Many of my clients suffer from being overwhelmed by the thought of doing even the simplest tasks. This is an often overlooked but very common symptom for people with depression, anxiety, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), bipolar disorder, and other mental health problems.
Sometimes the impossible tasks are things they can’t get themselves to do because they dread doing them even though they were previously able to motivate themselves. Things like paying bills, scrubbing the kitchen floor, doing the dishes, or sorting paperwork for taxes. These tasks loom larger now as they do not feel well enough to do them. Sometimes “the impossible tasks” are things the person would really love to do but are unable to get motivated to do. Things like playing with their pet, exercising, calling friends, carrying out job tasks, and picking up the messy house so it’s a more pleasant place to live. They’re unable to do even these desired tasks.
When even a simple task seems impossible, author M. Molly Backes called this The Impossible Task. How is that possible? Like everything else about our mental and physical health – it’s a brain thing. In this case, it’s about motivation. But wait, my clients protest. They tell me the frustrating thing is that they are motivated to do these tasks … until it is time to do them. The day goes by and the dishes remain undone. So let me explain some of the relevant aspects of motivation.
If you’re stuck on The Impossible Task(s) hopefully this explanation about motivation and the brain will offset the guilt, shame, disappointment, and confusion you’re feeling. If you’re reading this because it sounds like someone you care about, I hope it will help you understand that they are not “lazy.” This is something very different. They don’t understand it either. It’s not that they just don’t want to do something or can’t be bothered. Doing The Impossible Task(s) literally feels like the most difficult thing in the world.
As you will see this feeling is not their fault. They aren’t lazy. It’s a symptom of their mental illness for which they need tolerance and compassion from those who love them.
Motivation and the Brain
There are many possible reasons for not feeling motivated. Everything from dreading negative consequences to finding something unpleasant to being too tired, injured, physically unable, or being in too much physical pain, fearing failure or negative reactions, just to name a few. But as anyone stuck in The Impossible Task knows, this is something different. This is not about any of the customary reasons for choosing to put off or not do something. This is about not being able to do very much at all.
As neuroscientist Dr. Alex Korb explains in his book The Upward Spiral, the motivation to act is “the result of a conversation between three parts of the brain: the pre-frontal cortex, the nucleus accumbens,and the dorsal striatum. The prefrontal cortex [the only one of the three involving conscious intention] chooses what to do based on what’s good for us in the long term and creates new action. The nucleus accumbens chooses what to do based on what’s most immediately pleasurable [and thus motivates us to do it]. The dorsal striatum chooses what to do based on what we have done before,” habits we do routinely with little thought.
All three of these areas of the brain depend heavily on an ample supply of dopamine, the pleasure-providing neurotransmitters. In the case of The Impossible Task, due to the state of one’s brain, none of these areas are getting enough dopamine to motivate us to act. As crude and overly simplified as this comparison is, you can think of dopamine as the gas that runs a car engine. The person suffering from The Impossible Task is out of gas. The tank is empty. When they try to step on the gas, nothing happens.
In Depression. In the case of depression, the lack of available dopamine, and Serotine, another feel-good neurotransmitter, causes serious problems with motivation. The lack of dopamine in the prefrontal cortex means there is not enough energy to weigh options, make decisions, solve problems and take action.
Lack of dopamine in the nucleus accumbens means things that used to be enjoyable no longer are. This state is called anhedonia, not taking pleasure in anything. It too is very common in depression, like a man who enjoyed caring for and riding his horse every day but became unable to get to the stables. He felt terrible about this, ashamed, guilty, and fearful of harming his horse. At night he tells himself tomorrow will be different. Tomorrow he will go. But tomorrow he can’t.
Without enough dopamine, in the dorsal striatum, we don’t have the wherewithal to do even the routine tasks we once did automatically day in and day out without thinking. Like the woman who has done her dishes after eating all her life but now can’t “get to them.” To her embarrassment, they are piling up in the sink for days. Without dopamine in the dorsal striatum, she isn’t motivated to do anything.
