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3 Ways to Escape a Downward Emotional Spiral

2. Learn how to hit the pause button.

Key points

  • The negative consequences of our actions can send us into a spiral of avoidance.
  • Self-compassion can change your trajectory from negative to positive.
  • Think about how you want to be remembered and the legacy you want to leave behind.
Source: Toa Heftiba / Unsplash

When we fail the fourth, fifth, or tenth time after promising ourselves that we will do better, it can be difficult to trust ourselves again. Scary and disturbing questions begin to haunt us:

  • “Am I just poorly made?”
  • “Is this what my life is going to be like forever?”
  • “What if I never change and end up alone?”
  • “Do I just not want to be happy ever? Am I innately self-destructive?”

These questions create an impossible narrative that doesn’t allow sufficient space for mess-ups or mistakes, which are part of the self-growth formula. You may experience self-sabotage.

What, then, is the right way to look at life’s inevitable disappointments so you don’t drive yourself into a downward spiral? Here are three techniques to use when failures or setbacks cause your life to spin out of control.

1. Choose self-compassion over self-criticism.

We sometimes get trapped in vicious cycles of setting impossible standards, failing to reach them, and feeling insurmountable shame as a result (which can prompt us to set even higher standards the next time).

The most effective way to break this cycle is to eliminate shame and self-punishment through self-compassion—that is, giving ourselves the same kindness we would give to other people in our position.

According to a study published in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, you are self=compassionate when:

  • Notice when you are in pain (without detaching from, or getting caught up in, your feelings).
  • Realize that experiencing distress is part of being human (as opposed to feeling isolated by these experiences).
  • Offer yourself kindness (as opposed to being harshly self-critical).

Not only does self-compassion have a positive impact on our well-being and physical health, but it can also help change the trajectory of our life by breaking patterns we can get stuck in.

Here’s an exercise for anyone who struggles with self-compassion: react to your actions in the same way you would to those of a loved one. For example, if your best friend keeps going back to the same toxic ex, do you reprimand them and abandon them? Or, do you point out their mistakes to them and help them book a therapy session?

Here’s another example. If your sibling is too scared to leave a job they are unhappy with, do you chastise them by telling them they are not good enough? Or, do you help them figure out a way to leave their job without destroying their life?

2. Learn how to hit the pause button.

The idea of facing the negative consequences of our actions can send us into a spiral of avoidance. We can run away from them and waste precious time that we could have used to repair the problem.

This makes for a compromised life experience—we judge ourselves, overreact to feelings of overwhelm, and develop maladaptive coping mechanisms.

Studies show that mindfulness can help heal such issues and help us rediscover our psychological center.

Exercising mindfulness through practices like meditation, certain types of therapy like Dialectical Behavior Therapy, and observing our thoughts and feelings objectively can help us develop what researchers call a mindful personality.

To put it simply, mindfulness can help undo the knots that we have carried our whole lives.

The next time you feel tempted to go off the rails, take a beat, think about the long-term consequences your actions might have, and let your feelings wash over you and recede before making any rash decisions.

3. Draft your epilogue for perspective.

The thought that we will cease to exist one day is in some ways sad, but it can also inspire change and growth if we shift our perspective a bit.

Instead of thinking about when, how, or why you will die, think about how you want to be remembered and the legacy you want to leave behind. It does not have to be lofty, it just needs to be genuine.

A recent study published in the Journal of Research in Personality found that when people were asked about how they wanted to be remembered or when they were asked to share memories that they thought represented them, most people narrated stories that portrayed them as good, virtuous people. It also inspired them to be better versions of themselves in the future.

Embracing our mortality can help us become the best version of ourselves. It can also remind us of certain parts of ourselves that are perhaps underappreciated.

Here’s another exercise to help break the downward spiral: write down the legacy and memories you want to leave behind and try to live up to that narrative as best you can.


We are all our own worst enemies at times. To break a self-defeating, downward spiral:

  • Be kinder to yourself by choosing self-compassion over self-criticism.
  • Practice mindfulness to ride out emotional waves.
  • Think about the legacy you’d like to leave behind and let it guide your actions in the present.

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