Why you don't need to "fix" a bad mood.


Earlier this week, I was in a pretty bad mood.

The problem was, I didn't know why.

Often bad moods are caused by something I'm telling myself, like I'm not good enough. But in this particular instance, I couldn't find a reason that my stomach was tight and my jaw was clenched.

I talked to my coaching partner, Alice, about it that night. After some investigation, we discovered that whenever I'm in a bad mood, I feel like I need to fix it.

What I'm learning in training is that most suffering is caused by painful (often untrue) thoughts, so theoretically finding and examining the faulty thought should help with the suffering.

Fine, except sometimes moods and emotions just show up. Is it hormones? The weather? What I ate for lunch? Who knows?

This may come as surprise, but if I'm feeling tense and anxious because of a low-pressure front, I won't be able to fix it by questioning my thoughts.

I told Alice that a bad mood seemed like the equivalent of a "check engine" light on my dashboard; a sign that something needed immediate attention or else.

When I can't find a thought to work with, I usually go into distraction mode. Let's look at ALL THE THINGS on the internet! Let's take a nap! Let's eat some chocolate! Let's try a whole bunch of stuff and see if any of it makes me feel better! (And don't forget Let's brood on my history with depression and wonder if it's a relapse! Whee!)

When we came to the conclusion that maybe I don't have to do something about every little blue spell, I felt an incredible sense of relief. You see, feeling like this mood was my responsibility to fix and not being able to usually ends up making me feel even worse.

"What do you want to do when you let go of needing to fix something?" she asked.

"I just want to be quiet," I said (to my own surprise).

One of my favorite books when I was little was called Henry's Awful Mistake. It was about a duck who was cooking dinner for a friend when he sees an ant in the kitchen. He goes to more and more extremes to try and get rid of the ant, eventually wrecking the dinner, the kitchen, and flooding the entire house. Full text here if you're interested.

The busy, problem-solving part of my brain is a lot like Henry when I'm in a bad mood. Rather than just being okay with it, my brain keeps coming up with more and more solutions, stressing me out and leaving me worse off (and sometimes prodding me into unhealthy coping mechanisms along the way).

The next time I get into one of those moods, I'm going to try not to let it mean anything about me. It's not a check-engine light, to go back to the car metaphor; it's more like a crummy part of town I'm driving through. The kind that has car dealerships and fast-food restaurants lining both sides of the road. If I just keep driving, eventually I'll be somewhere else without having to change anything.

Thinking of the fix-it part of my brain as a well-meaning but befuddled duck has some surprising advantages, too. "Oh, sweetie," I can say now. "It's okay. It's just an ant." I'm not adding self-hatred to the bad-mood fire, I'm dousing it with compassion and humor. That's the plan, anyway.

And maybe one day I'll be as wise as Henry becomes...

When Henry was settled in his new house, he again asked Clara over for supper. Just as he went to the door to let Clara in, he saw an ant.

He looked the other way!

Back to the Article Library