Tips and tricks to motivate yourself at your lowest ebb
July 2, 2013 4:36 PM   Subscribe

Lifehackfilter : regardless of the precise circumstances, at your absolute lowest ebb what have you done or where have you found that thing that helped you turn the corner, to spur you on, to start the recovery?

It has been 8 months since I went through a marriage separation and I have recently received my decree absolut. I was also made redundant at the start of the year and I have been out of work coming up to 3 months now as the gardening leave period has expired. My kids are everything to me and when I am with them everything is ok and I have some semblance of hope. When they leave it hits me hard. I have some good but few true friends but none who live geographically close to me and my family live overseas. Trying to make new friendships at 31 seems like a daunting task and what little self esteem I ever possessed is shot to pieces. I cannot afford therapy. I am not religious and cannot take comfort in faith. I have tried to watch my diet, cut expenditure severely, get regular exercise, listen to music to calm, read great literature to gain perspective, engage in art, tried yoga for my well being, retail therapy to 'treat myself', have kept applying for jobs and have had interviews but crashed and burned - all of it feels like I am just going through the motions right now and I am in a rapid downwards slide. I try to remain humble and hopeful and I am determined to stop the slide.
posted by numberstation to Human Relations (30 answers total) 62 users marked this as a favorite
Everyone else will say THERAPY so I'll let them do that.

At my lowest ebb there were no tricks or tips whatsoever. I simply had to keep going, muddling through the awful days. Just going through the motions: go to work, come home, wait til dark, go to bed.

Gradually some of the things that had caused my internal awfulness worked themselves out (I was also dealing with a divorce and, shortly afterwards, several devastating family crises, and then finally unemployment also). It just took a really, really long time for my brain to come to grips with things, and nothing sped that up.

There came a point at which I actually felt like doing something, but not much. So I did something, but not much. I kept bombing interviews, but then eventually I got a job through a different route, etc. Then I felt like I could do more, so I did more, and started exercising. It's been about five years since the eye of the storm as it were; I'm still coping with things internally, but externally I am pretty put together, and things feel worthwhile most days.

Your determination to stop the slide and find the magic trick may be in fact forcing you to focus all your attention on feeling shitty. This may be counterproductive to feeling less shitty, I dunno, your brain isn't my brain. Maybe just allow it, instead of fighting? Like a tantruming toddler, let it just wear itself out and get bored and move on to something else?
posted by like_a_friend at 4:45 PM on July 2, 2013 [6 favorites]

I find that music really helps. I've made a ton of playlists that help with each mood and I just listen to them over and over and over. Some are full of sad songs, sometimes it helps to just give over to the sadness for half an hour and let yourself cry. Some have songs that help me feel better and think about all the good things I have in my life.

Are there any volunteer opportunities in your area? Having a reason to get up and dressed is a great thing. Also feeling like you are helping out can really boost your self-esteem.

I've been walking a lot lately and that really helps too.

I'm sorry you're going through this. Memail any time if you just want to talk.
posted by dawkins_7 at 4:54 PM on July 2, 2013 [2 favorites]

The interpersonal theory of suicide might be relevant here. I'm not saying you are suicidal or will start feeling that way, but I think it is still relevant to someone who feels like they are spiraling down and down and feeling worse and worse.

The theory is essentially that a person is at the greatest risk for suicide when three things happen at the same time 1) the person feels disconnected from others; 2) the person feels like a burden on others 3) the person has the capacity to commit suicide.

It sounds like 1 and 2 are really relevant for you here.

1) Feeling disconnected from others.

-You just got divorced
-Your close friends live far away
-Your family lives overseas
-You feel daunted by making new friends at your age
-Your kids aren't always there. (Looking at it this way it makes total sense that you feel a lot better when your kids are around.)

2) Feeling like a burden on others.

-what little self esteem I ever possessed is shot to pieces.

-"I was also made redundant at the start of the year and I have been out of work coming up to 3 months now"

I had a period when I was laid off and receiving UI, so not to project on to you, but I think it is very, very, very common for people to start feeling almost a bit useless/burdensome after they get laid off even though there's no reason to. At one point I also had to have a phone call with the unemployment benefits bureau where this really unpleasant man made me feel like a leeching piece of shit. It didn't feel good. I'm also struck by the language "made redundant." Maybe that's just a fluke of phrasing or maybe that's the language that they used with you, but maybe it's how you feel about it too? I don't think anyone likes to feel redundant.

