Many may percieve the biggest challenges they face in life to be external: the loss of a job, the failure of a venture, rejection from a romantic partner, a tweet you thought was hilarious but that didn’t get as many likes as you had hoped (this last one is a regular occurance for me in particular).
And it’s true; these external punches in the gut do affect our happiness, and our perception of ourselves. How could they not? We can spin failure with all the golden thread in the world, but at the end of the day, it quite simply sucks.
And that’s okay. It’s supposed to.
However, what turns those rather ubiquitos life events from a minor set-back into a major set-all-the-way-back lurks within our brains: our mindset towards them.
Think back to a time when things didn’t go your way; maybe you made a mistake or maybe it was out of your control. How did you react? What thoughts ran through your mind?
If you have depression, anxiety, or a severe case of pessimism, there’s a good chance that you immidietely pressed the self-destruct button:
“Nothing ever goes right for me”, “I’m a terrible person”, “bad things will always happen”, “I’m a failure and always will be’, “I should just give up on myself now”, “Everything is terrible”.
Do they sound familiar to you? Because they certainly do to me.
These thought-cycles are easy to slip into, and we don’t quite realise the impact they have on our day to day lives until often, it’s too late.
If we constantly berate and beat ourselves up about everything that goes wrong, this can wreck havoc on the way we conduct ourselves in many ways:
Firstly, we stop trying to improve or change. Using universal language like “always”, “everything” and “nothing” sends a strong message to our brain that there’s no point trying to fix things or grow because things are awful and that’s just the way it is for us.
Secondly, we pass up opportunities. If we think that things are never going to work out, then we become scared and afraid when new opportunities present themselves. We don’t see the point in putting in effort to something we think is going to go wrong.
Thirdly, we create a negative narrative about ourselves that distorts our perception. Stories are very important to us, they bring order to the chaotic and random world around us. But, if our personal story is one of defeat, danger and darkness, then everything that happens to us fits that narrative; a narrative that becomes very difficult to escape from. Due to confirmation bias, we’ll only limit our vision to events that confirms this tragic tale, meaning we overlook all the good things that happen to us in our everyday lives.
When faced with adversity, if we have a destructive mindset, then nothing good can come of it. We will feel down about ourselves and our lives, we will feel out of control, we will feel like we can’t change our situation.
We get stuck. We lay down like a carpet and let the muddy boots of life run all over us.
We’re going to become strong, resiliant, individuals who use adversity as fuel for our goals and dreams. At least, that’s the plan.
First – Allow Yourself To Feel Sad
Hang on a second, wasn’t I just saying that you should turn off your negative emotions like some sort of over-acheiving robot?
Nope. Not quite.
Rejection, failure, and adversity are not fun or pleasent things, so it’s both natural and okay to feel sad about them when they occur.
When we try to always push through without allowing ourselves to feel how we feel, we end up repressing all that negativity inside until one day, we burst.
It’s okay to feel gutted and heartbroken for a while, in fact, it’s sometimes necessary. The important point is we don’t wallow or ruminate for too long in these murkey waters. We can have a day or two to stuff our faces with ice-cream, cry, agressively write poetry, or binge-watch our favourite shows, so long as we’re ready to come out fighting.
Feeling bad is part of the healing process.
Second – Change The Use Of Universals
Getting out of the habit of using language like “everything”, “always” and “nothing” can be a difficult task. So, instead of removing these words immidietely from your vocabularly, change their use to something more positive.
So, instead of saying “everything goes wrong for me”, change it to “everything will work out in the end”.
Instead of saying “nothing ever works out for me”, change it to “nothing bad lasts forever”.
Instead of saying “this always happens to me”, change it to “I always get through bad times”.
Changing the way you think about these problems can have a drastic impact on the way these problems have an impact on you. Instead of thinking every obstacle is the end of the world, start thinking that things are going to be okay in the end.
Third – Compartmentalise
It’s very easy to think that when one thing goes wrong, everything is going to fall down like a house of cards.
The set-back becomes the centre of our world, and the focal point for all the negative things we may think about ourselves.
Instead, ground yourself in the knowledge that just because one aspect of your life isn’t going quite to plan, that doesn’t mean by any stretch that all aspects of your life are off course.
Look for the constant goods in your life: friends, family, hobbies, education, jobs, love life, personal achievements, physical health, mental health, pets, what good TV is on.
There are so many different categories that make up a human life in its totality, and it’s rare that they all fall down at once. An argument with a friend, a break-up, a bad grade, getting laid off; all of these things are isolated incidents that shouldn’t cloud the entirity of your life. View your existence on this planet as a whole, and compartmentalise when things go wrong.
It’s important to always keep perspective on yourself and your life, and when things go wrong, what’s going right.
Fourth – Take Responsibility
This one can be quite scary. It’s hard to admit when you’re in the wrong, but it’s a necessary step to creating a constructive mindset.
We often like to characterise the universe as being a cruel and unfair mistress, one that has it out for us at every turn. We think that bad things just keep happening and it’s out of our control. It’s not.
