When things aren’t going your way, it’s not pleasant. You start to feel weak. You start to feel ineffective. You start to feel powerless to change anything in your life.
So what happens? You get angry. You get bitter. You get resentful. You get to the point where any little thing could set you off. Sometimes it gets so bad that spilling a cup of coffee in the morning can ruin your entire day. Spill your coffee on the kitchen table in the morning and you can end up grinding your teeth all day long.
Well, why is that? I think it’s because spilling the coffee feels like adding insult to injury. Here you are, pushing yourself so hard but still feeling like you have no control over your life, and what happens? You can’t even hold a lousy cup of coffee right!
No wonder you get angry. Your whole world is falling apart around you, and now that stream of black liquid dripping slowly onto the floor proves that even your own hand won’t obey your will.
So that’s when you start feeling about a million different emotions all at once. You feel annoyed that the coffee spilled. But beyond that you feel humiliated because apparently now you’re the type of person who can’t even hold a cup of coffee right. But beyond that you feel resentful because on top of everything else in your life, you now have to worry about cleaning up that stupid little cup of coffee. But beyond that you feel absolutely terrified because there’s a part of you that thinks, “I’m getting worse and worse. If I can’t even control this, there’s no way I’ll ever get the rest of my life together.”
There you are by the table, with annoyance, embarrassment, resentment, and black terror cycling through your mind—which is probably what we mean by anxiety.
It’s a hopeless feeling. At the bottom of it all there’s the feeling that things are going to get worse. And not only that: it’s a feeling that things are only going to get worse for the rest of your life, and there’s nothing you can do to stop it.
This is where things get dangerous. Because when you’re wrapped up in a feeling of utter hopelessness, and powerlessness, you’ll do anything to alleviate that feeling. There are a few things you can try, and it’s worth taking some time to talk about them.
You can take that feeling and turn it into anger. You can decide, “No, I’m not powerless, because I can lash out in anger against people who have nothing to do with my real problems.” Hurt people. Be cruel to animals. Treat everybody who cares about you so badly they stop caring, and do your best to alienate everybody you meet.
Go ahead and try that, if you want. See how well it works.
On the other hand, you could take that feeling and try to find immediate relief from it. You could go get so drunk you forget how bad you feel when you’re sober. You could go gamble away all your money on the hope that you’ll find a sudden windfall. You could go spend more money than you can afford buying things you don’t need and don’t really want.
You could try that too, if you like. See how well that works.
Another thing you could try: decide everyone’s out to get you. Decide the world doesn’t like you, doesn’t want you, and is for some perverse reason actively opposed to your happiness. Make up your mind to be a passive victim, and do your best to stop caring.
That’s another thing you could try. (Just as a side note: taken on its own terms, this one works extremely well. If you decide to live like a victim, the world is only too happy to play along.)
If you’re looking for an immediate solution, those three are just about the only options you’ve got. You can get angry, you can get intoxicated, or you can get depressed.
(You can also try suicide, but it’s not recommended.)
So you spilled your coffee. You’re feeling hopeless. You’re feeling like you’ll never get your life in order. You’re feeling desperate, and you’re getting close to the point where you’re willing to do anything to put a stop to the pain you’re feeling. What should you do to escape this pain?
My advice: don’t try to escape. Not immediately, at least. The short-sighted hope to escape the pain instantly can lead you to make rash decisions that lead you right back to where you started. Like the way they say drinking alcohol is “borrowing happiness from tomorrow.” Sure, for a couple hours all your problems go away. But tomorrow morning they’re all still there, and you’ve got a wicked hangover too.
You have to be able to put up with the pain. You’re not getting away from it immediately. Accept that. Don’t resign yourself to it—that’s being a victim—but accept that you’re going to be in pain for a while.
Now, look rationally into what’s causing your distress. Ask yourself, “Am I angry because I spilled my coffee, or am I angry because I’ve been hunting for work for months without making any progress?”
Keep digging into those causes until you can’t dig any deeper. This can be a painful process. It’s not easy to look at yourself and your problems objectively. Usually you end up finding out that most of your problems are your own doing, and that you’re going to have to make some major changes in order to fix it.
If you’re anything like me, hearing the word “change” is enough to get your hackles up. We like to keep our actions stable and constant. Our habits are the way we know ourselves.
But here’s the truth: no matter what’s bothering you, there is a solution. And no matter what the solution, it’s going to take some change on your part. It’s going to be unpleasant, it’s going to be painful, and you’re going to hate every minute of it. But it’s going to be worth it.
It’s worth it to get to that day when you can spill your cup of coffee and shrug it off. You’ll have control of the parts of your life that matter most, so you’ll be secure enough that spilling a cup of coffee won’t threaten you. You won’t have to be so sensitive to every little slight that the world feels like it’s out to get you.
That can happen. That will happen. But only if you make it happen.