Many of life's difficulties are out of your control. You can’t control the weather, the genes you were born with, diseases that have no cure, or the fact that you are getting older. For the most part, you can’t control the actions of other adults, though you may have influence. And, in the words of the Rolling Stones, you can’t always get what you want.
But you can learn to stop any misery you might be inflicting on yourself. I like the way this idea is expressed in “The Four Noble Truths” of Buddhism. In highly over-simplified soundbites, the Four Noble Truths can be summarized as follows:
1. There is a lot of suffering in life. Some unhappiness and misery is inevitable.
2. You may be causing some of your suffering.
3. You can stop causing your own suffering!
4. Once you cease to create your own suffering, you are more likely to live a good life, one in harmony with your deepest values and goals.
How might you possibly be harming yourself? While humans make themselves suffer in many ways, here are 10 common sources of self-caused suffering, which I've dubbed "Misery-Makers," along with 10 suggestions for stopping:
Misery-Maker 1. Inventing and dwelling upon painful inner dramas that have little or no basis in fact.
Examples: “There was a fiery crash on the interstate. My wife might have been in that. What would I do if she died?” “The way he reacted to me yesterday must mean that he doesn’t really love me, despite what he says.” “If my boss fires me, I’ll never be able to find another job and will end my life in dire poverty.”
Having a vivid imagination is such a wonderful thing—except when it isn’t. Unless you are writing a novel or a screenplay, using your imagination to spin tales that are outrageous, hurtful, or even horrifying can be harmful to your sanity and peace of mind. The stories you tell yourself can take on a life of their own, becoming an unending source of anger, self-pity, anxiety, or just plain misery.
How to stop the misery: When your fantasies threaten to ruin your emotional health, neutralize them by murmuring these words: “Just thoughts.” Realizing that your fantasies are not realities will help you separate from them, as if standing to one side. Then, give your mind another job to do, such as to focus on your breathing or to think about a plan for the day. If you are worrying over a problem that actually could arise in the future, make a realistic plan and write it down.
Misery-Maker 2. Judging yourself in a harsh way.
Examples: “Why do you always say the wrong thing?” “Why can’t you lose weight?” “What’s wrong with you?”
No, it’s not your worst enemy saying that; it’s your own critical inner voice. It’s shocking how cruel we can be to ourselves. If you have a critical inner voice that is constantly judging and blaming you, notice it (how could you not?) but don’t believe it. Your self-talk is not the truth—it's "just thoughts."
How to stop the misery: Replace negative self-talk with realistic and positive self-talk. For example, “Whether I lose weight or not, I am a worthwhile person who deserves love.” Practice self-compassion—be kind to yourself by softening your judgment and treating yourself like your own best friend.
Misery-Maker 3. Thinking that mistakes, setbacks, and failures doom you for life.
Examples: “I must be a dumb person to have made that mistake.” “I guess I’ll never do anything right.” “I’m such a moron!”
Self-talk likes this makes you think you have to be perfect instead of the fallible human being that you are—that we all are.
How to stop the misery: Instead of putting yourself down for your mistakes and failures, make the conscious decision to grow from them. “Oh, now I see what I need to do in the future.” “I’ll look at this as a challenge rather than as a problem.” This self-talk will help you develop a “growth mindset,” to use the phrase of researcher Carol Dweck. People who can grow from their setbacks are more likely to succeed and to feel better about themselves.
Misery-Maker 4. Blaming yourself for things you can’t control.
Sometimes it’s easier to blame yourself for a problem than to accept that the situation was never within your control. Children who are victims of abusive parents, for instance, often believe that if only they had done x, y, or z, their family would have been just fine. The hard truth is that there was little, if anything, they could have done. Realizing that you are helpless in a situation can often be more terrifying than the false, but oddly comforting, belief that you have control.
How to Stop the Misery: Notice when you blame yourself. Then ask yourself: “Was I really responsible for what happened?” “Is it really my fault that he didn’t ask me out again?” “Can I really control her drinking?” Remind yourself that you can only really control your own behavior. Take a deep breath and focus in on actions and activities that will improve your life.
Misery-Maker 5. Blaming other people and situations for things you CAN control or passively accepting what you COULD change.
“She makes me mad.” “Brrr. It’s so cold in here.” “I wish he would understand how much I need some time alone right now.”
All these typical situations are within your circle of control, at least partially if not completely. For example, no one can “make you mad.” You can control your inner response to events much of the time. If you are cold, put on a sweater. If you want someone to understand you, speak up.
