When Doing Nothing is the Best Medicine

“I’ve come up with a list of things I am going to start doing so I won’t get depressed about this break up.”   

Just the week before, Alice had been in my office sobbing after her live-in boyfriend of many years had broken up with her and moved out. So broken hearted, she could barely speak through her tears and eventually gave up even trying. But now she had a plan to end all of that.

heartache - woman sad

Alice was going to sail, ski, redecorate her apartment, join a book club, commute to work by bike, meditate daily, train for a marathon, and start online dating. While each of these activities sounded great, together they sounded like a recipe for self-help burnout.

And the one thing she left off the list was taking any time to grieve.

Why Silence Can Be Golden

Alice is certainly not alone in her take-no-prisoners approach to conquering a rough patch. We live in a can-do culture that encourages us to care for ourselves by doing.

Let’s face it — you don’t read many articles touting the benefits of loafing around your apartment. The usual advice for self-care looks more like a to-do list than a prescription for healing — exercise, de-clutter, do your mindfulness meditation, take a yoga class.

Related Article: 10 Ways to Recharge Your Mind, Body & Spirit 

And it’s true that many of these things work wonders at soothing what ails us — decreasing stress, warding off depression, neutralizing anxiety, and so forth.

But at times all these actions are a diversion from being with the parts of us that need care. When we get too attached to strategies for bolstering happiness, it’s like we are forever trying to skip straight to the cure before we have to feel any of the pain.

It sounds like an efficient strategy, except that our emotional lives don’t work that way. You can’t do an end-run around sorrow, sadness, and disappointment.

The Power of Emotion

Unfelt emotions are like mail our deepest selves send to us and we refuse to open — they wait, piling up, gathering dust. And often they contain important messages and instructions for how to move forward. We risk missing all this wisdom when we insist on turning away from ourselves.

Related Article: The Power of “Yes”

So next time you are going through a tough passage, consider taking one of the spin classes or book club meetings off your list and replacing it with time to be with what is happening. For me, just puttering around my house with some jazz playing seems to open up space for things I’ve been keeping down to float up to the surface. Some of my patients choose things like meandering through a farmer’s market, taking slow walks without a destination, or even doing repetitive tasks like polishing silver or sorting socks.

The point isn’t to force yourself into wrestling down tough feelings but to just give them some room to gently spread out.

Related Article: Let Life Dream You

What happened to Alice, you ask? She eventually did most of the things on her list, but not all at once. She spent quite a few weekend afternoons quietly painting her apartment and remembering things from the past. And she’s glad she took the time to do that then because now she’s too busy dating the really great guy she finally did meet online.


stephanie manes headshotStephanie Manes, LCSW, is an individual and couples therapist with a private practice in New York City. She is also a contributor to several online media outlets, such as the Huffington Post, where she writes about relationships and other mental health issues.

Featured image by Bhumika.B

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