What are your options when something is terrible?
We’ve all been there, right? We’ve all felt terrible about something or about someone or about ourselves.
This episode might be kind of a downer because I want to talk about when you’re feeling regret or shame or boredom or loneliness or purposelessness or anger or resentment. All of these just feel so terrible. These terrible feelings might also feel hopeless so you might be wondering, “well, what are my options? What could I possibly do?”
As I was thinking about this question, I came up with three general ways that we use to troubleshoot feeling terrible. I’ll share them with you in order of not really recommended to highly recommended.
Change. Time. Manage.
Terrible is kind of a vague word, right? I’m thinking of it like a spectrum anywhere from feeling kinda blah all the way to the other end to feeling highly anxious and agitated, or in another different direction, but equally terrible, and maybe even worse, you might be experiencing the deepest heartbreak or your most profound sadness.
Wow. I mean, going from feeling kind of blah to extremely agitated to the deepest heartbreak, you can imagine these are all terrible.
So what do you do? What could you do? What can you do when you’re feeling this way?
I like to put things in a visual and memorable way to organize and remember them so I put 3 troubleshooting options into a triangle and I’m calling it the TerribleTriad.
Imagine a triangle and each side of the triangle has one of these three options on it. The 3 options when you’re feeling terrible could be change, allow for time and manage. Change. Time Manage.
The First Instinct is to Change
Let’s talk about change. This one is usually the first instinct when we’re feeling terrible. This makes sense – it’s part of a fight or flight response. Flight means changing where you are. It’s quickly getting out of an uncomfortable situation.
When you notice yourself feeling terrible, you might be thinking “What can I change? How can I get out of this? How can I change this? How can I get something different?”
I can personally think back to miserable work environments or disappointing relationships where my response was just to get out. Nowadays, now that I’m more mature and have more experience and know more of my options, maybe I wouldn’t automatically default to that change troubleshooting option when I feel terrible.
Wherever You Go
Sometimes change is possible and sometimes changing the situation is an option, but it’s a risky one because if you’re unhappy in this situation, or if a situation makes you feel terrible, (which by the way, you know, I don’t believe that a situation makes you feel terrible. It’s the thought that you’re thinking about the situation that makes you feel terrible.)
But whatever the problem is, if you change it, that thought that you’re thinking that’s making you feel terrible, might follow you, and you might still think that thought and believe it, even after you change the situation.
You’ve heard of the expression “wherever you go, there you are.” This is an example of that.
Changing a Work Situation
Let’s take a generic case of a work situation.
If I’m hating a work situation because I think my supervisor is ridiculous and should be better at her job. I feel frustrated that she’s not being a good, or even reasonable, manager. I feel resentful because things are not happening as I know they should be happening.
If my troubleshooting response is just to change by going to a different work situation, I run the risk of encountering this again, still thinking this new work environment should be different than it is.
Again resenting the new, different boss for also not behaving as I think a manager should behave.
Basically, the gamble I’m making by changing work situations in order to not feel so terrible is betting that the new work environment will align perfectly (or at least slightly better) with my personal expectations.
Lawyer, Gym, Facebook
There is a meme on Reddit that when people post a question or ask for advice when they’re having a problem in a relationship, often, other people will respond with a three-prong troubleshooting approach, which is “Lawyer up, hit the gym and delete facebook.”
On their own, depending on context, I think all 3 of these suggestions could be great advice.
But the funny (and maybe alarming) part of this phrase, which is now a little bit of a cultural phenomenon and available on t-shirts and mugs. It is sometimes offered as a joking or comical (or maybe also serious) response when people post real questions about relationships.
So Many Changes
At the first sign of “trouble” they’re being told (by strangers on the internet) – get a lawyer to start divorce proceedings, start a gym routine to get in shape and meet new people and get off of facebook to stop seeing reminders of the other person. These are all changes. They are all ways to escape or get away from a situation, that is really, just a neutral situation on its own. It’s not good or bad. Out of these change suggestions (divorce, a physical change, a change in access to someone), none of them address what’s making the person feel terrible – their thoughts about the situation.
If taken seriously- this 3-part advice to change, is very risky because there are no guarantees and it might be very uncomfortable.
Actually all of these troubleshooting options that I’m going to tell you about today are all very uncomfortable. Maybe that’s the short version of this episode: sometimes we feel terrible and uncomfortable. That’s life and it’s ok.