In Anxiety and Panic. In the case of anxiety and panic, the brain is sending out an alert that a threat is present. Without sufficient dopamine and serotonin, the prefrontal cortex cannot intervene to check out the validity of that threat, calm the activated parts of the brain and take any needed problem-solving action. We remain on high alert and can either take the fight, flight or freeze. When we freeze we are essentially immobilized and can do nothing, but we may get stuck in incessant worry and rumination. With flight, we avoid doing anything but protecting ourselves from an ambiguous threat. Sometimes this means escaping into substance abuse or other addictive behaviors.
In ADHD. In the case of ADHD, the harder a person tries the less blood flow, oxygen and needed neurotransmitters are available to the prefrontal cortex to carry out the tasks at hand. Since proper prefrontal functioning is required to create a new action, the person with ADHD becomes disorganized and discouraged and eventually gives up trying to do anything about what needs doing. Parents and teachers often don’t understand how truly impossible doing homework or chores can be for ADHD children. Without dopamine to fuel the nucleus accumbens, this lack of motivation extends even to things that were once enjoyable if they become more challenging as participating in a sport at a higher age level.
People with ADHD are often motivated by impulse or highly stimulating and pleasurable things, confusing others all the more. If they can do that, why not their schoolwork? But that kind of motivation is activated from the nucleus accumbens, not the prefrontal cortex. It’s impulsive. Thus we can see thoughtless, even dangerous, behavior and choices. This doesn’t change their difficulty with The Impossible Task, however, because those tasks are not usually highly stimulating or tremendously enjoyable.
Chronic vs. episodic. For most of my clients, feelings of The Impossible Tasks is a chronic condition. It continues throughout the period of their illnesses. When they improve, it improves too. But there are many factors determining dopamine levels from genetics to levels of other neurotransmitters, environmental conditions, food, supplement, mood, sleep, exercise, drugs physical health, and even social standing to name a few. This means
that incidents of the feelings of the Impossible Task may come and go for some people. Struggling on some days or for briefer periods and not on others. This fluctuation can make it harder for us to understand or predict what we will be able to do. It also confuses others who don’t understand. If you did things like the other day, why can’t you do this today?”
Getting Past the Impossible Task.
As with any aspect of mental illness, there are many approaches that can help manage the workings of the brain that keep us stuck on The Impossible Task. An approach that will work for one person with one type of condition may not work for another person with a different condition. I can help you find the right one for you. Here are several things I and other therapists have found helpful I’d like to share now
First, let me tell you about some things that seem to others would be helpful but that my clients have found to only be marginally helpful or not helpful at all. These suggestions tend to make them feel worse because they can’t do them either. You have probably tried them and wondered why these ideas work for other people but not for you.
Here is a definition: ‘Pairing a task with something pleasant?
Not Usually Helpful.
As mentioned above, people have myriad reasons for not being motivated to do certain daunting tasks. The following suggestions are often helpful for people who are overwhelmed by the enormity of difficulty of specific tasks, like packing or unpacking to move, writing a term paper, or doing the taxes. But my clients who are stymied by doing even simple tasks they have done successfully at other times and even really want to do but can’t, have not found them helpful.
Breaking tasks down into smaller pieces can be helpful for people who are dealing with The Impossible Task. Instead, of aiming to clean up a messy kitchen, setting a goal to just clear the kitchen table might help them get started. Here is an example of a woman for whom that was helpful. She was responsible for clearing out her mother’s entire household upon her death all by herself. She was overwhelmed and anxious about this but her motivation, in general, was not the issue. She was able to do other things that needed doing like driving to pick up prescriptions, making needed personal phone calls, doing her job, etc. She just didn’t know how to tackle this enormous responsibility. Breaking the tasks down in one small step at a time was helpful, i.e. starting with her mother’s clothes closet, and then moving on to small segments.
My clients who are stuck on The Impossible Task do not find this helpful. They find themselves as unable to do a small task at times as a larger one.
