Just Show Up

If you struggle with anxiety, overwhelm, or just plain feeling like a failure, I have a mantra for you that’s been really helping me out lately:

Just show up.

My biggest problem has always been depression. I’ve had to acknowledge that I am disabled by my mental health problems, and for an honor-roll student, that was often a struggle to accept.

In college, I used to skip class almost every day because the whole process was so overwhelming to my depressed and anxious brain: I had to get dressed in something clean (even though I never had the energy to do laundry), walk the 45 minutes to school, sit in class for up to three hours, PLUS pay attention, take notes, participate in discussion, and end up with an A at the end of the semester.

I didn’t realize that I was being a perfectionist, and life would have been a lot easier for me if I had Just Shown Up. By staying home because of my depression and anxiety, I wasn’t giving myself the chance to meet any of the expectations I had saddled myself with. I was so stressed out about being a “bad” or average student that I stopped being a student at all.

The Just Show Up philosophy isn’t the same as lowering your standards. You’re not suddenly off the hook for all your responsibilities. Instead, this is a mantra that will help you stay realistic and grounded. By Just Showing Up, you’re giving yourself the opportunity to grow and do your best without enforcing any of the guilt, overwhelm, or anxiety that comes along with expecting perfection at all times. Don’t think too far ahead. Just put on your shoes and Show Up.

The great thing about Just Show Up is that once you do, you will often find yourself doing quite well anyways– it’s something that you were capable of all along, but were too keyed up (or otherwise symptomatic) to envision. If you really can’t do a particular task, then at least you did something just by showing up. Think of all your activities like an hourly job: if you’re there, you get paid, even if you’re not always meeting your too-high expectations. People can’t be “on” all the time, and the Just Show Up philosophy recognizes that without letting bad behavior slide. In other words, nobody’s perfect.

Often, when I would apply Just Show Up and go to my college classes– sometimes in my pajamas– I would find that I was interested enough in the material to pay attention and take some notes. I was passionate enough about the topics to participate in the discussion. At the very least, I didn’t get points off my grade for another absence. Sure, I spent some time doodling due to attention span issues, but for the most part, I had succeeded just as well as the other students. I had minimized the task in my head from a mountain to a molehill. I didn’t overwhelm myself. I did exactly what I was capable of at that moment.

If you’re having trouble getting something done, Just Show Up. You don’t have to be employee of the month. You don’t have to be valedictorian. Just Show Up.

How To Improve Yourself

So you’ve decided your life isn’t working for you and you want to make changes.

Go to therapy.

Yes, you can go to therapy even if you’re not mentally ill. A good therapist will be able to help you in all your self-improvement endeavors and be by your side as you decide what exactly you want to improve. It’s great knowing someone is always on your team!

Set goals and intentions.

Maybe you already have ideas of what you want to improve about yourself. That’s great! Make them formal by writing them down. Give yourself half an hour and a blank sheet of paper and write down absolutely anything you can think of that you would want to improve!

If you don’t have any ideas yet, identify your goals and intentions by identifying your problems first. Maybe you don’t feel great about your appearance, or you find yourself acting like an asshole in your closest relationships. Then, brainstorm (mind map?) solutions.

To me, goals are measurable, while intentions are not. There’s a lot of focus on goals, but intentions can still be useful— by reminding you of an attitude you want to embody or something you want to prioritize that isn’t measurable, like quality time with your family.

Journal with purpose.

Journals can be a lot of things. Many people use them to simply record life events, but journaling with the express purpose of self-improvement can be a lot more useful.

You can look up daily prompts to use to reflect on themes in your life as a whole, or you can log what you did to improve yourself each day. Of course, you can mix the two. Writing about your self-improvement wins may encourage you to keep going!

Also: keep a list of your goals and intentions from the previous step IN your journal for frequent perusal.

Rethink your relationships.

Obviously, we cannot change anyone. What we can do is decide if certain relationships belong in our life or not.

If you have someone in your life that isn’t making you happy, I recommend gently talking out your problems with this person first. (You may want to journal-brainstorm what those problems are before this conversation.) Give them a chance to improve themselves and then re-evaluate.

If you’ve already tried to work things out with someone who isn’t making an effort to change, it may be time to step back.

On the other hand, YOU may be the problem in certain relationships. In that case, it is still important to have a conversation with the other person. Be honest with yourself and them about what you need to improve, and then make a genuine effort. Check in frequently about how they feel about your effort.

Take care of your physical health.

I don’t mean that you need to run a marathon. I do mean taking walks as per your ability, eating reasonably, staying hydrated, and going to the doctor if you can. You will feel better, and be better able to show up to your life’s responsibilities.

