A recent trip into and out of Los Angeles left me about as down and blue as I have ever been (and believe me, I can get pretty down and blue). The trip was almost doomed from the beginning: The Honda’s air conditioning quit in the middle of the Utah dessert (the hottest part don’t you know). With 105-degree heat, Macy, our poor little doggie, suffered a minor heat stroke. Neither I nor my wife do heat very well, having become accustomed to the gorgeous summer temps of Laramie (which have never – repeat, NEVER) topped 99 degrees. With the heat and discomfort came, for me, a slip-slide into depression; that constant review of what-might-have-been in my life. We arrived in Los Angeles in the middle of a heat wave, which in a crowded city like LA is never more debilitating. We got the air conditioning fixed, but I remained rather blue the entire time we were there. Little things kept nagging at me, and frankly I lost my confidence in life.
Now, without question, our confidence levels can vary even in the best of times. And, at times, they can soar, like when I marched in my doctoral graduation ceremony. But at other times, they can crash, like when I engage in unceasing life review of what might-have-been. Even counselors are subject to such fluctuations. It got me to thinking: What should I have been doing when the spirit within me was losing altitude at an alarming rate? The answer is always simple in hindsight, of course, and never in the moment. But I am resolved to try and revisit some answers that have worked in the past: Reminding myself of what I have done right, paying increased attention to what I have rather than what I don’t have, etc.
And then stick to that decision. The air conditioning going out was NOT my fault. It is a design fault on the part of Honda Motor Cars, pure and simple. The compressor comes on and off at all times unless you remember to turn off the air conditioner, the setting of which is not very intuitive. But no matter: I had decided that its failure was my fault and that the discomfort of my wife and little dog was ultimately at my hands. From there, the cascade of discouragement took off.
Instead, had I decided that the failure was NOT my fault and then stuck with that decision, I could have avoided all that followed. It would have required a sense of confidence in my ability to overcome the problem, eventually, and in the meantime, to do whatever I could to make the trip as comfortable as possible. If that was unacceptable to others, then they have the responsibility to take appropriate action. But wallowing in the incorrect view that the failure was somehow my fault made no one better off.
This is true of so many things in life. It is not my fault, for example, that my bitch of a sister-in-law ultimately saw to the destruction of my relationship with my brother. For decades I tried to walk on egg-shells and in between the raindrops of her dysfunction to maintain a workable relationship with her, but ultimately I had to stick with the decision that it was not my fault, nor my problem.
Be careful here, however: Many things are shared in terms of “fault.” Take your share, and only your share.
JVR TenThings™ was born of the idea that life is never so bad that we cannot sit down, right now, and make a list of ten things that are going well. These are the things to hold onto when life serves up the bumps in the road. Make the list when you are doing well, by the way, NOT when things are going not so well. Keep the list handy. I carry mine in my Commonplace Book, which makes it hard to consult when driving without air conditioning in the Utah heat, but it’s there nonetheless. I just need to pause, pull over, and consult it.
The list should be fairly static, by the way. It is not a list of things that are going well right now, but rather, a list of things that are consistent and rather predictable positives in one’s life. My marriage, for example, is such a talisman and easily makes the list. Or, my friendships. Or my overall health. You get the picture.
No. 3 – Try and Get Out of Your Head
Getting out of our heads and into our lives is often far easier said than done. But it is worth the effort. And it comes down to this: Reliving an experience, even in the moment, will only work to prolong feelings of worthlessness. The running dialogue of negative self-talk is its own reward, sadly, and needs to be stopped somehow. Driving long distances with a broken air conditioner is the perfect breeding ground for loathsome self-talk, frankly, and I should have known better and pulled over and called it a day.
This is where thought distraction and thought diffusion techniques come into play. Distraction involves doing something else, anything else. Reading a book, for example, or (for me) washing the car or vacuuming the house, are good thought distraction activities. For others, it might mean taking a run or going for a hard walk or bicycle ride.
Diffusion is all about silencing the self-talk by thinking of something else (or nothing at all, if that’s possible) but, for me, is much harder to do. I need to be doing something else, not just trying to diffuse the self-talk. But for others, meditation and managed breathing exercises can work wonders.
I am told to remember this: It’s important to remember that our thoughts are often a running dialogue of negativity, very little of which is true. It’s one thing to notice and identify a thought, and another to believe it. The more we internalize these external events, the more they can bring us down. If there is a lesson to be learned from an experience, absorb it. Then do your best to move forward.