So, I think it might help to see what you can do about 1 and 2. Things like shopping may help at certain times in their own ways, and things like eating healthfully may be good for you in their own ways too. But they don't address 1 and 2 at all.

Some ideas for 1):

-Is it possible to increase the amount that you see your kids?
-You can volunteer for Big Brother/Big Sisters (that's also helpful for 2)
-You can join a support group for people dealing with divorce, or a support group for single parents, or anything else you might relate to.

Normally when adults ask about making friends I suggest sports teams. But in my understanding of this theory, it's not so much just being around others that people need. It's being around others and having some kind of intimacy with them (romantic or platonic or familial, etc). I'm trying to think of ideas for situations that create intimacy faster or right away. So I'm not saying sports teams or regular volunteering are bad ideas here. They could be really good ideas, it might just take a lot longer to feel intimacy with the other people there.

But, I think volunteering would be great for 2). You can volunteer and make a huge, tangible difference that you can see the results of. A simple example is delivering groceries to senior citizens. Also, for some medical procedures, a hospital will not let the patient go home under their own power, they have to get picked up by someone who will drive them. But so many people don't have someone to do that. So some hospitals have volunteer programs where you can do that for people. You would know that you are really helping someone who really needed you, and I think that can help
posted by cairdeas at 5:18 PM on July 2, 2013 [5 favorites]

Therapy. (Individual therapists may be willing to work on a sliding scale according to your income. Please don't let cost stop you from seeking help if you feel you need it.)
Frequently reminding myself that (just like good times) bad times cannot last forever, even if it feels like they will never end.
Finding moments for myself/my self care.

"all of it feels like I am just going through the motions right now"
Because you are. And that's exactly what you have to do to pull through. It's the fake it till you make it school of thought.
posted by fireandthud at 5:31 PM on July 2, 2013

I could have written something very like this ten years ago - relationship, job, kid, everything. Here are a few thoughts that worked for me, hopefully some of them will be helpful to you.

Don't knock going through the motions. Going through the motions is what keeps you alive until you have the energy to do more.

Take a day or two and get out of town, maybe someplace scenic. If you're not working, you can probably get less expensive lodging since you're not constrained to traveling on the weekend. I managed a vacation where I took public transit and then hiked to a Zen retreat center's guesthouse midweek.

Do what you can to maintain your connections with people. I had what I called the Five-Point Plan, and it started with "First, be more social." Reconnecting with friends really helped. I'm far from a manic extravert, but being around people - even if that just meant going out to a movie by myself - was also good.

Other Points on the Plan were taking care of my mental health (for me that included sliding-scale therapy), my physical health (hiking, and not neglecting to eat), and my immediate environment (keeping the house from descending into chaos).
posted by expialidocious at 5:43 PM on July 2, 2013 [3 favorites]

Don't knock going through the motions. Going through the motions is what keeps you alive until you have the energy to do more.


for me, an approach was, 'Clean Something'. I could be a wreck, but damn, my kitchen was spotless - even behind the appliances.
posted by j_curiouser at 5:54 PM on July 2, 2013 [9 favorites]

I always feel like I'm going to get banned for saying this, but praying almost constantly was what helped me.

I also stuck close to my friends. I was careful not to get tooooo clingy to the point where I was burdensome - not that I hid what I was going through, just that I tried to make sure I wasn't the only one doing the talking and remember I wasn't the only person on earth with problems, etc.

And I affirm that going through the motions is essential. You may want to cut down on activities that aren't necessary to avoid further calamity (e.g. you keep looking for work, every day). Maybe you can get out there and do stuff, but I personally found that, when my whole body felt like lead, the advice to exercise wasn't getting much further than theory. I wish I could've at least dragged myself out for a half-hour walk. But then I would've had to shower... so, maybe I could've at least done an exercise video in the house? Or... or... no, how about just lying on the floor for half an hour. Maybe make a minute of that half-hour the Sit-Up minute? Eh, I'll have to work up to that. But... at least I'm lying on the floor for half an hour each day. It takes *effort* to get down on the floor. I could talk about getting up again, but that's half an hour away, let's just deal with right now, shall we?
posted by tel3path at 6:00 PM on July 2, 2013 [3 favorites]

You say you try to get regular exercise, but what kind and to what purpose? The feelings of achievement and gradual improvement can be helpful, but for me it seems still more important to get tired. If you can bring yourself to it, get the type of exercise that makes you sleep like a baby.
posted by springload at 6:22 PM on July 2, 2013

I've myself been going through a lot of stuff for a long time now. What keeps me going is something you yourself wrote:

"I try to remain humble and hopeful and I am determined to stop the slide."