Let’s go ahead and move on to the second troubleshooting option when you feel terrible. Allow time.
The reason why I include this one is because of the expression, time heals all wounds. I really, really, really believe this is true, or at least it can be true. I’m sure we can all think back to 10 years ago or five years ago, or just some time in our past when we felt shame or guilt about something specific.
Maybe there was an embarrassing moment or maybe it was a mistake that we made. Now, fast forwarding into the present, we realize “oh, that wasn’t such a big deal” or, “oh, I’m totally over that now.”
Maybe, eventually, we made peace with what was making us feel so terrible before. We didn’t change. We couldn’t undo whatever that mistake was that we made or whatever that thing was that we did. We can’t undo it. But we notice, that with time, that terrible feeling might have lessened. We might have forgotten about it or our brain might have started to downplay it for us.
The Problem with Time
The problem with using time as a troubleshooting option, just like with the last one, change, is that there are no guarantees.
We might just as easily be able to remember something vividly from our childhood or adolescence that we still feel so much shame or guilt around today.
Using time as a way to troubleshoot feeling terrible may help to diminish the feeling, but, our brains may use all this time – all these months and years and even decades – to repeat and recycle and spin on those thoughts that make us feel terrible. So, time may cause those thoughts to become deep-seated, long held beliefs, almost as if the thoughts compound on themselves, like interest.
Who Knows How Long Time Will Take
That’s why using time as a method for dealing with feeling terrible is so risky because depending on what our brain does with those thoughts, time might not heal the wound. Time might completely inflate and re-ignite the wound. All over again.
In general, (to argue with myself) though, I do think time does heal all wounds and sometimes things do work themselves out on their own.
I think we can all find evidence of this in our own lives. The only problem is who knows in advance if time will heal the wound, how long it will take and if things will work themselves out.
Getting Over Heartbreak
I have a recent personal example of this from my own life. Last year our family suffered a loss and at the time I was completely heartbroken and in despair. I felt so deeply, deeply terrible.
I desperately wanted to change what had happened – but of course, that was impossible.
Back then, I remember thinking “I feel so bad and I can’t imagine ever not feeling this way. I’m sure I’ll feel this loss and heartbreak for the rest of my life.” I was sure of it.
And here, now, 6 months into 2021, I still feel profound sadness, but I also see so many signs that I feel better. I see how time has softened the edges of my pain. I see how as each day and week and month passes, I really don’t feel as terrible as I did last year. That feeling that I was convinced I would feel forever.
You Won’t Feel Like This Forever
Some people might think time is the only option to overcome feeling that kind of heartbreak or sadness, or despair.
I think one thing that helped me get to this point was my belief in the expression: “time heals all wounds.” I used that belief to give myself a tiny sliver of hope and possibility, even when I did feel so terrible.
If you’re feeling terrible right now, consider, it is possible, that you will not feel like this forever. You really, really won’t.
I’m already kind of tiptoeing into my third troubleshooting suggestion. You can probably hear if you listen between the lines that this option is about your thoughts. The 3rd part of the triangle is manage. My suggestion is for you to intentionally manage your mind and manage your expectations.
You can use this option along with the other two troubleshooting options we already discussed. If you do intentionally decide to change your situation, you can manage your mind at the same time.
If you do allow time to heal your wounds, it may flow easier for you if you manage your mind as the time passes.
Managing your Mind
Managing your mind while making a change or managing your mind while you wait for time to soften the impact of what made you feel terrible, removes some of the risks I talked about.
For the work situation, if you decide you hate your boss so you’re going to quit. If you manage your expectations around the new boo. If you’re honest with yourself about feeling resentful because someone is not acting the way you want them to, and remember that people get to act however they want to act, you may find yourself feeling more in control, more autonomous instead of just feeling at the mercy of the behavior of whoever you happen to be working with.
We can use that last example as a template and just replace work situation with relationship.
People Act How They Act
If you decide you’re done with someone that you’re in a relationship with, so you’re going to leave. If you manage your expectations around any potential new relationships (or even that same one, if you haven’t left yet). If you’re honest with yourself about feeling resentful because someone is not acting the way you want them to, and remember that people do get to act however they want to act, you may find yourself feeling more in control, more autonomous instead of just feeling at the mercy of how the relationship is.
Managing your mind as you use the time option is also super helpful because who knows how long healing is going to take.
