One of my special talents, besides folding a fitted sheet into a perfect square and untangling even the most knotted gold chains, is making mountains out of molehills. I have never met a bad situation that I haven’t blown out of proportion in my mind. This was brought to my attention as most revelations in my life are — during a sobbing phone call placed to my mother four years ago.
I was 24 and in the throes of a meltdown. “My life is terrible!” I wailed into the phone. “I have no boyfriend and feel like a complete loser.” My mom, ever the patient woman, calmly read me my life. I had just moved into my own studio apartment on the Upper East Side; I’d landed a job at a website I’d admired since college at a salary twice what I was making at my previous employer; and I’d just booked a trip abroad with my best friend. “Why are you letting this one negative thing overshadow the rest of your good life?”
As someone who struggles to compartmentalize my emotions, that question has been the theme of my life ever since. If one part of my life is in disarray, my unhappiness seeps into all other aspects of it. I’m an in-the-flesh rendering of Debbie Downer: able to let the negative spoil the positive within a single minute. For instance, if someone compliments my writing, it serves as a reminder for me to panic that I’ve not been assigned enough writing that month.
Unluckily for me, this does not work in reverse: When one thing goes well in my life, I do not allow it to boost my overall morale. It’s all or nothing; either everything is going well in my life or everything is terrible. I’m aware that this insanely polarized, binary way of thinking has wreaked havoc on my emotional life, but I’ve seldom managed to snap out of it.
That is, until I had to. Thanks to a series of events that included my getting laid off from my no-longer dream job and being tossed into the dog-eat-dog world of freelance writing, things in my life began teetering between “pretty bad” and “a scorched hellscape of my own making.” I was losing sleep, gaining weight, breaking down crying in public. It felt like nothing in my life was really going my way, and my negativity was feeding itself until it turned until this massive cloud I could no longer ignore.
Unsure of how to break the cycle, I settled on the stuff of inspiration mugs and motivational posters: positive thinking. If something good happened during the day, I tried to lean into it. When one day, my cashier at Whole Foods gave me my hydrangeas for free, I smiled and tried to let that good feeling wash over me for as long as possible. Another time, when a writer I respected retweeted one of my stories on Twitter, I celebrated it instead of brushing it off, sharing the news with a friend.
Allowing myself to recognize and celebrate these happy moments — no strings attached — was somewhat new territory for me. But it was a strategy that only proved helpful when I had the emotional agility to get there. If I was in the middle of a negativity flood, those moments of recognition felt forced and did little to pull me out of myself.
In search of answers, I called up Rachel Sussman, LCSW. Sussman is a psychotherapist I’ve used as a source on a bunch of personal essays, and she has a decent handle on the maelstrom that is my emotional self. I asked her how I should go about leaning into optimism when I’m feeling nothing but pessimism, and she offered up three helpful tips.
She told me that it’s important to acknowledge that I’m in a negative place — something I have a lot of trouble doing. Instead of saying, “Hey, I’m feeling shitty,” I tend to say, “I’ll feel better later.” And while that may seem like a healthy option, Sussmann says it’s actually detrimental because it takes me out of the current moment. “Acknowledging that you’re in this negative place is helpful,” she says. “It’s similar to mindfulness, and it helps you live in the moment.” It allows me to recognize the negatives in the larger sense, instead of just wishing them away.
Do Something — Anything
Sussmann also suggests engaging in tangible activities instead of happy thoughts. For instance, instead of thinking about the cashier with the hydrangeas when I’m feeling bad, I should throw on my sneakers and go for a run. Or if I’m feeling shitty about my inability to sell a specific story, I should put my computer down and bake some banana bread. “Anything that will distract you and make you feel better is generally fantastic,” Sussmann says. It’s not avoidance so much as a healthy, temporary diversion. Wallowing is a weakness for me, so self-flagellation isn’t going to help me move forward. But gaining new perspective through banana bread? That might actually be helpful.
Finally, she told me to stop beating myself up when I’m in a foul mood. “That just makes the situation worse,” she says. Instead, I should forgive myself for feeling that way, acknowledge that it’s totally fine to feel bad, and then figure out ways to make myself feel better. “Don’t just put a lid on the pain,” she says. “Instead, acknowledge [it], recognize why you’re feeling that way, but then work on moving on.”
Kelley Kitley, another psychotherapist, offered a more immediate way to shift my energy to the positive: Engage through stopping. Literally. “Imagine someone standing in front of you with a stop sign,” she says. “Tell yourself that the negativity is not helpful and write down three things you are grateful for.” Kitley says that this will help me look at my situation through a more positive lens and shift my mood. She’s also suggests reaching out to friends to see how they’re doing. “Offering someone else your support is an easy way to shift your focus,” she says. “It’s easy to get stuck in negative thoughts by being egocentric.”
Since these conversations, I’ve been trying to truly celebrate the good things in my life and let the bad things roll off my shoulders by stepping back and seeing the big picture. And when I can’t, I try to focus on things that actually do make me feel better, like yoga, meditation or a good marathon of Real Housewives. Has it turned me into a completely zen human? Absolutely not. I’m still pretty damn good at stewing in my negative. But with practice, I think I’ll one day be able to make a mountain out of my positivity molehill. Bit by bit, I’m adding sand to the pile.
Photo by Krista Anna Lewis; gif by Emily Zirimis.