Paring a task with something pleasant. To use the house-cleaning example again, listen to your favorite music or while watching a favorite show while cleaning. This might be helpful for people with other types of motivation issues but my clients don’t find it helpful with The Impossible Task. They can usually listen to their favorite music, do puzzles online or sometimes watch a show, but these things don’t help them get on with The Impossible Task.
I often find that for my clients any idea of doing anything with another person becomes another Impossible Task. It’s not an appealing idea either because of the embarrassment they already feel about not being able to do things or because calling a friend is itself an Impossible Task. Take the man who was distressed about not being able to get out to ride his horse. In the session, we agreed that arranging to ride with a friend might help him to get to the stables. Oops. Bad idea. Although riding with his friend had always been enjoyable before not anymore. When his friend called to ask about riding together, they set a day to meet, but that morning he couldn’t get himself to go out. He was humiliated and more depressed than ever to have stood up to his friend.
Making suggestions like this forgets that when it comes to The Impossible Task even pleasurable tasks are impossible. I’ve found that the disappointment and shame of trying to do pleasurable things make matter worse. One client was indignant. She told me, “Don’t you think that if I could do that I would have?” I haven’t suggested it again.
Promise yourself a reward. Again, this is a great idea for motivating someone who has other reasons for not doing something, but not with The Impossible Task. If you remember there is no, or not enough, gas in the engine to kick start the motivation to act. That would hold true for either the task or the reward. Those who have never faced the Impossible Tasks tend to keep thinking that somehow those facing this have control over their problem.
Remind yourself of how much you enjoyed doing or having completed the task in the past. The idea here is that remembering how much you had once enjoyed something will motivate you enough to do it now. This is perhaps the worse suggestion anyone can make to someone facing The Impossible Task. Most likely they already too often remember what they once enjoyed and feel really awful that it isn’t that way anymore.
Awful that now they can’t enjoy the task or the feelings of accomplishment they once had doing these tasks.
It can be heart-breaking.
Usually Been Helpful
Here are a number of things that my clients do find helpful in dealing with The Impossible Task.
Having a physical and mental evaluation and getting needed treatment.
I begin with this as a first step to overcoming The Impossible Task because fatigue and an inability to motivate oneself can be symptoms of other physical and psychological illnesses. Unless you know what is causing this problem you can’t begin the road to recovery. Fatigue and lack of motivation are symptoms of autoimmune diseases like fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue, and multiple sclerosis, thyroid deficiency, heart problems, and many others. As mentioned above, it is also a symptom of many psychological conditions, something as common as burnout.
Often when my clients first come to see me they do not have a clear diagnosis or an understanding of the nature of their diagnosis. They especially don’t know what is going on in their brain to cause their symptoms and how they can help their brain function better. In addition, in psychotherapy tailored to that condition, there may be a medication that can help or they may need a change in their medication. I’ve found that medication does not always help, though, and in some situations causes or contributes to their problems with motivation. With a thorough physical evaluation and the right psychological diagnosis, I can help you heal or manage your illness. Once you can do that, you will not be stuck in the Impossible Task, at least not as often or for as long. Should it hit, you’ll be able to get out of it.
When the man who wasn’t able to get to the stables to see his horse had a thorough physical evaluation, it was discovered he had sleep apnea in addition to other medical issues. Once he got these conditions treated he got to the stables. He still had problems with anxiety attacks, but we continued to work on helping him manage those and he no longer spends the majority of his days sacked out on the couch. He’s getting a lot of things done that he simply wasn’t able to do.
Understanding and accepting that you are not to blame.
Remember, this is a symptom of your condition. You are not choosing it. It is not a flaw in your character. You are not lazy. This problem is the result of your illness and what it’s doing to your brain. This knowledge will hopefully free you from feeling ashamed, guilty, or embarrassed. This is a symptom of a physiological condition, like any other. We don’t feel guilty if we have a problem with our lungs or our heart. You need not feel guilty because you’re having a problem with your brain. It is, after all, the most complex part of our body. Of course, you are disappointed and saddened but please don’t feel shameful. Blessedly this needn’t be a permanent condition. As your mental or physical condition is treated, you will most likely be able to return to
Extensive research is showing that compassion has a powerful ability to heal mental and physical distress. Compassion goes beyond empathy when you feel for someone. Compassion also includes the ability to sit comfortably with the person who is suffering and take some kind of action to help them. That might simply be a kind word, a caring touch. Or it could be listening to their thoughts and feelings, sharing your supportive thoughts, or offering to help them. What would you do for your friend or loved one?
