For years we have known that when we accomplish something, our self-esteem and sense of contentment grow. As a child, it might have been activities such as tying shoes or whacking a baseball off a tee that spurred the triumphant exclamation of, “I did it!”
What we seem to forget as adults is that we can make a concerted effort to incorporate accomplishment into our everyday lives. And if we do so, we can keep our self-esteem and contentment at a healthy level.
The idea is that actively engaging in a specific behavior can affect our mood. In the typical treatment of depression, this is called “activity scheduling” or “behavioral activation.” The idea is to increase the number of potentially pleasant activities and increase positive interaction with the environment. If I just sit around for the cloudy day (or mood) to clear up, it might not. If instead I try to line up some potentially positive or engaging activities, my mood may (and will) eventually lift.
In dialectical behavior therapy, we go a step further with the activity idea to include a self-esteem or accomplishment component. The skill is called “mastery”: engaging in an activity that’s somewhat challenging with the goal of focusing attention and building our sense of competence.
What’s great about this skill is it’s within the realm of our control. I can decide to tackle a new craft project, a Sudoku puzzle, or a cooking recipe I’ve never tried before. Even if I’m in a terrible mood. Even if I feel like life is not worth living. I can focus on adjusting my day to include some mastery in it. Many people think that EVERY day should have this in it for a healthy sense of self-esteem and outlook.
Once I start experimenting with activities that promote mastery in my life, I can make adjustments along the way. If the tasks I’m doing seem too challenging (or are resulting in burnt food, frustration, or incomplete craft projects or puzzles), I can decide to dial it back a notch. Maybe there’s a less difficult, but still somewhat challenging, activity I can try.
With a depressive episode, this might mean something as small as getting out of bed and getting a shower. The next day, it might be tackling some dishes or going for a several-block walk. The following day, it might be tackling a craft project, and so on. It often builds on itself since the encouragement of completing something challenging can establish some motivational momentum.
Mastery Can Lead to Big Things
While mastery might begin with small steps, it can lead to great things, even breakthroughs about activities that you’ll come to love for the rest of your life. A recent book (actually titled Mastery, by Robert Greene) explores how some of history’s greatest minds utilized the skill of mastery—mostly in connection with activities they were tied to emotionally and personally.
A recent article about the book in The Week Magazine explains how mastery, and experimentation, is the key to initiating an emotional and personal connection to an activity: “Stop waiting for the light bulb to suddenly appear over our head. Start trying things until something clicks. … It’s a path. It’s never the case that you wake up and know ‘this is exactly what I have to do.’ You try things out, some things work, some things don’t work. You find your way by actively going in a direction.”
Sounds an awful lot like another DBT skill—acting effectively and focusing on what works! (Elsewhere in the article, it also warns about pushing against distraction—something we know mindfulness is helpful for.)
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