That is the essence of who you are at your very core.
There's some tiny part of myself that keeps alight, burning, and lets me hold on to the belief that this is not IT, and that I've got to keep going to try and make it better.

Also, the knowledge from past hardships that as tough as things were in that moment, in retrospect the hardships have always left me with more wisdom, strength, and skills to tackle the next thing that comes up. Sometimes it feels like its a series of one crappy thing after another, but that's how it is sometimes.

Cliche as it is, hang on to that tiny part of yourself that keeps telling you this is not it and there's more for you to grow into as a person.

You're going through an incredibly tough time right now getting banged up on all sides, and it won't be a straight linear path to "good", whatever it may be. Just keep listening to yourself, and trust yourself that you'll get through it. Good luck.

PS: I second j_curiouser's advice, cleaning helps calm me down too. Life may be a big mess, but hell, I've got the cleanest home on the block the middle of a crisis!
posted by greta_01 at 6:37 PM on July 2, 2013

I applied for things. A conference. A job. Grad school. An artists retreat. It organizes you and gets you ready for something great to happen. Then, maybe an acceptance comes.

And your life changes.
posted by 3491again at 7:35 PM on July 2, 2013 [2 favorites]

I am not a Christian, but I learned to have faith that because things had been better in the past, they would be again in the future, and if I just kept breathing, and taking one step after another, it would get better. It did.

I left a 20 year marriage about 2.5 years ago. I was glad to go, but the isolation, the loss of the future I'd planned, no-one to look out for me, along with lifelong depression, anxiety and ADHD made me crumble. I flaked on several clients, made some poor dating decisions, and was often so sad, so low, I wondered why I kept on.

Since then, I've had ups and downs, and the ups have been worth it. I made the choice to get my health sorted as much as possible, and decided to start studying again. For the most part, I'm enjoying my life, and the bits I'm not enjoying are still experiences I value.

So faith & time, and keeping slogging at it. Even if you don't know why you're doing it, pick something and do it. A walk, a course, a trip. Just keep going. It will get better.
posted by b33j at 8:33 PM on July 2, 2013 [2 favorites]

It sounds like being a good parent is something that's really important to you. If that's the case, hold onto that like it's your North star. Every decision you make about what you're going to do on a given day, ask yourself which course will help you become the best parent you can be.

If you think education is an important value to pass onto your kids, find a way to learn new things, and share them with your kids. If having adventures is an important value that you want your kids to learn, find a way to have an adventure - go someplace you've never gone, turn left instead of right, draw on a sidewalk with chalk, sing in public - anything that seems adventurous to you - and be sure to tell your kids about it.

Surviving and overcoming adversity is a great lesson for kids. Believe me, they'll need it sometime in their life. So if you can show them how to do it, when their day of need comes, they'll be able to remember what you shared with them and they'll have hope. They'll know that you made it, so they can too.

BTW, if you think therapy would be helpful but you can't afford it, look into self-help books. Just browse at the library until you find one that speaks to you.

You're going through a hard time - treat yourself gently. That's important for your kids to learn how to do as well.
posted by jasper411 at 8:35 PM on July 2, 2013

I put one foot in front of the other, even if it means picking my foot up with my hands and moving it. Can you work on good habits? Maybe make a list of things you're grateful for every day? I've been frustrated at work though I've actually felt a little proud of myself recently because I haven't called in sick. I keep going. That probably sounds dumb but when I turn in my time sheet and think, I did it, another two weeks in, I feel a little bit of pride. Find something that gives you that little bit of pride and hang on to it. It's a building block - eventually you can put another block on top of it.
posted by kat518 at 8:41 PM on July 2, 2013 [4 favorites]

