“The oak that resists the wind loses its branches one by one, and with nothing left to protect it, the trunk finally snaps. The oak that bends lives longer, its trunk growing wider, its roots deeper and more tenacious.”Robert Greene – “The 48 Laws of Power”
You feel pretty good one day. Sticking out your tongue, you notice that life tastes just that little bit sweeter than you recall. The next day, sweeter still. Maybe you coast at this fresh altitude for two or three more days before BAM! You’re back down again, even lower this time than you remember being in the first place.
Nod along if that ever happens to you.
I go through it all the time. And it never stops sucking. In fact, it happened to me yesterday. Almost a week of noticing myself in a slightly elevated mood with each passing day, and then as if on cue, it all just vanished. Where to? For how long?
The annoying thing is that I don’t know. The more important thing is that I don’t give a shit. I’ve taught myself not to care about it. Moods come. Moods go. The more I try to stay out of their way, the less they seem to mess with me.
It’s not that I enjoy feeling crap, or worthless, or demotivated. No, no – it feels just as horrible as it sounds. But – and this could just be the perks of being a seasoned traveller between these ups and downs – I’ve slowly pieced together a way to be okay either way. It’d be a huge stretch to say that I feel good about feeling bad, but I at least know how to feel less bad about it.
You see, I’m not that unusual – I feel good when I get things done. But for most of my life, I knew about only one source of fuel – my feelings. And if I was having a good day, then that worked just fine. I breezed through things. I felt like I was on fire. But I suppose you’ve already guessed what happened the moment I felt anything less than supremely motivated, haven’t you? I got bugger all done and felt even worse.
When that happened enough times, I began to wonder which was worse: was it my original low mood, or was it the way that my reaction to it would make me spiral? Because I couldn’t see any difference, as far as I was concerned, between the way I felt and the kind of day I had and the things I managed to get done.
But the truth I came to – one that took years to glimpse, I should add – is that one thing doesn’t have to equal the other, and in fact, believing that it does is the real problem. Feeling like a worthless turd is one thing. And it’s horrible. And I wish nobody ever had to go through feeling like that. But deciding to let that feeling define your day, or your week, or your month? Well, that’s a completely separate issue. And what’s more… it’s a choice. Your choice.
The big thing with feeling depressed – whether for a day or a year – is that you don’t feel much like doing anything. Either you can’t see the point, or even when you can, you feel as though your insides are physically stopping you from taking any action. This presents quite a problem, because, in life, you have to do certain things, however you feel.
Well, the question that finally worked on me was this: “What would I do with my day if I knew for sure I was going to feel terrible?”
And that question led to drastically revise what I expected of myself. Because it all comes down to expectations. I didn’t realise it, but I’d been designing my life around being at my best 24/7 – always firing on all of the cylinders all of the time. And the moment I wasn’t able to do that I was incredibly frustrated. Cue spiral.
But the problem wasn’t my moods. The ups and downs didn’t help, sure, but the real problem was my expectations. If you expect yourself to be at your best all the time, well then it’s just basic maths that you’re going to be disappointed most of the time. On the vast majority of your days, you are capable of performing at your average level. Some of the time you’re capable only of your worst. And an equal amount of time you’re capable of your best.
If I set the bar low enough that I can hit it on my worst days, do you know what happens? I hit it and no matter how depressed I am in general, I can at least feel good about that. Do you know what happens if I set the bar so high I can only hit it on my best days? I hate my life.
Even on your worst days, you’re capable of something. Measure yourself against this “something” and you’ll find that even your foulest moods lose their power to completely derail you.
Remember: There’s a very big difference between letting something slow you and down and letting something stop you.