Misery Is Optional

Some days, the Just For Today email from Narcotics Anonymous really hits the nail on the head for me. Today is one of those days.

“I don’t have to be miserable unless I really want to be.  Today, I will trade in my misery for the benefits of recovery.”

– Extract from Just For Today email.

There’s a lot of crossover between the ideas of NA and those in other philosophical traditions such as Buddhism and Stoicism. And this is a great example.

Look, I get it: it’s human nature to tell ourselves we are justified in our misery…

Perhaps a political party we despise has just been elected (as will happen for a large proportion of the UK electorate in the next few days). Perhaps our boss at work is treating us unfairly. Maybe we’re suffering from some kind of mental or physical illness.

But I like to remind myself of Victor Frankl and his 1946 book, Man’s Search for Meaning. Viktor survived the Nazi concentration camps. If anyone had good justification for feeling miserable, it would be him.

And yet – he took control of the way he reacted to his horrific circumstances. He didn’t let them get the better of him.

Can We Help Being Depressed?

I’d like to think I know what I’m talking about when it comes to depression and suicide. I’ve been depressed on and off for most of my adult life and been close to suicide several times.

When I’m feeling really low, it feels like a kick in the teeth to be told that I should just decide to be happier. It feels ludicrous and absolutely impossible to even try. And I want to punch anyone who suggests it, no matter how well-meaning they may be.

But whilst in the depths of depression, I gradually came to accept an incredibly profound concept:

“Whilst I am not to blame for my depression, there are certain things I can do which can make things better for myself.”

Bollinger, R. 2019

Interestingly, Narcotics Anonymous says something similar about addiction.

Now, as I’ve alluded to above, if you’re currently depressed, often the last thing we want to hear is that we have a responsibility to try to get better. It’s much easier to throw our hands up in the air and say, “Hey, I have an illness. I can’t help it. There’s nothing I can do about it.”

That freedom from responsibility seems appealing, comforting almost – it allows us to take a break from caring. But it’s a silk-lined trap.

“When we recognise that there are ways we can help ourselves, and we’re not condemned to suffer indefinitely, that’s incredibly liberating.”

Bollinger, R. 2019

No Quick Fix

Now, I’m really not saying that a depressed or addicted person can just click their fingers and magically decide to be happy. It’s not that simple.

As any behavioural psychologist worth their salt will tell you: behaviour change is hard. And that’s because we have to build up healthy habits, which takes practice and time.

It takes incremental effort, every day, as we attempt to make our lives just a little better. Just one tiny step forward every day will result in us eventually finishing a marathon.

Actually, it’s even better than that: if you improve 1% every day, by the end of 1 year, you’ll be 37.7 times better than when you started. (I blogged about this idea here).

(Note: not 37.7% better, 37.7 times. That’s 3,770%!)

Your Turn

So, over to you…

What small things are you willing to do, today, which might help you feel less miserable, more fulfilled, happier with your lot in life?

The Stories We Tell Ourselves

Recently I talked about how I now have a pretty flexible belief system.

My goal is to choose whatever belief seems to have the most utility (for all concerned) at any given moment. This means I can believe one thing one minute, then paradoxically, believe its opposite in a different situation later on.

It all depends on what seems like the most useful belief to me at the time.

I also have underlying guiding principles. I have morals and ethics, which are particular to me. This fundamental moral structure helps me to determine the relative utility of different beliefs.

My moral system is built on Honesty, Courage and Love, plus several other spiritual principles.

And I’ve been thinking about how this system might logically be expanded further…

Flexible Feelings and Narratives

I’ve been thinking about feelings and beliefs… and how these build into the stories or narratives we tell ourselves.

If you’ve ever practiced meditation and/or mindfulness, you’ll have probably noticed how us humans are constantly telling ourselves stories. We constantly narrate what’s going on around us.

And we also time travel to the past or the future – and start narrating what’s already happened (in the past) or what we think might happen (in the future).

I’ve found that it’s perfectly possible for beliefs to be flexible. It hasn’t ruined my psyche or diminished who I think I am as an individual person. If anything, my flexible beliefs have made me even stronger and more confident in who I am.

So, if beliefs are flexible… are feelings and narratives flexible too?

I believe they are.

