Can't Make It Better? Then Try Not to Make It Worse!

Good advice about how to keep cool when life heats up

Posted Jan 25, 2012

First off, we don't have as much control of ourselves as we would like to have. Our best selves are not always in the driver's seat. Like babies, sometimes we are tired, cranky, hungry, out of sorts. We don't have what it takes to make things better. I find this to be particularly true of myself when I get too busy or when I'm sick. I just don't have the wherewithal to try as hard, to be as good, or to let things go like I might have on my better days.

Second, even on a good day, we don't have as much control of ourselves as we would like to have. We all have limitations. Sometimes our shyness or aggressiveness or impulsiveness or sensitivity or fear of conflict or neediness or intelligence keeps us from being as successful in life as someone with a different personality might be. It just is what it is. We can only do so much.

And finally, we have much less control over other people than we would like to have. You know the saying, "You can lead a horse to water, but you can't make it drink." No matter how smart we are, how right we are, how tactful we are, how convincing we are, we can't make anyone do anything. Yes, we have some influence but, no, we don't have control. Parents of young children and teenagers, you especially know what I mean. Psychotherapists, you are nodding sympathetically. It can be maddening to recognize that other people are free to do whatever they wish to do, even if it is unfair, unwise, unhelpful, or unacceptable.

So, when faced with such limitations, what are we to do?

I have a personal guideline that seems to help me—and it is based on some good ideas from psychoanalysis. The guideline is this: if you can't make it better, try not to make it worse.

When we are frustrated with our own limitations or the limitations of other people, it is very tempting to make things worse. It is human nature. We feel irritated, angry, helpless and we want to be free of these feelings. We can't stand to bear feeling so stuck or so bad. And there is a temptation to do something—anything—to find some control, to get things moving, to get rid of those bad feelings. And while it is very hard to get things rolling in a positive direction, it is very easy to get them going in a negative direction.

So, left to our own devices, we pick a fight. We have a meltdown. We play the blame game. We get rid of our bad feelings by projecting them into someone else. We say to ourselves, better to blow off a little steam or get a little revenge than be stuck feeling helpless, unjustly treated, or just downright bad. Those of you who have ever been through a divorce or a painful break-up, you know what I'm talking about.

We can't control everything but do have some influence, particularly influence over ourselves. Sometimes all it takes to make things better is to not make them worse. When we count to ten, sleep on it, walk away, let it go, swallow our pride, or use our better judgment, we give ourselves a chance to get through stressful situations with more success and less damage. Practically speaking, in such times, I try to move at a slower pace, take more care in dealing with people's feelings, give others the benefit of the doubt, show more patience toward myself, and think more before I act.

This strategy might simply be called self-control. It seems to help keep the potentially boiling pot of life on simmer. And some days, that is the best we can do.

Copyright 2012 Jennifer L. Kunst, Ph.D.

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