Don’t drink the poison: 8 tips to break free of misery and self-pity 

Some years ago, while I was attending a personal development workshop, the participants had to pair up and each spend an uninterrupted three minutes regaling how we had been recently wronged. I chose the most miserable time of my life - the circumstances around my divorce. Three minutes was no problem, I could have waxed lyrical for three hours. My workshop partner actively listened, nodding away, pleasingly sympathetic as I shared my woes. It felt good to be validated, even by a complete stranger. I was not alone. The room was filled with similar chatter. 

Misery is easy. Why? Why do we drink the poison and expect the other person to die? 

The twist in the exercise was to then take three minutes to relate the same event in the positive. No negativity allowed, we could only relate the polar opposite, describing the upside, the benefits, the lessons learned. A seemingly simple twist on events. I was not the only one who struggled, the room suddenly became very subdued as we exchanged stilted statements; periods of silence and nervous laughter prevailed. I had to concentrate to get past the negative thoughts that swamped my mind, pushing them to one side to glean the sparse nuggets of positivity. It was hard work. In my 40 odd years of existence, I’d never practiced the art of re-framing a personal injury, of seeing the gift in the misfortune. Indeed the very word itself tells us that the fortune was missed.

Misery consumes us. Facts and scenarios churn over and over in our minds, keeping us awake into the small hours, the turmoil is company on long journeys, interrupting our working day, the conundrum that will never be solved. I now call wallowing in my misery ‘my cookie monster’, it has the same insatiable appetite. Relentless. In the same way that we pick at scabs regardless of the pain knowing that we will be scarred for life, we continue to prevail with the mindless chatter of misery.

Why do we chose misery? Why is it so easy? How do we break the habit?

When you’re in it you can’t see it. It’s become your brain’s default setting, the subconscious incompetence making it a habit. You don’t even know that you’re doing it, it become the norm, it becomes who you are. You’re the victim of your own story. Deciding that you want change in your life may be a small step but it’s a giant breakthrough.

To recognise what’s going on, start listening to yourself or take a moment to write out some of your thoughts and read them back to yourself. A greater understanding can help but if you still can’t stop at least you’ll have progressed to being consciously incompetent. It doesn’t seem like much progress but happily it’s in the right direction.

Like a plane in a holding pattern, misery takes a whole lot of energy but gets us nowhere. We need to break out of the never ending loop and choose a new direction. Decide what you want more of in your life and focus on that instead. If you’re stuck in the past, having to look over your shoulder instead of to where you want to go, you’re diminishing your chances of moving forward. Write out your dreams and stick them around your space as an easy reminder whenever you catch yourself in misery mode.

Be kind to yourself, you may not be able to control how long this is going to take, there may be many cha cha moments of 3 steps forward and 2 back but hang on in there, have patience and always be thankful for making any progress. You’re heading in the right direction to break free.

Surround yourself with supportive people - I remember being horrified when one friend said that we couldn’t continue our friendship if I didn’t stop. She had had enough, I thought her to be callous and unloving at the time but she did me a favour. Who do you spend time with? Are they happy to sit with you throwing yet another log on the fire to keep the flames of injustice burning or do they encourage you to move on and get on with your life?

There will come a time when even you will get bored and be able to break free from the relentless diatribe, look out for that moment, that moment when mid flow you can say to yourself, ‘Do you know what? This is boring, I’ve got better things to think about’. A time to celebrate as you step into conscious competence.

It will likely feel very challenging at first. Our thoughts create neural pathways in our brain and just like sheep tracks, they become deeper and the default route over time. Changing our thoughts means creating new neural pathways and just like a new pair of shoes it’s going to feel uncomfortable at first. It takes effort to move away from the well-worn pathway and you have to focus but appreciate that you’re moving in the right direction.

We always have a choice. I can remember the exact moment when I realised this unlikely and often unpopular truth. Yet another wrong had been hurled in my direction but I hadn’t perceived it in the moment. The penny dropped 5 minutes later and the oh-so-familiar outrage began to consume me, my stress response flooding through my body in righteous indignation. In a lightbulb moment, I realised that I had been in possession of the facts for a whole five minutes without reacting. In that moment I knew that I had a choice; do I continue to experience the outrage or detach and return to peace allowing the injustice to glance off and pass me by?

Maybe in that moment I had decided that 5 years was enough. Enough therapy, enough coaching, enough support. Maybe other factors were at play, but I had been binding myself in misery for too long. In that moment I chose the latter. I chose to remain calm and step out and away from the misery. As the self-inflicted bonds fell away, I had never felt more liberated or powerful in my life.

Always remember that you can choose to detach and step away from misery and into subconscious competence for a happier and more resilient path in all aspects of life.