Mental Costumes for Hard Times
Setbacks. They are a part of life. The economy, personal life, even flat tires – setbacks come in all shapes and sizes. And, occasionally they come in groups. I’ve had the opportunity to study the subject up close and personal over the past couple months.
Whenever I experience a series of unfortunate events, I find there’s never a shortage of opinions why things are going wrong. “Bad news always comes in 3’s,” “Everything happens for a reason,” “Other doors will open up,” etc. This kind of advice can be helpful, and it often comes from very kind people; but, in those situations I usually find myself starved for practical advice. I just want someone to say, “Do this, and you’ll feel better,” or “Do this, and it will stop the cycle.”
So, recently I decided to look back on unlucky periods in my life, and try to discover a common thread. Something bad would happen. Then a few days or weeks later, something else bad would happen – often while I was still dealing with this first thing. Then another problem would come up – sometimes as a symptom of one or both of the previous things. Then another, and another. Before I knew it, I would be up to my ears in problems, wondering what I did to deserve it all.
It’s easy to think, “Well, the problems caused the problems.” I can see how that logic might be true, but eventually you have to answer the question of what problem begat what problem – the chicken and the egg argument (only with a lot of eggs). Then you’re stuck blaming luck or fate, and we’re right back where we started. So, instead of juggling those random independent variables, let’s deal with the one variable in the equation that has never changed – me. Unless I was dreaming, I have always been present when these “bad luck” episodes happen.
Hmm, so that would suggest that I am just a bad person, and the cause of these problems? That can’t be right – I sometimes go a year without having strings of misfortune, and will sometimes have just one isolated setback that I’ll work out quickly. So, what part of me is different during these periods? I’ve been wracking my brains, and have whittled it down to only one trait that has consistently changed – my attitude.
I get a flat tire; a deal falls through; a client doesn’t pay a bill, etc… I get upset. I ask: Why is this happening to me? How will this affect my long-term plans? How will this affect my ability to support myself? What will this do to my family? I start trying to go through those questions, and before long I’m not linking the answers. I get a negative attitude, and start to ask more questions. The back and forth stokes the fire, and inflames my negativity. That negative attitude reflects in everything I do, every meeting, every phone call, every night out; and pretty soon it starts to create more problems. The slippery slope ensues. It’s completely natural, and no one can deny that I may have the right to feel that way; but the destructive effects are obvious.
So, how do I stop the cycle? Well, that’s a million dollar question (just ask anyone on Wall Street these days), and not easily answered. So far, I’ve come to the realization that only a healthy dose of the opposite state-of-mind will do the trick. That’s right – positivity. Ironically, the one resource you’re sure to be low on, when dealing with multiple problems. Quite a paradox, I know, but finding a way to be positive is vital to digging out of a perpetually bad situation.
How do you find a way to be positive in the midst of strife? Ask someone else. Hehe, just joking. The simple fact of the matter is there are many solutions, and you have to find the one that works for you. On the pragmatic side, look for the good in the situation, and focus on it. It may be that the lost deal will give you more time to spend on more meaningful projects. Or, the flat tire finally gives you an excuse to go to the shop and get the alignment you’ve needed on your car for the past six months. And if you can’t find any good in the immediate situation, look outside of it. Maybe someone in your family just got a promotion; or a best friend is coming to town for a visit. Or, boil it down to simply being alive. You’d be surprised how lucky some people feel just having air in their lungs. We all should.
If that doesn’t get you to a working positive outlook, lie to yourself. Ok, now I’m really joking. I would never recommend lying to yourself; however, a healthy, exaggerated level of optimism can be a real way to bridge the gap between a pessimistic downward spiral, and an optimistic path back on track. Try it. You might thank yourself later.