This is going to sound dumb probably, but at my lowest moment, but makes me feel better is to have a list. What I do is make a list of things I want in my life, so for you it might be (1) make new friends (2) get new job (3) get new partner (4) get healthy. Then under these goals I put down all the little things that I can do to accomplish these goals. So make new friends I would put (a) volunteer with x organization y times a week; (b) join x,y,and z meetups and attend x many meetups a week (c) join a parent's group --other parents make great potential friends (d) metafilter meetups (e) a Unitarian church (you don't have to be religious); under finding a job, I would put (a) go to x,y,z networking events(b) set up informational interviews (c) contact alumni from college (d) see if you cand find a mentor (e) write cover letters and send resumes (finding a job is more about networking than anything else, and it sounds like you aren't doing enough of it; under new partner, I would put set up ok Cupid account, go to x,y, z dating event.

Then once I had done all that, I would take my list and try and plan my week around it. Since you get depressed when the kiddos are not around I would try to keep busy without them. So I would basically jam my schedule full of networking, meetups, volunteering, etc. So every day I could wake up and say I have x,y,z to do and accomplish. This works for me, I swear. I made a list that eventually led to some good friends and a husband. Also, earlier in the year, I went through something horrible and the way I got through was to every day have something planned toward the things I want to accomplish in life. So I want to write a novel, so every day I would schedule a few hours of writing time. So I knew if I stuck to it, I would least have accomplished a little something with my day even if I was going through something really upsetting.
posted by bananafish at 9:02 PM on July 2, 2013 [7 favorites]

Counterintuitive : Don't pick yourself up. Rather, let yourself go. Sigh and give up and let go. All the way. Utterly. Complete resignation.

If you reach that point, a reboot happens. Many have written about this, many more (including me) have experienced it.

Letting go is a beautiful thing, and the gateway to all happiness and creativity on this Earth. It's hard to do, even for people who meditate regularly, but when circumstances compell it, seize the opportunity. "Oh, I give up!" is the most auspicious phrase you can say to yourself. Once you reach that point, life gets real easy and your seeming troubles seem laughable. A tailwind of bliss powers your next steps. No need to scheme or contrive, it all just works out as a flow.

Don't take my word for it. Try it one day
posted by Quisp Lover at 9:02 PM on July 2, 2013 [10 favorites]

Meditation & yoga. Going to hot yoga (not Bikram) and sweating all the garbage inside of me out, focusing on breathing, trying to make my thoughts go quiet. It started as exercise, but there was a period of nearly a year when I was getting down on the ground in child's pose every day, trying to stay calm as the storm in my head raged itself into exhaustion. I was basically praying, although I didn't realize it at the time.

Even if you're not religious, I think finding a community of people and an arranged time where you go - every day or every week or every month - and think about the world and what's out there that's bigger than yourself, is really helpful. Whether it's Catholic church or Unitarian church or Quaker Meeting or a Buddhist meditation session doesn't really matter. I feel like part of what makes suffering so awful is that it nowadays gets shoved off to the side, until it starts to seem this sort of secret, shameful thing that you don't want to bother other people with, as though there's something freakish and broken about it; as though only normal condition is happiness. But raw, pointless suffering is part of what it means to be alive. For me, reading books by people who accepted that - who weren't arguing against it or trying to rationalize it away but simply acknowledged it as true - was really important. A lot of these are faith-based; if you're the kind of person whose skin immediately crawls at the mention of any kind of higher power, they won't be for you, but you can certainly get a lot out of them even if you're not within the tradition. One that I always recommend is Thich Nhat Hanh's The Heart of the Buddha's Teaching.

Additionally, since I started writing this comment, I've been itching to recommend this essay, though I truly don't know why. In a way, it's the worst thing to recommend for someone who is struggling; it's about the loss of a child, and it is absolutely devastating. Please don't read it if you're feeling fragile. But it is the most unsentimental, unsparing, emotionally and intellectually rigorous answer to the question, 'How do we continue to live in the face of the awfulness of the world?' that I have ever encountered. It doesn't make me feel comforted; it only makes me feel less alone. Aleksandr Hemon's The Aquarium
posted by pretentious illiterate at 9:14 PM on July 2, 2013 [8 favorites]

A lot of good advice here. My own contribution is this: Winston Churchill said "If you're going through hell, keep going." This helped me when I hit a low point in my life.
posted by softlord at 9:27 PM on July 2, 2013 [2 favorites]

Romance novels, the trashy historicals and light-hearted fluff like Jennifer Crusie, are good because they're fast fun reads with a positive happy ending. Ellis Peters and Terry Pratchett are also very humanist book series. Poetry is good too. Get an anthology and see if something resonates. Gerald Manley Hopkins got me through my father's dying. Civilization as a game got me through a bad hospitalization - you're building something which is very absorbing.

