Staying Focused on the Good Things in Life

by Janet Foner

Many people have asked me something like “What can a person do when she can’t keep herself from getting depressed a lot”? I’ve figured this out (a lot of it from my experience helping myself):


  1. Have lots of two-way listening sessions­­ 2 or 3 long ones in person a week, plus shorter ones via phone. The process is easy each one has an equal turn to be listened to without any interruption, advice, comments, etc. When it’s your turn to talk, say whatever is on your mind. Build trust as you go. Agree on how long an exchange you want, making sure you each get equal time. Agree to keep confidential everything that is said and not to bring it up again, period. It’s “mental health” oppression that makes us believe there’s “something wrong” with us for needing so much help. Set up a support network of listening partners, friends you are teaching to exchange listening time, and friends, period. That way, there will be plenty of people you can call when you feel “down”. Just the act of calling someone, even if not home, can pull your attention out of difficulties.
  2. Use at least some listening exchanges to make the commitment to focus attention off distress and onto what’s good in the world. Repeat the commitment and release the feelings associated with making that commitment. I use this version, but you can make up your own: “I don’t have time to focus my attention on my distress. There are so many things I would rather be doing, like: (I name some). So I decide to focus my attention off my distress and on to pleasant and rewarding things. And that means…” Often the next thought will be what I need to do to refocus onto good thoughts.
  3. Use at least some of your listening times to think about your life and what you need to do to make it just the way you want it, to have your life and environment be so exciting and fulfilling that your attention is pulled out of distress daily by the way your life is. Then make the changes you’ve thought of, even if they take several years and lots of upheavals.”
  4. When it’s your turn in a listening exchange, keep your attention focused at least partially on good things, not on your distress. Don’t dive into the distress head­first. Think of the distress in your mind as a swimming pool. Your job is to tread water and keep your attention way above the water. This doesn’t mean you don’t deal with difficult things, just that you deal with them while remembering the good things in life at the same time. You can tell about a past incident by describing all the horrifying details, and get sunk in the process, or you can say something like, “I’m alive!! I made it out!!” in a joyous tone of voice and still work on the same material, but focused on the positive. However, don’t try to make this process be like a cookbook. Sometimes, for example, in order to focus off a distress of “Don’t tell” or “Hold in everything”, someone may need to tell the gory details.
  5. Do lots of things you enjoy every day. When you are feeling fine, make a list of things you like to do. When you feel terrible, take out the list & do some things on it, even if it feels impossible at first. Your mood will eventually improve. Strategize ways to get more fun things into your life even if you are busy. In the long run, get yourself out of bad situations, so you can always have fun.
  6. As listener for someone in this situation, assist them to do the above. Know that the person is going to “make it”, and convey that. Don’t worry that he’s “going off the deep end.” Keep in mind that “mental illness” is a myth, and that people can handle their emotions if they get lots of support.