Now comes the challenge. It’s time to do things like that for yourself. But how? For one thing, understanding that you are not well and using kind instead of critical self-talk … repeatedly and often.
You might say to yourself, ”I can see you are hurting, that you feel bad about yourself. I’m sorry. You don’t deserve this. It is not your fault.” Or
“I know you are doing the best you can and I am proud of you for getting counseling and seeing your doctor. I know how difficult that is for you.” Or
“I know this seems endless and overwhelming, but when you get the help you need for your illness(es) you won’t feel like this.”
Stating that you are in a difficult, unpleasant situation is a reality check that can help you to sit with your discomfort and allow it to be while you comfort yourself.
Releasing yourself from guilt and expectation
Clients tell me the most compassionate thing they can do is to release themselves from feeling ashamed and to quit expecting themselves to be able to “get over it,” as others may have told them. They say that knowing this is not their fault, but rather a symptom of an illness frees them from self-blame and criticism. They feel free at last to be at rest knowing they don’t have to do what they can’t do.
Allowing yourself to do what you can do without criticism and praising yourself is a caring gift you can give yourself. If you find solace in watching TV, that’s good. If you are taking care of your pets despite your condition, praise yourself for this. If you feel better sleeping late or going back to bed, allow yourself to do that. Remember as you get needed treatment, this probably won’t be forever. It’s like having a broken leg. While your leg is healing, there are many things you can’t do. But as it gets better, you can do more and more and eventually probably everything you once did.*
for example, free in the way the woman who had been so upset about her piled-up dirty dishes, was able to accept her daughter’s offer to wash the ones in the sink. She then got out her paper plates and cups she could just toss out. She had some initial resistance to this solution because she didn’t think it wasn’t environmentally responsible. But I reminded her again, that this is temporary. It was like what she’d done when the family went on camping trips.
Ask what’s the worst thing that could happen if I don’t do this today? Can I live with that?
When clients are really fretting about something they can’t do, they have told me that asking these two questions is helpful. First, they can usually see that the worst thing is not going to happen but even if it did, they may not like it, but they can live with it. This seems to make it easier for them to let themselves off the hook of The Impossible Task. Recently a client was dismayed about not doing the laundry. When she asked these questions in her session, she began to laugh. She has other clothes and if necessary could wear something again that wasn’t washed yet. That put a stop to her dismay. Everything would be fine.
Clearly doing the laundry is a good task but your worth as a person isn’t tied to having clean laundry today. If there are crucial tasks that are going undone, such as making important doctor appointments, filing to keep disability income, or paying a bill to keep the lights on that’s another matter and the next idea can save a lot of future problems.
* In the case of some chronic or degenerative physical conditions The Impossible Task may continue to be a challenge that requires additional levels of acceptance and compassion counseling.
Asking or paying for help.
Asking for help is a problem for many people. In this case, though, asking for help is a real test of how well you’re doing at accepting that you have a symptom of a serious illness. No shame, no embarrassment for being ill. Chances are you’ve been a competent, independent person before your illness but consider this: if you had fallen and were at home recovering from two broken legs or from major surgery would you expect yourself to manage your daily tasks all by yourself? Goodness, I hope not. That would be impossible. Sound familiar? The Impossible Task.
I know that mental illness can be a little different. Mental illness is considered an invisible illness in that a person can look perfectly capable but not be. And sadly some unenlightened individuals still harbor harmful stereotypes or even deny the existence of mental illness. You may need to let your loved ones know that you are ill and are working on recovering. (That’s assuming you are in counseling, consulting with your doctor, and following their directions).
