The Causes of Misery: Column A and Column B

Two sets of factors can lower our mood. It's useful to know the difference.

Posted Jul 17, 2016

CC license, Pexels
Source: CC license, Pexels

One of my anxieties in writing my recent book How to be Miserable: 40 Strategies You Already Use – and in writing this blog -  is that people experiencing depression or other forms of deep misery will feel they are being blamed for their own problems.

I'm not. But during depression we are often acutely sensitive to rejection and can perceive it where it is not intended.

No one intends to be miserable. But all of us make life choices that can contribute to the burdens of our own lives. And that includes me.

When discussing these concepts with my clients I have found it helpful to divide the causes of misery into two categories, which we can call Column A and Column B.

Column A consists of all of the factors that are not open to our control in the present. This includes elements like:

  • Difficult work environments
  • Losses and bereavement
  • Our genetic makeup
  • The state of the economy  
  • Aspects of the culture in which we live  
  • The family into which we were born  
  • Experiences in childhood 

To these we can add decisions, situations, and behavior that may once have been open to our control but, being in the past, cannot be reversed:

  • The overconsumption of soda that may have contributed to adult-onset diabetes
  • The sedentary job
  • The poor choice of marriage partner

These too are uncontrollable because we do not own a time machine that can allow us to undo the past. 

All of us labor under multiple influences from Column A. Life is difficult, and none of us is dealt a hand consisting entirely of aces. When I see people experiencing clinical depression, I am often struck by the number of uncontrollable factors that they have had to deal with. They often think of themselves as weaklings ("other people can handle this!") and I'm often surprised they are still standing.

Column B consists of all of the factors over which we can have at least theoretical control. We may not feel capable of exerting such control, and indeed our control is seldom absolute. But these factors may be subject to some influence, great or small (perhaps working on our own, or with the help of a therapist). Column B includes things like:  

  • The amount of exercise we get  
  • The food we eat  
  • The amount of time we spend looking at screens  
  • The interpretations we give to people’s criticisms of us  
  • The expectations we hold of others  
  • The priority we give to living out our values  
  • The avoidance of discomfort  

…and the meaning and significance we assign to all of the factors in column A.

  • My diagnosis means I am doomed to a lifetime of depression
  • My inability to manage my finances with a minimum wage job means I am an idiot
  • My history of sexual abuse means I am forever tainted

The work facing us for the elements of the two columns is very different. For the uncontrollables in Column A we can emphasize acknowledgement, grieving losses, acceptance, and self-forgiveness. The emphasis is on reworking our reactions to these factors, rather than erasing them from our lives.

For the items in Column B we can work on the production of actual change.  Understanding how these factors can lead us downward, we can identify an alternative that might take us in the opposite direction. Having turned a problem into a goal, we can attempt to transform the goal into a concrete plan. Then we can begin taking the individual steps that will lead us there.

This blog emphasizes Column B, but does not deny the very real and potent influences of Column A.

Indeed, it is the existence of Column A that drives the effort: Life is difficult enough. We don’t need to make it harder than it needs to be.  

Here’s hoping that our exploration of the path into the valley of misery will prove helpful. Either, seeking unhappiness, you will have a map to help you get there. Or, seeking relief, the cultivation of understanding of the way downward will reveal, with a quick shoulder check, the path upward as well.

About the Author

Randy Paterson, Ph.D., is a Vancouver-based psychologist, public speaker, and author (How to be Miserable, The Assertiveness Workbook, Private Practice Made Simple).

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