Bad Hair Days

Bad Hair Days are days when thing s go wrong. They are:

  1. Relatively common yet unexpected.
  2. Initially involve a relatively minor (real or perceived) pain–leading to bad feelings.
  3. Typically rationalized in hindsight, to justify our bad feelings often resulting in pointless suffering.

To be clear I’m not talking about major life events (Personal Black Swans). The latter can and often do produce significant pain and a measure of unavoidable suffering.What I am discussing is our tendency to turn Bad Hair Days, into major life events my mismanaging our feelings.

So here’s the secret for dealing with bad feelings: emotions are ephemeral. They don’t last, that is unless we hang on to them. The problem is that most of us are extremely skilled at at hanging on to the negative ones. Just why this might be has troubled me for some time.

The engineer in me is inclined to see this as a straightforward application of Murphy’s law. That is: “If anything can possibly go wrong, it will”. Basically the universe is perverse. Therefore, bad feelings last and good feelings are fleeting. The problem with this theory, other than it’s pessimism, is that it’s only true for some people. Others seem to experience the reverse. For them good feelings last and bad ones are fleeting. A useful theory needs to explain why some folks are able to hang onto positive feelings while others hang on to the negative ones.

Here’s my thinking so far regarding how we (I) hang on to negative feelings:

  1. We experience a negative emotion, anger, sadness, resentment, whatever. This is perfectly normal, we are feeling creatures after all.
  2. Unfortunately, many of us don’t think we “should” have negative feelings. Good people shouldn’t have such feelings or so we think. This is mistake number 1.
  3. Well maybe, we rationalize, if they have a really really good reason, good people do feel like this. So we think up a reason. Often the reason is perfectly true and reasonable.
  4. With the reason we begin to feel better about feeling bad. We should feel bad we have an excellent reasonwhich brings with an entirely new ad different feeling–righteous indignation.
  5. Then we begin to really foul up. Mistake 2: we repeat the reason over and over to ourselves, experiencing the negative feeling and the righteous indignation anew each time, proving that we are right to feel bad.

It’s like getting stabbed with a knife and then continually twisting that knife just to prove that it still hurts. And of course it does.

  1. So we take a feeling that might have lasted a few minutes or an hour at most, and we make it last days, weeks, months, years,…,a lifetime.

I’ve done this myself. I still do it, even understanding where it leads; at least until I catch myself.

There are two leverage points here, that is two places we can, just by changing our thinking, avoid extending our discomfort. The first, and by far the most effective involves being more compassionate with ourselves. Accept emotions as they arise without needing to rationalize them to ourselves or anyone else.

Failing that, don’t keep twisting the knife. While it may be true that you were deeply hurt by someone else or even by an uncaring universe, there is no sane reason to keep victimizing ourselves over an over for days or even weeks on end.

But there is a third way that’s even more effective, changing your perspective. Here’s an example:

Several years ago I was an Assistant Scoutmaster. One Sunday I was driving back from a camping trip a few hundred miles from home. There were half a dozen scouts in the van, all of them asleep. It had rained the night before an no one had gotten much sleep.

Normally it would have been a five hour drive but my van was behaving strangely whenever I tried to go over  50 miles per hour (the speed limit was 70).  I stopped for gas and inspected the tires but didn’t see anything that looked unusual so I just went on. Then about an hour from home I was crossing over a bridge when the left front tire blew out. I drove to the end of the bridge then pulled as far as I could off of the freeway while remaining on pavement.

The traffic was blowing by at 70 or more which was more than a little disturbing. And of course the spare tire was buried under sleeping bags and other camping paraphernalia. I unloaded it and moved into the grass to the right of the van. As I reached it to grab the spare I saw a flash of light followed instantly by the crash of thunder. It began pouring rain. Within seconds the camping gear and I were soaked.

I began laughing, not quite hysterically; it was all so ridiculous.  The scouts probably thought I was crazy but I didn’t care. I started changing the tire. A few moments later a State Trooper pulled up behind the car and turned on his flashers. He didn’t get out of the car, it was pouring after all. But I was certainly glad to have him there warning the traffic and making them slow down a bit.


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