A few days ago, for the first time in years, I found myself in a horrible mood – completely out of the blue. On reflection, I got into it through comparing myself to someone else, being inflexible and impatient under the pressure of my own big dreams. Had I not known better, I would have thought I was suicidal. I was thinking of how I owe it to the people who love me to keep going. I knew that I felt like this before. Because of that, cognitively, I knew it would pass. Cognitively, I knew that the kind of words that were floating around in my head were only words that clumsily tried to explain how much pain I was in. All the same, it was a really dark three or four hours of self-hatred and hopelessness. It was made worse by the vicious cycle of feeling guilty and weak for feeling bad.
Cognitively, I knew that the faster I interrupt this horrible mood, the better. Bad moods beget more bad moods. At this point, I stopped judging myself for feeling bad, acknowledged that this is simply the way it is – good or bad – and it’s time to get myself out of this horrible state. But how? How do you get yourself out of this mood swamp? Common wisdom would say: look for support. I couldn’t fathom talking to anyone. I know now that it’s silly, but there was no arguing with the upset-me. Common wisdom would say: try and feel grateful for what you have rather than feel bad about what’s missing. That just seemed like some kind of evil joke.
The answer, as always, came from asking the right question. The question I asked was: What’s useful about this? I knew this lesson from before. I’ve even written about it here. It just goes to show that these lessons aren’t only cognitive. It takes time and iterations to learn them. Even with all my knowledge, it took me a bit of digging around to find where the right button was.
What was useful about it? I knew that I need time to look after myself. In and of itself, that was useful information. I looked back and wondered what upset me – I learn from that too. It wasn’t the first time that being super focused and not flexible enough got me into trouble like this. However, rather than judging, I will just take this is another data point and another note to self: be more flexible. This is high level theory, but I’ve already implemented measures that would make it easier for me to be more flexible. I also realised that today wasn’t a good day to do any work. My alarm bells went off – I am glad that I don’t have to work?! Rather than accusing myself of laziness, I dug deeper. I was doing something important, repetitive – and boring. It was super easy. I am sure many people don’t mind those kind of tasks, but I can’t handle them at all. My relentless focus on doing what needs to be done got me into a situation where I couldn’t play to my strengths. So here’s another lesson: doing things that don’t come naturally for too long isn’t sustainable. I think that’s valuable as next time I will be able to assign who does what and when better.
As I am writing this, I am able to not just hope that that horrible feeling never happened – I feel grateful that I learnt from it. I really mean it. It’s all about learning, progress, small wins and getting closer to the person you want to become. And not judging.
The truth is, it’s highly unusual for me to get upset. I wasn’t just born this way though. There was one thing that made me go from super sensitive to where I am now. When I say super sensitive, I mean if the person who poured my coffee in the morning looked at me wrong – I would feel uneasy for hours. What made the difference for me wasn’t some sort of soul searching or even mindfulness – it was straight up physical exercise. I don’t know whether it is just the flood of endorphins, but it really helps with the art of just not giving af when appropriate. Exercise is the one thing that makes the biggest difference to both mental and physical health for a healthy person.
There was some cognitive work too, but it would never have happened without the initial boost through exercise. The cognitive work was something like this: the barista doesn’t care about you, you are just a person with an order and a wallet. They are in their own world. It’s not personal. They are just trying to get through the day the best they can. I think there’s a word for that – it’s called empathy. Exercise isn’t known to cause empathy, what’s going on here? Exercise requires focus, so in a sense, it requires mindfulness. Maybe that’s part of it. In any case – in my unblinded non-randomised non-controlled trial of n=1, it works.