Shit will happen. And it will happen on its own timetable. There is absolutely nothing any of us can do about that.
We can prepare for the worst. We can try to accrue savings accounts (I’ve often failed at this). We can nurture the friendships that nurture us. We can be responsible with our health and our money.
But here’s what it’s taken me almost 40 years to learn.
You can also prepare for the best.
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A lot of what I’m about to share comes straight out of Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT).* And if you haven’t tried it or don’t know where to begin, this is a great site that’s free to use.
But seriously. Positive psychology rocks.
Pop psychology does not.
So let’s get on the same page. Positive psychology and CBT do not involve affirmations. Positive affirmations don’t work, and research says so (if you’re an exception to the rule, cool—most humans are not). For me, they can compound frustration and shame because they feel deceptive. They feel like gaslighting, which as an abuse survivor I can’t stand.
It also doesn’t involve practicing optimism, at least not the type of optimism we grew up associating with Pollyanna and Disney and pop Christianity. CBT does not teach people to go around telling themselves “Everything will work out great.” In fact, CBT teaches that this is just as false as “Everything will be terrible forever.”
And therein lies the key: CBT helps us practice balanced, realistic thinking. So instead of those two equally distorted thoughts, someone trained in CBT is going to think, “This interview might go great, or I might bomb it. Either way, there will be more opportunities down the road. And at least I get to learn more about this company, which is doing really interesting work. I might even get a few good ideas!”
That’s it. Think of it as a three-step process:
- Admit you don’t know what’s going to happen.
- Place the event, no matter how drastic the outcome might be, in a broader context (your whole career or life or even the solar system and your finite existence here).
- Look for one good thing you can get out of it.
* * *
1. Track your thoughts, feelings, and habits for a week or two.
This is just to figure out your baseline, which probably isn’t what you think it is. When I was in CBT-I treatment for insomnia, this meant tracking my nightly sleep, one or two thoughts each day about that, and how these thoughts left me feeling. But I’ve also used this for my chronic illness, which looks something like this:
Situation: I wasn’t able to work today due to migraines and vertigo.
Thought: I’m miserable, everything sucks, and I’m such a failure.
Feelings: tense, tired, angry
2. Notice any patterns.
In my experience, a week or two of tracking my own thoughts is enough to help me take them less seriously. I mean, a lot of our thoughts are the intellectual equivalent of greasy potato chips. You can hurt yourself listening to that junk (or eating it, in the case of potato chips). But you can go a step further. You may notice specific situations that elicit distorted thoughts. And you may notice that your thoughts themselves get stuck in one or two regular ruts.
In my case, I’ve learned to take my thoughts and feelings less seriously on a day I miss work due to my disability. My mind just can’t be trusted to think reasonable, balanced thoughts on days when I had to cancel plans I deeply care about. I also know that one of my favorite distorted thoughts is “should,” as in “But I should be able to go.” These thoughts elevate my stress and feel very high stakes, probably because they’re followed by an implied “or else.” Or else I’ll lose the friendship. Or else they’ll hate me forever. Or else I’ll be all alone for the rest of my life.
3. Practice replacing the distorted thoughts with balanced ones.
Okay, so you’ve got a pretty good picture of situations that maybe don’t bring out your best side. And you’ve got a list of thinking traps you often fall into, whether it’s catastrophizing (expecting the worst possible outcome, no matter how unlikely), overpersonalizing (it’s all my fault; I never do anything right), overgeneralizing (he always does that), mind-reading (she wants me to fail), black-and-white thinking (I know I’m right, so she’s wrong), telling yourself “should,” or a whole bunch of other cognitive distortions. The next step is to challenge those thoughts. And this is where your data collection comes in.
For example, if someone is cold and irritable towards me on a day that my chronic illness forced a change of plans, I tend to fall into mind-reading and overpersonalizing (She hates me, I did something wrong, I have to make it right, it’s my job to fix her mood). I know this tendency, though. So I also know my job is to provide myself with alternate explanations that don’t sting as much. The truth is I’ll never know the real reason, especially if someone is passive-aggressive and won’t give direct answers to direct questions.
So here’s what I do. Rather than get my panties in a bunch (which is oh-so-tempting), I say to myself, “Hey, maybe she does hate you and think you ruined everything. Then she’s ableist, and it’s not my problem. Or maybe she is having a day from hell and has had it up to here with people. We’ve all been there. But that’s also not my problem. Or maybe she’s just a generally miserable, angry person. Again, that’s her problem to fix. So she’s going to sulk and storm and make a big production of her bad mood. So what? Ignore her the way I would any spoiled, petulant child. The cake is tasty. This other person is pleasant. There are lots of other fun people in the world whom I like and who like me.”
See? You don’t have to be an optimist or even a particularly generous person to practice CBT. You just have to recognize what is and is not a reasonable thought. Which means you have to recognize what is and is not within your control.
4. Schedule in the things and people that give you joy.
You and I can’t predict the future accurately (research shows this is true whether you’re an optimist or a pessimist). We just can’t know if that text is going to touch our friend’s heart or get us into trouble. We can’t even begin to guess if earning that degree was the right choice. We can’t possibly say whether a particular behavior will lead to a good outcome. So waiting on life to drop joy into our laps is just dumb. As dumb as waiting for it to rain down misery.
So just as some situations and people can elicit distorted thinking patterns, so other people and experiences can help you on your road to more balanced thinking. For me, that’s reading, physical activity outdoors, writing fiction, date nights with my husband, chats with old friends, bubble baths, and time spent nurturing children. These experiences soften my body, help me relax, clear my mind.
I can’t always do these things. I can’t even do one of them every day. Not so long ago, it took me a year and a half to read one novel. But the point is I do them when I can. And at the end of a month or a year, I can look at all my tracking and see that I’ve achieved more things than I would have if I hadn’t tried. Maybe that thing is one short story at the end of the year or a few books read. But what brings me joy isn’t the quantity. It’s that I’m still able to touch the things I love and engage with them. That’s what makes my life rich. Reminding myself of that is just part of my toolkit.
So when I start to tell myself I’m a useless failure who’ll never achieve anything now that I have a chronic illness, I say, “Hey, you’ve achieved all sorts of shit against all sorts of odds. Hey, hey. What you achieve is just going to look different. Maybe it will be slower. Probably, even. But so what? One novel can change things. One great short story is still one great short story. You’ve got another 40 years, kid. At least. Even one page a year is several short stories by the time I die. It’s worth it. And so are you.”
So are you.
*I am not a trained psychologist, and this post is not intended to replace therapy or treatment from licensed providers. I am sharing my experience only, which may or may not benefit you. To find a licensed therapist, start your search here.