Originally published 2/6/2016
I used to have this misconception that successful, optimistic people were happy all the time. I thought that they let the little things roll off their shoulders, and they focused only on the lessons of a hardship and always found the silver lining. Because of this erroneous thinking, it took me a long time to figure out how to handle situations when nothing seemed to be going my way.
When I woke up on the wrong side of the bed, or when the chips seemed stacked against me, I thought ignoring and denying my mounting bad mood was the best approach. I thought if I avoided it long enough, it would go away. In reality, this only served to make my mood worse, and often caused me to then go way overboard when I could no longer resist, resulting in tense relationships with those close to me and empty sleeves of Girl Scout cookies. I learned that denial is better left in Egypt, and the best way to handle a bad mood is to come at it with a mindset of awareness and acceptance.
By giving myself permission to wallow, the depth of my bad mood was often much more shallow than before. I found that letting go of the guilt or expectation that usually came with my bad mood made it much easier to cope. While I still binge on Netflix occasionally and sacrifice productivity for puppy videos once in a while, I don’t feel like I’m spiraling out of control.
I learned some important lessons by taking this new perspective on bad moods. First, I learned that if I avoided lashing out at those around me, they actually turned into a powerful support system. Instead of biting their heads off for no reason, I could turn to them to listen or offer advice for a given situation. I also learned to abandon the victim mentality. I am not the product of things that happen to me; instead I choose to believe I can shape my reality. This doesn’t always mean you can control your circumstances, but you absolutely can choose how you respond to any situation. I love this American Indian proverb that sums up this point beautifully:
An old Cherokee is teaching his grandson about life:
“A fight is going on inside me,” he said to the boy.
“It is a terrible fight and it is between two wolves. One is evil – he is anger, envy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, and ego.” He continued, “The other is good – he is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion, and faith. The same fight is going on inside you – and inside every other person, too.”
The grandson thought about it for a minute and then asked his grandfather, “Which wolf will win?”
The old Cherokee simply replied, “The one you feed.”
The most important lesson I learned was that all bad moods are temporary. They will come and go like the rising of the sun. When I’m feeling stuck or when a bad mood persists for several days, I take the opportunity to reflect on my life. I focus on the good all around me, and identify what needs to change if I’m going to make things better. It’s important to remember that if you change nothing, nothing will change.