Managing your mind reduces the risk of the time option not going in the right direction for you. If you’re managing your mind, you can catch when the brain keeps replaying and spinning on those unhelpful thoughts.
No Self Blaming
Just a note of caution here: Managing your mind can sometimes feel like self blaming. I just want you to be really careful about this because managing your mind does mean taking responsibility for what you are continuing to think on purpose. And it does mean taking responsibility for noticing what you are thinking, but there should be no blame involved here. It shouldn’t be doubling down on feeling terrible by saying, “oh, look at me. Why do I keep on thinking this way? Why do I keep on repeating this to myself? Why do I do this when I know it’s unhelpful?”
Blaming is not part of this triangle. It is not a troubleshooting suggestion.
Be on the lookout. If you catch yourself blaming or judging yourself for what you’re thinking and how you’re feeling, drop that blame.
This management piece is all about intentional thinking and managing your mind and managing your expectations. Getting into a practice of that is -I believe- the most helpful one of these troubleshooting techniques. You can manage your mind on your own or with a coach or maybe a therapist or someone else in your life, but I would start, at least, to do it on your own in journaling. And I’ll give you an example of how I did it for myself one morning.
My Terrible Morning
I guess I could say I was kind of feeling a little terrible that morning. So on that spectrum that I talked about from feeling blah (which I have decided is a valid description of an emotion) to completely anxious or completely heartbroken, I was more on the blah end of the scale.
I just wasn’t feeling it. I was just kind of down and not looking forward to my day – or anything else.
My Internal Conversation
But I was wondering, I was managing my mind and I was noticing, “wow, I’m feeling blah. That’s strange because I’ve created the life that I want for myself. I’m in control of my day. I plan my life around what I want to do and what lights me up. So why am I feeling blah today?”
I really sat for a minute and I thought about it and I just decided to write down, honestly, and without any censorship or editing or judgement or blame, I just decided to write down all the true reasons that I was feeling terrible. And that turned out to be kind of funny because I started to see a little bit of a pattern.
My mind was so sure of the outcome of so many things that I had planned for that day.
For example, I had this meeting that I agreed to, I was telling myself “it’s going to be very awkward.”
I also wrote “this thing that I’m going to work on today is just going to take so long.”
Another one was “I’m probably going to be way too hot as I’m driving around to my different meetings and appointments today. And that will definitely be miserable.”
100% Sure of the Future
As I was writing all of these reasons about why I was feeling terrible, I started to notice that I was 100% sure about all of them. My mind had no doubt about the outcome of any of them and some of them were not even remotely true when I really stopped to think about it.
This meeting that I was not looking forward to, because I was sure it would be awkward. I’ve been to this meeting in the past and had a lovely time and really enjoyed it and left feeling better than when I got there. So why would I assume that today’s meeting was going to be awkward? I mean, that was just my brain just being negative, right? (Which it does, I’m a human. That’s not a problem – especially not if I catch it and redirect myself instead of just believing the first thing that pops into my head).
So the manage part of the triad is noticing and catching those sneaky thoughts that make you feel terrible, and then being able to work on them and being willing to work on them.
In summary, all of this is to say about this terrible triad, yes, it will be difficult and uncomfortable, and it does take effort on your part. You either have to change something, you have to allow for the passage of time, or you have to intentionally manage your mind.
And this is all kind of unfortunate because we do want things to be easy and instant, but usually they’re not. And these are three examples of things that are not necessarily easy and certainly not instant.
It Only Takes One Thought
Although instant mood changes have happened. If you want to hold out hope that maybe something will instantly change and get better, or maybe you will instantly overcome your shame or your embarrassment without having to go through the passage of time. It is possible. It only takes one different thought that you do believe. You can think a new thought in an instant.
Just like that morning, just managing my mind for a couple of minutes and writing down what I was not looking forward to and what was making me feel terrible. Even before I finished writing out the sentences, in the time that it took me to write out my thoughts, my brain was already noticing the pattern, the fortune telling and the lies that I was telling myself and I was able to redirect myself and laugh at myself a little too. And that changed my mood. And I didn’t feel terrible anymore.
What do you think about terrible troubleshooting?
Can you think of an example that mind management can not solve?
Can you think of some scenarios where all three, change, time and mind management would be necessary?
Do you have an example of when you changed something (without changing your thoughts) and felt better?