Right now, I'm using a colouring book for stress - Secret Garden with a pack of coloured gel pens. You might want to repaint your house or bake cakes - just something small that you do with your hands and have something concrete at the end. It's like returning a little order and beauty to the world when it's bleak and chaotic.
posted by viggorlijah at 10:29 PM on July 2, 2013 [2 favorites]

YMMV, but what has always helped me in such situations is, simply, rest. Mark out a part of the day where you will do nothing but devote yourself to your own comfort, whatever that involves - a hot chocolate, a delicious meal, a brainless but enjoyable novel or sitcom. Please don't think of this as a waste of time. You need space to relax and just be for a little while everyday.
posted by Ziggy500 at 2:07 AM on July 3, 2013 [1 favorite]

Distraction, distraction, distraction. Basically just always keeping myself and my mind occupied so I wasn't sitting there stewing. A lot of these were brain-numbing activities, like movies or video games. It's a balance to not get obsessive and neglect yourself in distraction though.

But I'd try not to think about how things were bad and eventually, I didn't need to think about it anymore, because they weren't bad.

And I'm not devout in any capacity really, but I found things like Tiny Buddha really helpful, and even things like self-help and self-love blogs like Mara Glatzel or Bene Brown's. I recommend her book, too. I tend to get down when I'm trying to fall asleep because my mind tends to churn, but somehow, reading through those kind of things before bed, helped me feel more positive and hopeful.

Having perspective helped me too. Just realizing that this big. huge. deal. in my life was really kind of inconsequential, that the world wasn't ending just because it happened to me, that I had people that loved me and a lot to be grateful for. That there was no 'time limit' on what I wanted to do, or be, or when to find someone else. That I'd rather be alone than with someone wrong for me anyway.

And that it was okay to be by myself, that it was okay to fail. That I didn't need to be perfect. That I was allowing myself to feel external pressure (and this pressure seems very real) but that pressure wasn't reality, and I didn't have to be weighed down by it. That it wasn't my external conditions making me feel bad-- it was just me.

And I'm not sure if this happens to you, but it can be super demoralizing to be judged for being unemployed because we both place so much emphasis on working, and so much value by what we contribute.

You're okay, even though you haven't found something yet. You will. Don't worry. Hang in there.

Oh and I realized that although my job sucked and my relationship didn't work out, I was perfectly okay as I was. I was a good person and I deserved good things.

And that it was never, ever, too late to begin anew.
posted by Dimes at 3:17 AM on July 3, 2013 [2 favorites]

It was a long time ago, but in a bad patch--terrible patch, actually--I quit smoking. Gave me something to concentrate on that was difficult, fully engaging, and all positive.

It worked.
posted by fivesavagepalms at 6:43 AM on July 3, 2013 [1 favorite]

Since it seems no one has recommended any books:

I highly recommend 100 Ways to Motivate Yourself by Steve Chandler. Good things follow. I also really like Dale Carnegie's How to Stop Worrying and Start Living.

These books can't change your immediately change your specific circumstances, but they can change your mind, which has always been my battle. Good things follow from a good mindset in my experience.

I refer to these texts again and again when I'm feeling down or 'stuck' in a negative rut.

I've also gone through rounds of therapy and even when I'm internally kicking and screaming about being there; it's been helpful, but these books are there when I cannot even begin to bring myself to schedule therapy.
posted by xiaolongbao at 6:54 AM on July 3, 2013

List the habits you want to cultivate in your life. Then keep a list and do them every day. Go through motions, but make at least a few of them motions that you can be proud of. Things take time.
posted by ead at 9:12 AM on July 3, 2013

Also note: daily. Build habits daily. Other frequencies are much harder. Daily cycle is the one our minds respond to best. Prefer a small habit daily over a larger one non-daily.
posted by ead at 9:14 AM on July 3, 2013

Every time I find myself feeling hopeless or depressed or alone, I just remind myself that not everything is about me. I'm not religious, and I don't know why I exist in the world - faith isn't very comforting for me, either. But by my own standards, being happy isn't enough of a life goal to motivate me. I want to die knowing I was of use to someone other than myself.

