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How to Deal with Bad News

Three simple cognitive strategies for regaining calm and perspective.

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[Article revised on 5 January 2021.]

Imagine: Your partner cheated or walked out on you. You’ve been fired. Your house has been burgled. You’ve been diagnosed with a life-changing condition...

Bad news can leave us in a state of dread and despair. It seems like our whole world is falling apart, almost as if we’re being driven into the ground. We fear the very worst and cannot get it out of our mind, or gut. Often, there are other emotions mangled in, like anger, guilt, despair, betrayal, and love.

Bad news: we’ve all had it, and the worst is yet to come.

So how best to cope?

Here are three stoic techniques for dealing with bad news, all of which aim, in one way or another, at generating perspective. Similar strategies were being advocated by Marcus Aurelius during the Antonine plague of 165-180, and I'm finding them very helpful during our own COVID-19 pandemic.

While reading, I suggest you hold a recent piece of bad news in the front of your mind, and consider how the strategies might or might not apply to your bad news.

1. Contextualization

First, try to frame the bad news, to put it into its proper context. Think about all the good things in your life, including those that have been and those that are yet to come. Remind yourself of all the strengths and resources—the friends, facilities, and faculties—that you can draw upon in your time of need. Imagine how things could be much, much worse, and how they actually are for some people. Your house may have been burgled. Yes, you lost some valuables and it’s all such a huge hassle. But you still have your health, your living, your partner… Bad things are bound to hit us now and then, and it can only be a matter of time before they hit us again. In many cases, they are just the flip side of the good things that we enjoy. You got burgled, because you had a house and valuables. You lost a great relationship, because you had one in the first place. In that much, many a bad thing is no more than the removal or reversal of a good one.

2. Negative visualization

Second, focus on the bad news itself. What’s the worst that could happen, and is that really all that bad? Now that you’ve dealt with the worst, what’s the best possible outcome? And what’s the most likely outcome? Imagine that someone is threatening to sue you. The worst possible outcome is that you lose the case and suffer all the entailing cost, stress, and emotional and reputational hurt. Though it’s unlikely, you might even do time in prison (it has happened to some, and a few did rather well out of it—like Bertrand Russell, who caught up on his reading and even wrote a book). But the most likely outcome is that you reach some sort of out-of-court settlement. And the best possible outcome is that you win the case, or better still, it gets dropped.

3. Transformation

Finally, try to transform your bad news into something positive, or into something that has positive aspects. Your bad news may represent a learning or strengthening experience, or act as a wake-up call, or force you to reassess your priorities. At the very least, it offers a window into the human condition and an opportunity to exercise dignity and self-control. Maybe you lost your job: time for a holiday and a promotion, or a career change, or the freedom and fulfilment of self-employment. Maybe your partner cheated on you. Even so, you feel sure that he or she still loves you, that there is still something there. Perhaps you can even bring yourself to understand his or her motives. Yes, of course it’s painful, but it may also be an opportunity to forgive, to build a closer intimacy, to re-launch your relationship—or to go out and find a more fulfilling one. You’ve been diagnosed with a serious medical condition. Though it’s terrible news, it’s also the chance to get the treatment and support that you need, to take control, to fight back, to look at life and your relationships from another, richer perspective.

In the words of Marcus Aurelius, "You have power over your mind, not outside events. Understand this, and you will find strength."

Neel Burton is author of Heaven and Hell: The Psychology of the Emotions, The Art of Failure: The Anti Self-Help Guide , and other books.

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