How to Survive Yourself

We do a lot of things that make our problems worse.


The world’s out to get you. But so are you. The problem is that most of us don’t know it. Our instincts can stab us in the back. Like right now, I want to send angry emails to five different people and quit my job with a soapbox polemic. They deserve to know what I think about them. And I’m right. I’m always right. The people I don’t like are idiots.

Except I’m not going to send those emails.

I’m not even going to write them, at least not in a live browser. Tried that. Accidentally sent said angry email. Mistake.

And I’m going to remove the soap box and bullhorn from my Amazon cart. Fine, and I’ll shred the photocopies of my ass.

We do way more than send impulsive emails, and it undermines our long term goals. We worry about things we can’t control, nonstop. Some of us self-medicate in ways that make our problems worse.

We lash out at people who didn’t cause our problems, and can’t fix them. We do this to our closest allies — our friends, husbands, wives, and even our kids. Other times, we give up on ourselves too soon.

Or we bitch, to anyone who will listen. Sometimes for hours.

And if all that fails, we fall into bed and brood.

Speaking for myself, I’ve got a wicked inclination to brood, complain, and lash out. But I’ve also learned how to spot bad mojo and stop it fast — usually by following a simple method.

Tone down your inner monologue

Part of us always wants to exaggerate our struggles. We want to be the heroine in our own Danielle Steel novel. Even guys. Don’t lie. We want a dramatic narrator, who makes our daily problems sound poetic and meaningful. We want a score by John Williams.

But you’re just not that important. Neither am I. When you let that narrative spin, you’re bound to blow things out of proportion.

Things almost never happen the way we see them in movies and novels. We think we know this, but we still pretend. Our inner monologue has the potential to turn everything into an epic.

We’re all writing our memoirs in our heads. We want to make it sound as compelling as possible. Right?

But living inside a gripping story is exhausting. You can’t spend all day thinking like Scarlett O’Hara, or Frodo. Let’s suppose that your life is, in fact, so full of stress that every little decision means life and death.

Thinking about it like that is going to burn out your mind.

Take a break from your head. Get over yourself. For your own sake. Develop a sense of humor about your circumstances. Practice telling yourself that big things don’t matter as much as they seem to in the moment. Nobody ever solved a problem by describing it in beautiful prose, or capturing the look on their face from just the right angle.

Minimize your brooding

We all like to feel sorry for ourselves. It’s even worse when you have a legit reason to fret about your job, your marriage, or your kids. We brood most when a situation falls outside our control.

Maybe you can’t fix that one problem. But you can sure as hell manage the rest of your life.

The problem with brooding is that it takes time and attention away from things you actually can control. Right now, I’m worried about my career. Higher education is coming undone. The big universities will survive, but smaller colleges like mine are living on borrowed time.

Our big bosses are also making some really stupid decisions. The kind that bankrupt universities. I’ve seen it happen, just never at my school. And it worries the hell out of me.

And yet, all I can do is my job — for as long as I have it. I’m working on my backup plan, following higher ed news, and writing.

That’s literally all I can do. It’s all anyone can do. No matter what situation you’ve gotten stuck in, there’s a way to deal with it.

Don’t internalize every opinion

Some people pride themselves on not caring about what anyone else thinks. Others care what everyone thinks.

The rest of us imagine we have self-confidence, until we get sucked into a firefight on Facebook or Twitter. How dare that casual friend, or total stranger, have the nerve to disagree with you without facts!

How dare that one friend from college write a cryptic comment on your status update. What did they mean? Should you call them out? Three hours later, you’ve done nothing but spin circles in your office chair and freak out. Now you’re exhausted and need a drink.

There’s a lot of middle ground here. Some random stranger doesn’t deserve your attention, no matter what they say. Your boss? Their opinion matters when it comes to your performance, but nothing else.

Same thing applies to your friends, or coworkers. Or in my case, students — often the harshest critics of all. You care what they think, you just wish you didn’t. Who hasn’t felt that way?

You have to deal with other’s opinions. But you don’t have to internalize them. Decide whose opinion matters and why. Decide if they’ve pointed out something you actually want to change about yourself, and move on the best you can. Make a deal with yourself that you’ll never respond to criticism online — even from friends. That leads nowhere.

Complain the smart way

I’m a fan of venting to friends and trusted colleagues. But you can’t bitch to them every day, about everything. They have lives, too, and they might start to resent your negativity.

On the flip side, you might have a couple of “allies” who love to complain. They’ll let you air your mind. Then it’s their turn. And you’ll go round and round for hours.

That’s not friendship. That’s toxic. I’ve been there. Don’t do that. You’re simply enabling each other.

Still, you can’t keep all your rage and indignation bottled up. It has to get out somehow. Plus, it’s good to let people know what’s eating you.

Before you call a friend, think through what bothers you and why. What do you need from them?

Don’t waste their time. Explain your intentions. The worst thing you can do is call up someone for an ulterior reason, like “Hey, just wanted to chat!” And then you try to sneak in a bitch session. That’s not cool.

If you need to vent, here’s what I do. Send them a text first. “Hey, I need some advice.” When they pick up, get to the point.

Tell them what’s wrong, and what you need. Do you just need some validation, or vindication? I’ll straight up tell a friend that I need to know if I’m justified in being angry about something. They’ll tell me.

Focus on what you’ll do to fix the problem. Your friends can help you formulate a plan to deal with your frustration. Finally, try to end on a positive note. It helps you both get back to your day.

Clean your kitchen

Think about the last thing that pissed you off. For me, that happened about two hours ago. My first impulse was to send an angry email. Instead, I cleaned my kitchen and cooked three days’ worth of pasta.

We all feel the compulsion to say what we think. That can feel gratifying, maybe even necessary.

But here’s what I’ve learned, from screwing up more than once: Anything you do out of anger will just make things worse.

Cleaning works, and it transfers well. When you get frustrated at someone — or an inanimate object — focus on a menial task for a while. Clean. Organize your office. Wipe down your windows. Take out the trash. Doing that helps redirect your negative energy.

It doesn’t matter if we’re talking about a friend, or a bullshit policy at work. No matter what happened, clean. When you’re done, you’ll also have accomplished something.

Dealing with futility

Our emotional states fluctuate all the time. Things piss us off. We oscillate between righteous anger and crippling self-doubt. Sometimes, we might even wonder what matters, if anything.

Nobody’s a stranger to these feelings. Even the most productive person in the world wonders if they’ve accomplished enough in one day.

At some point, everyone wonders if they’ve made the right choices. They consider if anyone actually values them. Sometimes we think we’ve done a lot of work for nothing.

The worst part about all this? Sometimes we’re right. Sometimes, we actually did do a lot of work, for less payoff than expected.

We do get screwed over. And sometimes our plans fall apart for reasons entirely outside our control. You have to process the bad shit that happens. Sugar-coating it with inspirational garbage doesn’t help. Neither does plotting your revenge. Not that I haven’t fantasized about my boss getting swept up by the claws of a pterodactyl. That would be awesome. In case that happens, I had nothing to do with it. Henry Wu? Never heard of him.