When things go wrong, sometimes it is indeed our fault. Admitting that, recognising that, and acting accordingly is a key way for us to take back control of our lives and our surroundings.
We need to take responsibility for ourselves, and look at situations in an objective way. Could you have done something differently? What actually happened? What was your role in the situation?
Asking ourselves these questions may be a little daunting, but it’s vital that we do in order to take responsibility for our actions. Unless we acknowledge that things are indeed in control, and that there were things we could have done to pevent the situation from happening, we don’t know what we can do next time to ensure it doesn’t happen again.
Taking responsibility means that we decide our fate, we decide our destiny, and we are the authors of our own stories.
But also, it’s importnat to remember that taking responsibility isn’t just something you should do when things go wrong, but also when things go right. Giving yourself credit when you do something well, when you achieve something, when you win, is just as important as admitting where you could make improvements.
Fifth – Take Action
Sometimes, we can take too much responsibility. Sometimes we completely blame ourselves for everything that goes wrong. This can mean that we fall into a trap of thinking that we are simply born bad, that we can’t change ourselves, that we can only destroy and never create, which means that we don’t take action to change.
This sounds extreme, but this mental phenomenon is a very common symptom of many mental health issues: extreme thinking is sort of our speciality.
Know that there is always something you can do to change your situation, even if it’s hard.
Forming a constructive, rather than destructive, mindset requires us to look at the things we can change and improve about ourselves.
When things don’t go our way, instead of asking “why me?”, we should be asking “right, what can I do?”.
Instead of laying down and taking everything that’s happening to us, we should create goals, action plans, and ways of overcoming the problems that we face.
Breaking it down into small, managable bites of action can help us feel more in control of our lives, and mean that we take positive steps to rectify our situation.
But it’s also important to realise that although we can be critical of ourselves, we don’t have to be a critic. Whilst looking at things we can change, we should still view ourselves as a whole, and a whole that is mostly good.
We can say to ourselves “okay, I did x wrong, but I also did y right, and I know that I’m still a good person, I just made an error that I can fix or grow from”.
For instance, if we do badly on a test, instead of beating ourselves up about it and believing that we are an awful, stupid person who can never do well, we should ask for feedback, learn where we went wrong, come up with a list of ways we can do better, and resolve to improve for next time.
Sixth – Change Your Narrative
As we’ve already spoken about, the narrative we build around ourselves is incredibly important. I could write a whole post on this topic, and probably will, but for now, here’s some quick tips on how to do so.
If our narrative is a negative one, one where we are always the victim and villian, then our perception is distorted to the point where we cannot see the truth about our lives.
Changing our narrative requires us to think ourselves positive. This may sound simplistic, and that’s because in some ways, it is.
Simple, effective, but bloody hard work.
Whenever you find yourself thinking a negative thought cycle, challenge it. Debate it. Question it. Argue against it. Stand up for yourself. Say “actually no, I’m not a bad person or a failure”, or “I can do something about this”.
After a few weeks of going through the process of changing your narrative, you’ll find that when things go wrong, your immidiete reaction will be a more positive, constructive one. It’s almost quite a shock; the first time it happens, and your brain suddenly goes “oh no, that’s a shame. But everything will be okay”, you almost have to stop and pick your jaw up off the floor.
In the meantime, write a list of everything that you’re greatful for, and all the good things you like about yourself. Focus your mind on the best things about your life. Keep the list somewhere easily grabbable, and read it every day.
Soon, you’ll see that your story is actually pretty awesome, and, like any good story, has moments of darkness from which the hero emerges stronger, wiser and bettter.
Seventh – Give Evidence
It’s important to feed your brain examples and evidence of times where things went wrong, then were okay, times where you thought the pain would never end and then it did, times when you got over something.
Even if you keep one, go-to example, it can massively alter the way you think.
For instance, if something bad happens, and you feel yourself falling into a negative thought-cycle again, immidietely conjure a picture of a time when things went wrong, but then got so, so much better.
Over time, this will show your brain hard evidence that a set-back isn’t the end of the world, and that soon, this too shall pass.
Unfortunately in life, things go wrong. Bad things happen to us all, and probably will at certain points for the rest of our lives. But what differentiates happy people from sad people is the way they handle those bad things.
It all comes down to resiliance – the ability to bounce back after adversity. It’s something that takes practice, time and effort – and this guide is just a starting point.
Using myself as an example, I used to fall into the extreme thinking patterns mentioned throughout this article, but once I changed my mindset from destructive to constructive, I suddenly found that I was far, far happier.
Now, when things go wrong, I know that I may feel sad for a while, and that that’s okay. I know that everything will always work out for the best, and nothing bad lasts forever. I know that I am responsible for myself and my actions, and I know that I can take action to change my situation and improve myself. I know that overall, my narrative is a happy one, and that there are many great things in my life that I am greatful for.
Now, when things go wrong I know I can make them right again.
We don’t always have control over the things that happen to us, if we did, life would be a very merry adventure indeed. But what we do have control over is how we react to them. Remember that.