Being unhappy sucks. And yet many times we end up wallowing in our own misery and creating more of it, bringing others down with it, and focusing exclusively on things that make us unhappy. Why do we do it? How can we stop? If you see someone spiraling out of control in a self-destructive spiral can you stop them without getting blown to smithereens yourself?
Well if I knew all the answers to these questions I would not be blogging in obscurity with 100 followers, but I do have a great deal of experience with feeling shitty and so I might as well share the insight I’ve gained.
I think most people get the most frustrated when they realize that they continue to do the same things over and over even if they’re aware that they are not happy when they do those things. It’s confusing and it seems as if there’s no way to change behaviors that hurt you. But there are reasons we get stuck in ruts like this. We make our patterns on the path of least resistance. Oftentimes the things that hurt us now are things that were good for us in the past. It’s extremely easy to beat yourself up for not making positive changes, but the first step to pulling yourself out of “I SUCK” is to remember that none of the things you do now are done for no reason: they all served a purpose at some point, whether that purpose was to protect you from traumatic situations or to re-energize after impossibly long days.
Even now, your bad behaviors are probably doing something for you. You never get off the couch even though it makes you feel miserable and lazy? Well you might be trying to protect yourself from some of the things that have hurt you (that are probably outside your apartment and off your couch) in the past. If you can stop blaming yourself for what you’re doing now, you’ve probably gotten rid of 50% of your judging and negativity (yes, I know you judge yourself for judging. I know all your tricks).
Oftentimes this looks like you’re just inviting negativity into your life, focusing exclusively on the negative, personalizing, engaging in those lovely ways of thinking that are tried and true proven to make you feel like shit! But here’s the secret: it isn’t your fault. In many ways, our brains appear to be wired to develop some of these faults. We have black and white thinking because it was useful earlier in our evolutionary history. Nearly everyone personalizes things. While some of us do it to a destructive extent, it’s not as if we’ve chosen to let our brains do these things. We haven’t “invited” anything. You haven’t even allowed it. It has invaded. Some people do roll over and allow it to continue to dominate and there are ways to weed it out, but I am making angry eyes at all the self-blamers right now.
So what do we do when we’ve consistently put ourselves in negative and destructive environments? How do we make a change? I’m going to be 100% honest here: you don’t do it easily. It takes a butt ton of incredibly hard work, it’s exhausting, you’ll feel worse for a while, and you will complain. You will look more negative for a while because you will constantly be bitching about this hard work you have to do.
Ok, disclaimer out of the way. First, I’d suggest finding a therapist who can help you figure out if your negativity is clinical and might require medication. They can also probably help you determine what pieces of your life are really putting stress on you. And that’s probably the place you want to start if you’re working on eradicating negativity yourself: what is it in your life that makes you miserable? What are your values? What sings to you? Take some time to write out your “must haves” in life, then try to determine what is keeping you from them. A big part of this will be determining what myths exist in your life: these are assumptions that you’ve internalized through your life. They often involve words like “all”, “never”, and “should”. They can be things like “I need to be perfect”, “I shouldn’t feel angry”, “People are not trustworthy”. These are likely those elements of negativity you think you keep inviting into your life. In reality, they’re ways of thinking that made sense at one point in time, but aren’t accurate for your current environment.
So now you know what you want and you know what’s keeping you from getting there. How do you get rid of the myths? Seems easy enough right, just stop thinking it? Except it’s not that easy because the thoughts keep barging into your mind reminding you that you shouldn’t feel that way or act that way, or that person x is really, truly out to get you/hates you/is ruining your life. The answer is that you have to notice whenever those thoughts come into your mind and then intentionally challenge them. This doesn’t mean a simple contradiction (the challenge of “anger is always bad” is not “anger is never bad”), but rather finding some clear experience or fact in contradiction of the myth.
Example time! One of my myths is that if I ever make a mistake everyone will leave me and I will fail at everything and I’ll probably end up prostituting myself on a street corner to get by (this is not meant to be anti-sex work, but rather is the narrative of my jerkbrain). The counter to this is to find one time, any one time in my life, that I made a mistake and it didn’t have horrific consequences. That time I screwed up my GRE and guess what I still got into grad school. That time I made a mistake at work and the whole organization didn’t come crashing down. Any one will do. And every time I get the crawling anxiety and negativity of “I am a complete failure if I’m not perfect” I simply pull out one of these examples and yell down the myth.
At its base, all self help is about retraining your brain so that the bad thoughts aren’t as powerful. But there are lots of other things you can do: figure out what makes you smile more and do that. Make an effort to be more social. Stop hanging out with jerks. Again, all of these things are personal but if you want to feel better you may have to sit down and make yourself a big ol’ chart of “shit that makes me feel bad” and “shit that makes me feel good” and spend your time working towards the latter. This is everything from eating food you like to leaving the job that makes you miserable. However big or small, pay attention to what makes you feel good.
That’s really all the general advice I have for digging yourself out of a spiral of negativity and focus on negative thoughts: you’ve got to be aware of what you’re thinking and willing to redirect your mind. But what about helping others? Can we make things better for other people? I will reveal some of my pessimism here: none of this internal work of redirecting your brain can be done by anyone but you. That means if you want to shut negativity out of your life, you have to do it yourself. That’s the bad news. The good news is that once you start retraining your brain having another person around to distract you, to try new things with, to check up on you, can help tons! Communally, we can make a better mood if each of us individually does our best with our own mood. So if you’re around someone who’s self-destructing, you can suggest positive things, you can refuse to accept their negative mood, you can challenge some of their thoughts, but until they make some internal shifts none of that will be effective.
We don’t invite negativity in, but we do have to kick it out. It’s like a pile of raccoons that decided they wanted to take up residence in the kitchen: we didn’t want them there, but now we have to do the hard work of getting them out. And unfortunately, no one else is going to clean out your kitchen: your neighbor can come over every afternoon and shoo out the raccoons, but they’re just not there often enough, it’s not their space, they can’t build the fence across the door without your permission. Only you can call pest control (get meds), only you can revamp the kitchen so the bastards can’t get in, only you can lock the door when you leave. At the end of the day, you have to take responsibility for the fucking raccoons.