“The mean reds are horrible. You’re afraid, and you sweat like hell, but you don’t know what you’re afraid of. Except something bad is going to happen, only you don’t know what it is. You’ve had that feeling?”
— Truman Capote, Breakfast at Tiffany’s
I had one of those days yesterday. A ‘Mean Reds’ day. The kind where even the good stuff feels off balance.
The kind of day that you feel in the center of your chest. Like a brick sitting there, keeping your heart from beating properly and your lungs from filling completely.
Days like that, it feels like the veil between the life I think I’m living and the one I actually have is whisper thin. Usually everything’s okay doesn’t feel like an illusion. It feels real. And then there are days when the Mean Reds hit.
I’m not talking about a tragic day here. The Mean Reds aren’t a response to tragedy. They’re usually a response to something in your life being off-balance.
You know you’re having a Mean Reds day when a thousand little things go micro-wrong and maybe a couple of things go really wrong, and suddenly the weight of everything and everyone depending on you just feels too big.
I started to write today about how to stop the Mean Reds. Or maybe how to avoid them. How to get that brick off your sternum so you can take a deep breath again.
I realized something, though, when I closed my eyes for a minute and really thought about it. The Mean Reds are hard and they suck. No one wants them.
But I think they might be necessary.
It’s hard to learn and grow when things are good enough.
My best friend told me once that she was afraid to have goals. She liked everything about her life well enough and she was afraid of tempting fate to take it away from her by wanting more.
If good is the enemy of great — then good enough is the enemy of better.
A Mean Reds day is uncomfortable and, frankly, awful. But they are usually a symptom of something off kilter. Something ‘good enough’ that isn’t anymore. When you get to the other side of it, those days strip away the ‘good enough’ for a minute, so that you can see how to get to better.
If you can lean into your Mean Reds and see what’s at the heart of them, you might see where you need to grow and figure out what you need to learn.
Mean Reds days can inspire intense motivation.
You need to be able to feel what’s wrong, if you’re going to change it. And when everything is good, or at least not Mean Red, then your focus is on what’s working, not what isn’t.
The Mean Reds can be the kind of day when, if you lean into it, a really good plan is possible. You’re motivated, when you can’t breathe. Think about it. You’ll never swim any harder than when you’re kicking up to the surface with your lungs burning for air.
Learn to recognize a Mean Reds day for what it is: a notice from your psyche that something isn’t working. Let that motivate you to find a way to fix the problem.
The Mean Reds are part of life.
This isn’t depression. It’s not anxiety. And, like I said, it’s not a response to tragedy. The Mean Reds are different. They’re an activation of the flight-or-fight response.
They’re temporary, although it doesn’t always feel like it in the moment. Usually they really are just a day. Get some sleep and things look clearer in the morning.
But they’re scary, because sometimes you really don’t know what’s kicking your flight-or-fight response into high gear.
It’s natural to just react to the Mean Reds. Lash out or scream or hide or bury yourself in whatever comfort you can rustle up. But if you lean into them, you can get to the reason why they’re happening.
Maybe you’re not taking good enough care of yourself. Maybe there’s something toxic in your life that’s finally come to a head. Maybe a bad habit is catching up with you. Maybe you’re spending the bulk of every day doing work that doesn’t align with who you want to be.
Whatever it is, a Mean Reds day is an opportunity to figure it out, if you let it be.
Shaunta Grimes is a writer and teacher. She is an out-of-place Nevadan living in Northwestern PA with her husband, three superstar kids, two dementia patients, a good friend, Alfred the cat, and a yellow rescue dog named Maybelline Scout. She’s on Twitter @shauntagrimes and is the original Ninja Writer.