I believe we have the choice to engage and identify with feelings… or just let them pass. This is equivalent to us deciding a belief is true and incorporating it into our self-identity, or simply just letting it be.

Here’s a concrete example… let’s say a friend does something which results in me feeling angry. At this point, I can choose to narrate my feeling of anger and decide I’m justified in feeling that way… at which point I’ll start to build a cohesive narrative around the feeling…

… Or I can choose the mindful approach, which is to simply witness the feeling of anger, allow myself to feel the emotion, and let it pass in its own time.

It’s entirely my choice… engage with the anger, or just let it pass. And that choice brings tremendous freedom. We don’t have to be a prisoner to our own impulses.

Of course… sometimes it’s easy to get carried away in the moment and forget I have this choice… but I’m hoping that with practice I’ll get better at it.

A House of Cards

Recently I’ve become more aware of the stories I tell myself. And I keep reminding myself… it’s all just in my head! The structures of meaning I build, the narratives, they all exist only in my mind. And I often make the mistake of trying to impose my narrative structures on the external world. I confuse my map for the territory, a common human mistake.

It’s such a wonderful feeling of freedom when you catch yourself telling yourself a story about what’s happening, and you realise…

  • This is all just in my head!
  • I can choose whether I want to believe it’s true or not.
  • I can choose how I want to act, based on this narrative.
  • I can even choose to drop a particular narrative altogether, if I feel it’s not helpful.

That last point really struck home for me yesterday…

“I can even choose to drop a particular narrative altogether, if I feel it’s not helpful.”

Bollinger, R. (2019)

It’s so funny! We spend so much time building these houses of cards in our minds… layers of meaning and interpretation layered on top of each other…

And yet, they are only important if we decide they are important. And we can choose to knock over the whole house of cards at any time!

So when we’ve knocked over the house of cards, what choices does that open up for us?

  1. We can choose to switch our minds into “being” mode. This is where we are consciously aware of what’s actually going on around us. We are a witness to our own thoughts, senses and emotions. We just watch these things pass through our minds, without getting attached to them or resisting them. And there’s great peace here.
  2. Or, we can choose to start rebuilding the house of cards in a slightly different way… hopefully one more closely aligned with our personal spiritual principles.
  3. As a slight variation on the above option, we can talk to someone else who has an interest in how we build our house of cards. What meaning do they interpret from this situation? Let’s negotiate to build a house of cards in each of our minds which we can both agree will be useful. This ability to build shared meaning is very powerful for humans. And we tend to get into a lot of trouble when we insist that our personal house of cards is more valid than someone else’s. Again – the map is not the territory.

I feel like it’d be useful at this point to give a concrete example.

Let’s take my recent falling out with two friends.

If we reduce the situation to its bare, component facts, it looks something like this…

My friends said and believed some things about me which I felt were untrue.

That’s it. With all the emotion and righteous indignation removed from the situation, that’s basically what happened.

I then chose to feel angry, upset and offended. I escalated the situation. My ego got involved and I decided I would rather not have a friendship than concede to these two idiots.

Could I have handled this situation differently? Of course!

I could have simply decided I was going to allow my friends to think and believe what they like about me. If they aren’t willing to listen to my explanations, I can’t force them. I also can’t force them to think positively about me or re-assess their own judgements.

In essence, I could have just ignored the whole situation and not let it bother me.

I could have told myself a narrative something like, “They’ve made some incorrect assumptions about me and drawn some unflattering conclusions. But they also won’t take the time to listen to me, so I can’t change anything. So I’m just going to let it go.

And just like that, the house of cards in my own mind, the one fueled by righteous indignation, collapses into nothing.

The house of cards came from nothing. It always was nothing – it existed only inside my own mind. And then it returned to nothing. It only held meaning while I decided it held meaning. I can choose to return it to nothing at any time.

Does all that make sense?

Next Steps

So, moving forward, I intend to use mindful awareness to notice when I’m building a narrative, a house of cards, in my own mind. And I’ll ask myself, “Is this story I’m telling myself a useful one? If there was a better, more useful, story – what would that look like?

I won’t always remember to do this. I will still frequently get caught up in the moment. But I’m hoping that the more I practice this way of being, the easier it’ll be and the more proficient I’ll become.