Figure out what you care about and do it.

Everyone human (and most pets too) needs to have a role to play to feel fulfilled. This could be related to a full-time career or it could be as simple as watering and taking care of your plants.

Make another brainstorming page in your journal and write down what you care about most. This doesn’t have to be extensive— maybe you only truly care about a few people, activities, or causes.

Maybe your career isn’t something you care about anymore. Do you want to change careers or do you want to keep your “day job” and do something you care about on the side? It’s up to you.

Whatever you decide you care about, make a plan for fitting it into your day.

Learn about privilege.

Part of improving yourself is improving the world around you, and learning about how you play into systems of oppression can do just that.

It can be really hurtful and hard to realize that you’ve been unintentionally harming people, but this is an exercise in empathy and de-centering your own experience. We all have blind spots.

Start small— decide to read one book about systemic oppression, or follow some social justice activists who are different from you on social media. Take up an attitude of gentle curiosity, even if you’re feeling resistant to what you read.

Expect this to be a lifetime endeavor.

To avoid overwhelming yourself when carrying out any of these steps, remind yourself that progress is incremental. This might be hard to hear, but improving yourself never really ends. You might reach a lot of your goals but you will always have something else to work on. That might be hard to hear, but it can also be really fun to keep experimenting and find what works for you!

The Points System for Motivation

I am always trying to hack my own brain and figure out how to motivate myself to accomplish tasks when I would rather be decomposing in bed, so I recently instated a points system. Each “productive” activity (which is, admittedly, kind of a subjective category) gets a value of 1-5 points based on how many spoons/how much effort they take. For example, laundry is 3 points, a doctor’s visit is 4 points, and brushing my teeth is 1 point. My current goal is 5 points per day, but I plan on gradually increasing that goal as I build mastery. So far, it’s going really well!

I also instated a reward, which is kind of a contentious subject for me. (I think many rewards are stuff like food/treats/rest/relaxation, which we should be giving to ourselves anyway.) My reward for hitting 5 points is being able to open a particular mobile game that is my current special interest. If I don’t hit 5 points, or haven’t yet, I am still allowed to play other video games or watch TV or lay in bed if I need to chill, but playing this game is only for after I hit 5 points. This reward is motivating enough to make me want to accomplish things, without preventing me from doing the things that help me recharge over the course of the day.

This system has the advantage of being flexible. For example, yesterday I started out with a plan to do laundry, but I really didn’t feel like it, so I did other activities that equaled the same amount of points. Instead of feeling guilty that I didn’t do what I planned to do, I just accepted that I earned my 5 points and moved on to playing Hearthstone.

Not only is it helping me get things done in a flexible way, the points system is helping me REST. Once I hit the relatively achievable/slightly challenging 5 points goal, I can do whatever I want without feeling guilty. It’s absolutely amazing to not sit around just thinking of all the productive stuff I could be doing and hating myself for not being able to do it.

In the words of Marsha Linehan, “I am doing my best and I can do better!”

If you would like to formulate your own similar points system, all you really need is a notes app or a piece of paper for keeping track of how many points an activity is worth, and then a way of keeping track of your tasks.


Please remember that no matter where you are in your recovery/reclamation/journey towards healthier functioning, these things take time.

If you rush, you will get discouraged. If you expect immediate improvement, you will probably be stymied. Start with baby steps and harm reduction. Make one good choice, and then another. It starts out hard but it gets easier the further you go.

Making Good Choices on the Regular!

Recovery/reclamation (my preferred term for improving your brain) is about making good choices consistently.

Maybe don’t worry about making the perfect choice because, unfortunately, then you might get stuck.

When you are confronted with a crossroads, make it a habit to take a breath (easier said than done) and make a good choice instead of a bad one.

You cannot magically stop yourself from being mentally ill. It’s just not gonna happen. But you can minimize your symptoms by, for example:

  • eating consistently and in reasonably healthy ways
  • prioritizing healthy relationships over unhealthy ones
  • going for a walk when it’s nice out
  • meditating or doing stretches when it’s nice out
  • avoiding self-sabotage in general

Taking that pause definitely takes practice, but you can always do baby steps! Start with making a good choice when it’s easy and move on to when it’s harder!

I have made a lot of bad choices. Just in general. But they were the best choices I knew how to make at the time and I am still truckin’ and makin’ good choices as much as possible, just like I always have been. I’m just better at it now!

Addendum: Sometimes bad choices feel like good choices. You can be on the lookout for this if something feels too good to be true. Real happiness and healthiness (in the brain and in relationships) feels steady-good and sometimes hard but ultimately worth it.