No. 4 – Do Something for Someone Else
This is somewhat related to thought distraction in the sense that as you are doing for others, you are thinking less of yourself. It is also related to the idea that no matter how bad you think your life may be, there is always someone else is far worse condition and who could use some help. Counseling as a profession has been this for me. By listening to the tales of woe from countless clients, I am bound to feel a little better about my life.
This need not mean joining the local soup kitchen or going to work for a militant cause of some sort, although it can mean those things, but rather, the little things that can help someone else in the moment. Here I am thinking of the old adage that “doing a good deed every day” can strengthen the heart. Little things like holding the door for someone, or helping your neighbor bring in the groceries, can go a long way toward ameliorating your own feelings of worthlessness.
No. 5 – Form a Fan Club
I have learned, through my counseling work, that life can be a lot worse. A LOT WORSE. People who on the surface appear to have it all together are in fact miserable and one short step away from self-annihilation. This helps to remind me that I am not in this along. “This” of course, refers to life in general.
Who we turn to in times of self-doubt is an important inventory to take now and then. For me it is my wife and my best friend. My wife reminds me that it can also be God that I turn to, although I have forever found that hard to pull off with much success. My logic is rather simple: Who am I to turn to God when I am down, when I am doing such a lousy job at living the life He gave me? But I respect the idea.
Anyway, who we turn to during times of low self-confidence can greatly affect how quickly we rebound. Or, for that matter, how low we will allow ourselves to go! Support groups are supposed to pick you up when you’re feeling down and remind you of the amazing gifts and talents you possess. If you surround yourself with people who will be true advocates for you, and you for them, it creates a positive feedback loop of genuine confidence and a beaming attitude. Plus, it can add to resilience for future times of trouble.
No. 6 – Keep a List of What You Do NOT Want to Be (or Become)
Clients of my counseling practice (when I am practicing, that is) find it odd when I suggest that they list the things they do not want to be. Here I am thinking of the things we want to avoid becoming. For example, I do not want people to see me as a thief, or a louse, or slovenly, etc. Sometimes it is harder to conceive of the things we want to have or be, than it is to list the things we want to avoid.
Being bitter is one of those things and I have to work hard to avoid becoming bitter about life. About not living up to the potential that I thought I had when I stood on that stage in 1974 and gave the Valedictory Address to my high school class. About how I blew that potential, by and large. But that will only metastasize in me, and I know it. So, I need to work hard to avoid being a bitter person.
By listing those attributes I can focus on avoiding them.
No. 7 – Take Other People Out of the Equation
This is one that I have borrowed from www.LifeHacks.com and it is quite useful, even though it may appear on the surface as somewhat contradictory. Nevertheless, judging yourself against someone else will invariably lead to negative self-talk, unless you judge yourself (rather arrogantly I think) against someone who is clearly behind or beneath you in terms of lifetime achievements, etc. Try and avoid both ends of the spectrum and only compare you to you. The process is hard work, but in the end, if you set expectations for yourself fairly and in accurate terms of what you know about yourself, the process will work to remove other people from the equation.
Letting your self-worth be the result of how you stack up to other people’s achievements, appearances, and lives is one of the easiest ways to sabotage yourself, and it’s clearly a one-sided viewpoint that doesn’t take into consideration the whole picture.
No. 8 – Remember, It Could Always Be Worse
I think here of the experiences of the Jews in the concentration camps, and in particular the experience of Victor Frankel, who wrote extensively about how he always had a choice: To give up and die, or to continue to hope for a better outcome. Even at its seeming worse, life in the concentration camps (the extermination camps) always came with that choice. Always.
This is related to the idea of keeping lists of what is going well in your life. Had you not had positive experiences in your life, then it would be very easy to sink into a recursive cycle of depression about the future. Listing those positives is one way of reminding yourself that it could be worse; that you could be someone with no positives to list!
In the midst of a depressive episode, of which I have many, it can be hard to stop and think this way. But the mantra could be to say over and over again, “it could be worse, it could be worse, it-could-be-worse.” This is very hard for me.
Related to the notion that things could always be worse, is the notion that even in the best of times, perspective is critical, let we get too high on the ladder only to make the inevitable depressive cycle that much worse. Does that make sense? Staying appreciative for all you do possess is a big part of self-confidence, but so too is being mindful of what you don’t have what you really want is just a proxy for something to hope for. To dream for. To strive for.
No. 10 – Walk, Water, and Write™
Lastly, I need to remind myself that at those times when life doesn’t seem to offer any tomorrows, when all I am left with is an empty feeling of worthlessness, often it is simply because I am tired, hungry, or thirsty. The answer for me has been to pause and focus on walking, writing and remembering to drink lots of water. Odd though it may seem, that simple equation can and will alleviate the symptoms faster than anything I know.