How to Stop the Misery: Change “it” and “you” language to “I” language. For example, speak out like this: “I didn’t like it when you said that. Please stop.” “I’m cold. Mind if I turn up the heat?” “I need some alone time right now.” Acting more assertive is thrilling, no matter how small the issue!
Misery-Maker 6. Creating suffering through bad habits and addictions.
Smoking. Overdrinking. Taking drugs. Leading a couch-potato life. These bad habits may seem like they relieve stress—and they may indeed relieve stress in the short run—but they are false friends. Eventually, they turn on you and make your life miserable, even cut it short.
How to Stop the Misery: Decide to change and make a plan. If your plan doesn’t work, see a therapist or check yourself into a program that can help you quit your self-destructive habit.
Misery-Maker 7. Comparing yourself to others.
“If only I had her looks!” “If only I had his personality!” Social comparison is an unending source of misery for most of us, because there will always be someone who is more beautiful, funnier, wiser, or richer.
How to Stop the Misery: Instead of comparing your situation to that of others, make your own life as good as possible. Find your own path. Instead of comparing yourself to those who are better off, make a “downward comparison” to those who are suffering more than you are. Things can always be worse. And for the most powerful antidote to social comparison, try this: Gratitude. A practice of gratitude is one of the easiest and most rewarding good habits you can develop. Try the powerful “Three Good Things” exercise, described here.
Misery-Maker 8. Not being yourself.
Social pressure can warp your mind and your actions. You may find yourself trying to “have fun” in ways that are not really fun. You may present yourself in one way when you actually feel a different way underneath. True, in some situations, like in your work life, you may often need to play a role to get by. If this is the case with you, figure out how best to express who you are in other areas of your life.
How to Stop the Misery: Notice what you really enjoy. Notice what makes you feel good about yourself. Notice what seems to be good for your personal growth. Gradually, make choices much more in harmony with your “True Self.” Say “no” to activities and people that drain your self-confidence and energy.
Misery-Maker 9. Falling for the belief that you can’t change.
“I’m just this way.” “My father was like this too, so I’ve got the genes for smoking.”
Self-acceptance is usually a positive thing, but not if you are using it as an excuse to avoid the work of necessary change. Although it does take work, you can decide to change behavioral habits and do it successfully. For example: You can learn to listen instead of interrupting. You can create an exercise program. You can speak up for yourself.
Recent research suggests that you can even change aspects of your personality that seem inborn and permanent. A recent review of over 200 studies indicated that therapy could cause personality changes relatively quickly, even in as little as 4-8 weeks. People with emotional instability who were in therapy benefited the most, increasing their ability to handle stressors and reduce inner turmoil.
How to Stop the Misery: Notice your own belief system about change. Begin to question it. Ask yourself: “Would I like to change? Would I benefit from changing?” Then make a plan and tinker with it until you can get it to work. If not, see #10 below.
Misery-Maker 10. Thinking that you have to do it all yourself.
“I should be able to handle this. Why can’t I?” “Everyone else seems just fine but me.”
This self-talk keeps you from getting the emotional support that you need. There’s nothing as potentially life-changing as talking regularly with a good therapist who can help you solve problems, discover new perspectives, and grow.
How to Stop the Misery: See a therapist, join a 12-step group, or call a friend. Keep an open mind.
The STOP Process
I've personally wallowed in every one of the ten Misery-Makers at some point in my life. While not perfect, I've gotten better at recognizing when I'm causing my own suffering, then stopping myself and gently switching my mental gears to thoughts and actions that are more productive.
To make progress, I've used what I call the STOP Process. The idea is to use the letters in STOP to remind you how to STOP your own self-caused suffering:
S = “See what you are doing to yourself.” Just recognizing that you are hurting yourself is a big step forward. Self-awareness is essential to change.
T = “Take charge and make the decision to change.” Research shows that when you make the conscious decision to change, you are more likely to be successful.
O = “Brainstorm your Options and choose one to try.”
P = Practice. The more you repeat a new behavior, the more habitual it will become.
Are you causing your own suffering? Could you STOP right now?
© Meg Selig, 2017
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Thich Nhat Hanh, The Heart of the Buddha's Teaching (1998), NY: Broadway Books.
Gillihan, Seth: "Do People Really Change?"
Give your mind a job. Mingyur Rinpoche, "How to Train Your Monkey Mind." Video here.