Shift your focus outward, rather than inward. It's almost impossible to feel like a loser when you're expending energy to help someone else. Pick a cause you believe in and volunteer. This will also get you out into the world and meeting/connecting with new people - plus it will look great on a resume' and will be a great talking point in future job interviews.

Or, just informally contribute to the general positivity of the universe. Tell someone they look great today. Smile at someone and watch them smile back. Do something nice for a neighbor. Random acts of kindness count. And the responses you get to them will be very, very good for your self-esteem.

And when things are really, really bad, I've found reminders like "I can take anything for X days" or "in a month I won't even remember this bullshit" to be extremely helpful. :)
posted by kythuen at 9:30 AM on July 3, 2013

Has anyone said "copious amounts of MDMA"?

Because I've, uh, heard of that working for some people.

Note: I have also seen that this is not universally effective.
posted by Parasite Unseen at 11:38 AM on July 3, 2013

Just a small tip and I don't mean it to sound glib. Running is a great mood-changer I have found. Something about the repetition, the small sense of achievement and those endorphins. A morning run really can set up a couple of positive days.
posted by 0 answers at 1:27 PM on July 3, 2013

Response by poster: Thank you all. Some great ideas here and a lot of food for thought.
posted by numberstation at 4:50 PM on July 3, 2013

I agree with the advice above about making goals. What worked for me was visualise exactly where I realistically wanted to be, and working backwards so I knew which steps I had to take. Once I had an action plan, it was a lot easier to take a leap of faith and go for it.

I also have this trick which sounds kind of crazy but I am pretty into Christianity, so I imagine Jesus as an unconditionally supportive older brother figure (who looks modern in my imagination) and he puts his arm around me and tells me that sometimes it gets worse before it gets better, but this is the right thing to do and he knows that I'll be okay. This helps me get out of bed and do the thing even if I'm not too sure. I just flinch, look away, and click the 'send' button, or knock on that door. YMMV.

And do things that make you happy! If you feel that being around your kids is therapeutic and makes you happy then you need to do that! Look after yourself, exercise every day, eat nutritious food, stuff like that makes you feel better, and when you feel better you will be able to handle problems better, so you need to show yourself that basic self-respect even when you might not feel like it.

Good luck! These dark days can be really, really hard, but I bet you are learning a lot about hardship and persistence and courage. And when things are good you will really be grateful and happy for it in a way that you never were before. Sorry to end this with a cheesy quote, but it really helps me: Martin Luther King, Jr. - "Only in the darkness can you see the stars."
posted by dinosaurprincess at 10:51 PM on July 3, 2013 [1 favorite]

What a shock to your system! You're being forced to have a whole lot of 'me time!'

It sounds to me like you have spent so much time being a mother and wife that you've forgotten some of the other aspects of yourself. Maybe you feel misshapen, and you don't know what to do with a hole you might feel is there. But you will grow to fill out the hole, don't worry. : ) You just need to recalibrate your identity and allow yourself to bring more into your life.

A few ideas:

* Connect more with the world around you. Don't isolate yourself.
* Laugh - make regular time to watch some funny movies or tv shows.
* Make a note of the things you are grateful for.
* If you aren't working, have a reason to get dressed up, out of the house and talking to people every day.
* Have your goals and work towards them, like you always have.
* Have ways to keep busy.
* Bust out those things you always wanted to do but you couldn't.
* You can balance your need to nurture your beautiful children with your own goals and projects, and you could also direct some of that amazing energy towards others in the community who would appreciate it very much.
* Quit the retail therapy. That's a trap. Spend on things that will help you reach your goals.
* Make a note of the things you are doing well. It sounds like that's a lot.

31 is soooooooooo young. You have the rest of your life ahead of you, and I'm sure you will enjoy it!
posted by inkypinky at 8:20 AM on July 4, 2013 [1 favorite]

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