When you’re depressed, any little thing — from filling a prescription to making yourself a sandwich — can seem impossible. Writer Molly Backes recently tweeted about what she calls “The Impossible Task”, and if you’ve ever struggled with your mental health, you probably know exactly what she’s talking about.
As Backes describes it, the Impossible Task can be anything in your life. It’s something that should be simple, and you can’t bring yourself to do it, and then you start beating yourself up for not being able to do such a simple thing.
In reality, you aren’t alone — a lot of people with depression face this feeling, as do people with other mental health conditions, including anxiety. The Impossible Task isn’t a technical term (yet) but I spoke with several therapists who are familiar with the phenomenon.
“I feel confident saying that the majority of people suffering with major depressive disorder struggle with ‘the impossible task’,” says Mary Fisher, a clinical mental health counsellor in Salt Lake City, Utah. “Putting simple words to painful, confusing feelings can shrink those painful, confusing feelings, so kudos to Molly Backes.”
“Most therapists are quite familiar with this symptom pattern,” says Mary Crocker Cook, a marriage and family therapist. “I always call it ‘walking through mud’. Everything just seems too hard. However, non-depressed people do not know much about this or understand it.”
That means it can be hard to explain what’s going on, even to the people in your life who love you. And it’s especially hard when you don’t fully understand it yourself.
Why Tasks Become Impossible
I asked therapists about why the Impossible Task rears its ugly head, and got three different but compatible answers. None of them call it the Impossible Task, by the way, so if you bring it up with a therapist, be prepared to explain what you mean. But they all recognise the phenomenon.
People with depression often struggle with a “cognitive triad,” says Nicole Hollingshead, clinical psychologist and clinical assistant professor at the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center. This involves negative thoughts about yourself, the world around you and the future. Specifically, she says, “a person often views themselves as worthless, the world as cruel and uncaring, and the future as hopeless.”
Cook sees the Impossible Task in conjunction with low energy, for example in a person who needs to rest after a simple chore. She also sees it in people who feel “mentally cloudy” and have trouble making decisions.
Fisher says that “much like fight or flight responses, depression is our brain’s method of coping with threat that we perceive as insurmountable”. She thinks, drawing from the work of her mentor Lorna Smith Benjamin, that we learn in childhood to imitate our parents’ coping behaviours, because doing familiar things makes us feel safe and comfortable. If your parents didn’t have the best responses to stress, you might fall into the same patterns.
What to Do When a Task Is Impossible
First, have some compassion for yourself. All the experts I spoke with emphasised that this isn’t a personal failing, but a thing that depression is doing to you. Some things that can help you overcome your inertia:
Give yourself credit
Sure, maybe you haven’t made that phone call, but you did do something today — maybe you got out of bed. Hey, that’s a start. You can also focus on things that you are able to do. Not every task is impossible.
Set realistic goals
Notice what tasks are still possible, and remember that they may be adjacent to the Impossible Task or a small part of it. Hollingshead says sometimes a simple task may seem impossible because it reminds you of other things: “If I make the bed, then I really need to clean my room, and the dishes have piled up, and the trash needs put out…” So, set a realistic goal: I’ll do the laundry and put some dishes away.
It can be helpful to set a daily schedule of things you can and should do, without overwhelming yourself. Checking off the items on your schedule can help you feel better about what you’ve already accomplished, and they can also help keep your life from spiralling out of control in other areas.
Be aware of unhelpful thoughts
Depression is a jerk and you can call it out on its crap. “Be aware of unhelpful thoughts like, ‘You’re worthless’ or ‘What’s the point?’ and challenge them by focusing on things that you can do rather than getting caught up in all the things you feel that you cannot do,” says Hollingshead.
So there’s no need to beat yourself up about failing to do the Impossible Task. “It is crucial to understand that The Impossible Task is not some personal failing,” says Fisher. “It’s not weakness; and it’s not nonsensical. It is, in fact, your old brain doing exactly what evolution has shaped it to do: Respond to threat.”
Get professional help, if you can
If mental health issues are causing you to find some tasks impossible, just doing the task isn’t really solving your problem. You need to get appropriate help so your brain doesn’t keep making more Impossible Tasks for you to struggle with.
Seeking help might mean talk therapy, with or without medication such as SSRIs. Trust a professional to help you figure out what’s most appropriate for you.
You may not be depressed, but perhaps you have another mental health condition. Again, a pro will be in the best position to help you figure that out. (But if you’re curious about the symptoms of clinical depression, they’re here. You may be depressed if you’ve lost interest in things for at least two weeks, in such a way that it’s affecting your school, work or social life.)
Getting help might be its own Impossible Task. If so, consider it one, recognise your negative thoughts, and see what you can do about it. Focus on finding parts of the task that you can do, and not beating yourself up. Take a look at these options for finding help when you’re not sure you can afford it. If you aren’t ready to face a human being, remember that there are online services and apps that can make it even easier to reach out.
Recruit your support network
There are, most likely, people in your life who want to help you. They may not realise what kind of help you need, and it’s possible you’ve been avoiding telling them.
Cook says she had a recent client who faced Impossible Tasks and whose family didn’t understand. She offered to meet with the client’s parents to explain the situation; perhaps your therapist could do the same (or you could send them this article).
If anybody has ever told you “Let me know if you need anything,” consider that your invitation to tell the person about your Impossible Task. Even if they can’t do the whole task for you — say it’s a phone call you have to personally make — maybe they can help you make a decision about who and when to call, or hold your hand while you’re on the phone.
A Word to Friends of People With Mental Health Issues
Reaching out for help can be its own Impossible Task. Check in on your friends who might be struggling, and ask them what their Impossible Tasks are. Molly Backes writes that a friend once drove her two blocks and walked into the pharmacy with her to pick up a prescription. “It was an amazing gift,” she says. Perhaps you can provide that gift for someone in your life.
If depression is affecting you or someone you know, call Lifeline on 13 11 14.