I have a business coaching client – a highly competent manager who has never found the success he desires – who has struggled with clinical depression since his early teens. Over the years he tried many different therapies and medications. Nothing worked. His condition continued to destroy his relationships and career, and, he feared, threaten his life.
I suggested that while we often cannot choose the conditions of our lives, we can choose how we relate to our conditions.
“That’s facile,” he replied. “How does that apply to me?”
“Have you ever considered,” I asked, “what you get from your depression?”
He was silent a moment, then asked, his voice dripping venom, “What I get from it? Are you crazy?”
“Work with me. Explore how the depression helps you.”
His words came slowly at first, but once he got going, it turned into a torrent. Depression gave him an excuse to justify failure, to avoid stress, to not get angry, to emotionally curl up in a familiar zone…the list went on. These weren’t necessarily positive things, but for whatever reason he was attracted to them.
When he finally stopped, I said, “Look, I’m not a therapist, but it seems to me there are parts of being depressed that you like. My guess is that the attraction will never go away. But you’ve also told me how depression hurts you. Is there some choice here?”
His depressions haven’t gone away, and likely never will. But now he recognizes them as opportunities to choose. For the most part, he can manage them now for the first time in his life. He recently dealt with his wife leaving him and an extremely stressful period at work, and stayed mostly functional throughout. Some days he still can’t get out of bed, but now he can laugh at himself while he hides in the pillow.
He has changed how he relates with a critical condition of his life because he accepted it.
This story is an extreme illustration of a principle that impacts all business leaders. Often we nurture the parts of ourselves we tell ourselves we hate. Why? Because they feed us in some way.
If there is no benefit in doing something, it’s easy to stop. What we continue doing, we do because we’re getting something. Smokers have a hard time quitting because they enjoy the nicotine. Spouses become abusive because it feels good to vent. Micro managers and back-stabbers continue acting in ways they know they should not because they like the sense of control.
A counterproductive behavior is an addiction. As bad as the outcomes are, something in it feels good. Until we recognize and embrace what draws us to it, we will keep doing it. Only when we honor what draws us to the addiction can we choose other actions.
It’s not as simple as retraining a bad habit or medicating away a negative attitude. It’s recognizing the role addictions play in our lives, and then choosing to do something different.