.” He said he had no more ideas of what to do to find a job. Tired all the time, holing up in his apartment and drinking too much in the evenings, he said he could not envision even trying again, after failing to get hired for the last 18 months.
Tara sighed, “I give up. I’m never getting out of this apartment and never going to be able to give my son what I hoped for. Even though I love him, I don’t feel the joy I should when I am with him. There is no way I can afford the time or money to go back to school. I wish I had known how hard getting ahead was going to be once I had a child. I am tired all the time, I cry at the drop of a hat, and I just don’t even feel like I can think about how to make this happen.”
Paul, at 59 years of age, has been trying to get hired as an account manager after he was laid off more than a year ago. “I do not see that I am going to get another job at all. I go to a men’s meeting at the community church hoping the connections and encouragement will keep me going, but we are really just all a bunch of losers: too old and useless as far as the world can see. I have been trying to offer my services as a consultant, and I opened a small office, but it seems like it is too late to build up the world of connections that are necessary to succeed. My wife is fed up with my sitting around the house, but what else is there to do?”
Jarod, Tara and Paul all described symptoms that could be depression. They felt fatigued, were disinterested in activities they used to enjoy, did not feel like getting together with people socially, and were no longer seeing positive futures for themselves. But they were all in situations that were discouraging.
Being discouraged is a state that sounds like depression, but the causes are so different. Typically, being discouraged starts with a tough situation that a person cannot find a way out of. Of course, if you were already depressed, this is more likely to result in a downward spiral, but even when not depressed, on-going failure to achieve a goal can result in mood and mental states that are like depression.
Discouraged thinking makes a rut in your brain that is hard to get out of.
The neural state of discouraged thinking engenders more discouraged thinking. As people feel discouraged, they slip into a habit of negative thoughts—getting into a ‘rut’ that is literally descriptive of brain function. Any time that you repeatedly think the same thought, your brain recognizes that as significant and tries to help you out. It begins making it easier to think that negative thought by providing more blood supply and white matter to speed up processing. Thus, depressed mood and thinking increases in a vicious circle, and finding a pathway out of it gets harder and harder.
Additionally, the low energy, woe-is-me tone that many people have when discouraged is off-putting. Others want to say, “Just get over it and do something else,” which is exactly what they are not capable of at the moment. Where they cannot see another way to act or think, those of us on the outside find it so easy to jump into these scenarios with encouraging words. From the outside we sense the discouragement and want to pump up the energy, offer solutions, solve the problems.
Those of us who want to encourage should notice, though, if we are uncomfortable with the reality that success is not easily achieved and that people who are truly trying may not achieve what they attempt. It is also scary because we may need to believe that the failure to achieve is somehow that person’s fault and would never happen to those of use who are not at the moment failing at anything.
One pathway out of discouragement is to look at lessons from positive psychology that may come in handy for getting out of the rut of discouraged thinking. Positive psychology (see the fantastic work of Barbara Fredrickson in her latest book Love 2.0) promotes the reality that when we make efforts to connect to positive emotions, we promote our long-term survival and success. This is different than coping with adversity. It is getting into the habit of nurturing those emotions and connections that give us strength and hope: two emotions overwhelmed when the tide of discouragement comes over us.
Is it possible to get into a place of positivity when discouragement already sets in? I think it may be, if you know there is a path to get onto. Some encouragement from others may help, but on one’s own, just knowing it could get better may be the first bit of light at the end of the tunnel.
Find a new path for brain activity:
Give up the old goal if you are not achieving it. Before you gasp, I am not saying that one should easily quit when a little more effort may turn the tide. So,
1. Ask yourself if you believe there is one and only one outcome that would make you feel fulfilled or successful. I am suggesting that sometimes we pursue a goal to our detriment when looking around at other possibilities may help us find a different, but still positive, outcome.
2. Even if you do not know what other goal you want, begin to be curious about yourself in a new way. A look at your strengths may surprise you. Check out or take a look at Buckingham’s book Now, Discover Your Strengths or Seligman’s Authentic Happiness. Any of these may help you to start thinking about all of your strength.
3. Consider a trip to a community college career center (or to your alma mater’s center) to take an inventory that may help you think about your interests and abilities. You can also hire a professional to do this kind of inventory in a more sophisticated way, but these are starting points.
4. Then get curious about what other people do. There are a lot of jobs and lots of ways that people start new directions.
Look for inspiration. It is also likely, though, that the depressed symptoms would disappear if one were to get a glimpse of success. The light at the end of the tunnel raises hope which tends to raise activity toward achieving the hoped for goal. But hope is sometimes hard to find—lost along the path of discouragement.
1. Find inspirational literature that resonates with you. There are a host of choices, but if inspiration did not work, you would not be able to find exactly the right ‘Chicken Soup’ book for you. Try the Five Good Minutes Series or read books that tell an inspirational life story, like Michael J. Fox’s or the currently popular Boys in the Boat. If you are not a reader, then check out movies: so many tell stories of turning it around. Many are sports themes like McFarland USA, but there are really so many—along the lines of The Pursuit of Happyness. Pick your favorite genre, and you will find one that can open your eyes to a new way of thinking.
2. Volunteer for something: anything that fits your time frame. It is like a miracle what can happen to an attitude when you are being helpful to someone.
Seeing things from a different perspective may help. As we get discouraged, we restrict our world.
1. Getting outside opens the possibility for awe.Trite though it may sound to you, connecting to something greater than yourself, to which you will not compare yourself, is a good idea. Get near the ocean, or one of the Great Lakes, or watch a glorious sunset, or glimpse a view from up high. The idea is to open yourself when you are in a state of shutting down.
2. Another way to get a new perspective on yourself is to really go inside by meditating. The process of regular meditation can begin to open your mind and cause your brain cells to start connecting in new ways for a new look at what matters to you, what there may be that satisfies you, or even just to start firing with new ideas—breaking out of the rut you have gotten into. Some people seek a transcendent experience with meditation, but not all people get to that state. Yet, mindful awareness causes you to see things a new way.
If you were hoping I would be able to tell you how to get what you have been striving for, I will have disappointed you with this blog. I don’t know any fast cures for discouragement, but I know that connecting to positivity opens doors to new ways of thinking and acting, and that, alone, is the path out of the discouragement rut.