I also know that getting help is easier for some people than for others. For the lucky ones, loving and supportive friends and family simply step forward to help take care of matters. No request is needed. In that case, just make sure you don’t turn them away. `But you’re not lucky and friends and family don’t offer, you owe it to yourself please ask those who care about you, i.e.:
“Darling, would you be willing to take the dog out in the morning until I’m feeling better? I wish I could
do it and I will as soon I can.”
“Son, would you be able to come by and take this check to the electric company?”
“Connie, do you think you could help me with these disability forms? They are sort of overwhelming and I need to get them in to keep getting my disability check while I’m so ill.”
“Daughter, would you please be willing to make these appointments for me?”
Some of my clients don’t have nearby family or friends who they can ask to help. Isolation is another serious symptom of depression and other illnesses. In such cases, I urge them to hire some help if they can. Cleaning is a particularly good task to hire out, even if it’s just once a month. Catching up on housework and having a neat, clean house can be a real mood lifter. Many cleaning services will do laundry, change bedding and take the trash.
Whoever can step in to help, be sure to accept that they are going to carry out their help in their way. It may – probably – won’t be exactly the way you do and you may not think it’s done as well as you would do, but accept their efforts and thank them profusely.
Take tiny baby steps and watch out for the word “Can’t”
One of my disabled clients who struggles both physically and mentally with The Impossible Task offered these suggestions. She agrees that breaking big tasks into little tasks is just as impossible for her as trying to do the whole thing. But what she finds she can do is to do at least one teeny, tiny task each day. She may not be able to make her bed some mornings. That is something she prides herself on doing but when she feels too stuck she sets the tiny goal to get out of bed. If she is unable to take a shower, wash, style her hair and get dressed, she sets a tiny goal to take a quick sponge bath and have a “pajama day.” She feels pleased that she can do these tiny tasks. And it keeps away feelings of failure she might otherwise feel.
She is also cautious about using the word “can’t” with people. Many people have heard the word “can’t” as meaning “won’t.” Again they are assuming the person is making a choice not to do their tasks. This type of word substitution can be helpful with people who do not own that they actually can do something but are unwilling to. That is not the situation here, so she avoids the word “can’t” and replaces it with “unable.” She finds people are more accepting of that word. If both legs are in a cast one is unable to climb the stairs.
One final suggestion: Challenge leftover ANTs and let them pass.
When we’re depressed, anxious, or suffering from other challenges we don’t always remember to be compassionate and kind to ourselves. Even after fully knowing that we deserve it, that we’re not lazy, that we have nothing to be ashamed of, and that we are recovering, nonetheless, automatic negative thoughts may creep into our minds unbidden. They pop out from our primitive limbic brain. We are not in charge of the random thoughts from our primitive brain and unfortunately many limbic thoughts lean toward the negative and are outrageously untrue. But fortunately, we can dismiss them or if they are too stubborn to dismiss, we can challenge them by asking questions that derail them. Here are some powerful ones.
1. Is that true? Really? According to whom?
2. How do I know that?
3. Because something was true once does that mean always the case?
4. Because something wasn’t possible once, is it never possible?
Am I sure? 100%? What evidence do I have?
6. Do I have a crystal ball?
7. Is it really that bad?
8. Is there another way to see it?
9. How will I act if I believe this?
10. Who would I be without this thought? How would I act?
To cue yourself, post these questions on your refrigerator, your desk, or by your bed. They are usually most rampant at night when we’re trying to lie quietly in bed to go to sleep. Take them on and then dismiss them. Let them pass. Remember:
You don’t have to believe all the crazy thoughts that pop into your head
The problem isn’t you; it’s your illness.
With proper treatment, you can escape The Impossible Task
I hope this Special Report has empowered you to understand the nature of The Impossible Task and leaves you with feeling compassion for yourself, as well as some useful tools for overcoming it. I know this is not always easy so if you are continuing to struggle with being stuck in The Impossible Task, please contact me or bring it up in your next session. I can help.
Other articles on this subject are: Finding Help That Understands
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(c) 2020 Dr. Sarah A. Edwards