The Stress (and Depression) of Over Commitment

By Margaret Wehrenberg, Psy.D.

When Stress and Depression cause Under Commitment

Stress and Depression affect us all at different times in our lives.  Meaghan was telling me about how stressful her life is, trying to get everything in that she is committed to. She has a small, thriving business out of her home that she could allow to take up 40 hours a week. She runs with her running group two mornings a week and trains at the gym on Saturdays. She has three school-age children, all involved in sports and music, and she tries to get to every practice and every game and every recital. She has been asked to manage a volunteer fund-raising drive that is very important to her, and it is taking three mornings a week to get it all done. This is one busy person who is involved in a lot of activity.

Meaghan uses all this activity to avoid thinking about her depression. I refer to this as a “high-energy depression” in which all the activity covers feelings of worthlessness. In a sense, she is racing ahead of a depression that could catch her if she stops.

Very often the person with this kind of depression is one who has had some early life adversity, or a family life in which they were treated as worthless and only valued when they were performing. That is not 100 percent the case, but is not unusual as an origin of a high-energy depression.

But now Meaghan has a problem that is making her feel even more stressed, i.e., she cannot find a solution that makes her feel good. Her sister Tiffany needs some help from now until the end of the school year, and asked if the kids could get off the bus and stay with Meaghan for a couple of hours, so that Tiffany could take a necessary training class for her job so she will qualify for a promotion. Meaghan told me that she regrets she has to say “no” to Tiffany. She is “over-committed” to the rest of her activities, and she just cannot do more when she is already stressed.

I initiated a discussion with Meaghan about why it’s stressful to say no, and she talked about how helpfulness is a big value for her, and family is important. These are values that matter deeply to her. But she is also a bit miffed that Tiffany created this stress by asking her to help when she knows it would be hard for Meaghan to add more to her schedule. Meaghan kept referring to herself as “over-committed.”

It occurred to me that this is really a situation of under-commitment. I am not just doing semantics here. Meaghan says that her commitment to being helpful and devoted to family is very important to her, yet here is a situation in which many other activities interfere with fulfilling that priority commitment.

I asked, “What if we defined the problem as under-commitment?” At first Meaghan did not like this: she felt it meant she was bad or wrong, yet some positive thinking can come out of viewing the problem through this window. Being committed implies that we have an emotional investment as well as probable investments of time and money. People committed to fitness probably spend time doing fitness routines and probably spend money on equipment or clothing. Think of the commitment of an Olympian! What about a loving spouse committed to carrying for the partner who has a debilitating disease? That care-taker may spend many hours a day and give up the idea of vacations or outside fun to stay lovingly with this spouse. Are the Olympian or the caretaker “over-committed”? Describing them as deeply committed makes more sense, especially compared to Meaghan’s rushing about to many disparate activities.

Learning to Prioritize is a Vital Step to Appropriate Commitment

When Meaghan began to think about what, if anything, reflected deep commitment in her life, she had to think about her priorities. At first, she wanted to see every activity as important, because all of them added to her life in some way. But when she looked at what things are most important in her life, she had to first identify what values are most important. If she listed health, extended family, marriage, money, helpfulness, charity, supporting her children’s well-being, community, and so on, she started to see some challenges to her activity level. She could keep on saying yes to everything that seemed like a good idea, but she did not know where to draw the line. Saying “no” to her sister made her realize she had too many activities going on if she could not honor two important values: helpfulness and family.

First, she had to decide what comes first, and prioritizing the list made it clear that family is first for her. But then she began to realize the family first would include nurturing the relationship with her spouse, who rarely showed up on her activity list. She would need to find ways to make time for the two of them. And then she had to think about the support of her children, realizing she spent an inordinate amount of time observing them playing sports and very little time interacting with them. Now, she was passing up an opportunity to help her only sister and interact with her niece and nephew in order to spend time watching sports practices or piano lessons. She began to consider that interaction might have more value than watching every practice. She decided to car-pool with neighbors for practices, seeing some, but not all of them. That would allow her to say “yes” to her sister, fulfilling her values to family and helpfulness and feeling valuable herself as a result.

Meaghan also started to think about her business, which was not a source of necessary family income, even though she saw that in time she could build it to be significant. She remembered she and her spouse chose she would work at home, because taking care of their children without day care was a value they shared. She could believe she was valuable as mother and homemaker, contributing that time and skill to the family well-being, and later she would contribute money. Meaghan knew succeeding at her home business and having the income it generated was good for her self-worth, but in fact, it was lower on her current priority list. That would change as her children got a little older.

Other activities, such as managing the fund-raising drive and running with her group, supported worthwhile goals. But she finally decided the running was a part of her identityand her stress-relief and her health, and she wanted to continue that. But she gave up her leadership of the fund-raising, opting to remain a volunteer, but not be in charge.

Re-commit to your values. It will decrease stress and increase self-worth.

This example of letting priorities about what you value in life guide your choices to commit time, energy, and money is really about one way to change the negative self-belief(“I am worthless”) that underlies depression from early-life adversity. When you deeply commit to what is important to you, you reduce your stress, and you learn your value too. Both of which are great anti-depressants!