When Things Stop Working


How frustrating is it when things stop working, just as you've figured them out?

There’s something really satisfying about finding a method that works. Whether it’s jump-starting a car or flipping a fried egg, mastering a little piece of the universe just feels good. It makes you feel like you have the cheat codes to life, or something. Can I get an amen, systems lovers?

And then whatever was working...stops.

For me, it feels like logging onto one of those websites that make you change your password every three months. Just when you get to the point where your muscle memory kicks in and you can type it in quickly without thinking...it stops working. And then you either have to retype the new one a few times before you get it right, or you forget and need someone to reset it for you. Annoying and time-consuming either way.

The stuff we do to manage our mood and motivation is especially susceptible to this phenomenon.

Maybe a nap usually works, but then one day it just makes you feel fuzzy. Or the friend who usually cheers you up isn’t available. Or taking a break to read a novel leaves you feeling more disconnected than before.

(My mom tells me this happens a lot when you have small children.The magic approach that short-circuits a tantrum or gets them painlessly in bed might work 75% of the time - or it might work once and never again.)

Dedicated readers might notice that there are multiple articles here on the same kinds of topics. When I'm anxious or in a bad mood, I come over here and write my way out of it, one word at a time. Clearly, I don’t have it all figured out, or I wouldn’t have to reinvent the “feel-better” wheel every time.

I'll tell you a secret - I rarely look back at those posts and follow my own neat list of instructions to get myself out of whatever pit I’m currently stuck in. The specific techniques I use when things stop working vary depending on the situation and what sounds good at the time, but the basic philosophy is similar each time.

So, how do I know what approach will work?

How do you get to the point where you’re not following a self-help recipe?

Here are some things to try (and yes, I'm aware of the irony that this is another list. What can I say, I love lists).

1. Make friends (or at least frenemies) with your patterns.

Start paying attention to what pushes your buttons and where your internal rules and limits create areas of friction with the world around you. For me, going through coach training and getting frequent coaching turbo-charged this process and threw those areas into sharp relief. When things stop working, it's a great opportunity to question your beliefs about the way the world "should" be.

After a few years of self-study, I now know that 90% of my bad moods come from me trying to force something to happen (usually something I have no control over, but feel like I should).

2. Accept where you are right now, even if it sucks.

As long as I'm beating my fists against reality, I can't get anything done. If I can’t get to this place on my own, I call someone in my support system to help me get there. Sometimes I just sit down and write about what I’m feeling (and if it’s halfway coherent or helpful, you get to read it later).

After I'm able to get a little distance, whether alone or with a friend, I check in and see if there’s a version of the "I should be able to control this" story lurking underneath my funk. It might be disguised in a trench coat or Groucho Marx glasses, but it’s always basically the same. Sometimes just being able to recognize the story gives me some distance and relief.

3. Believe that you deserve compassion (or be curious about what you would need to believe in order to give it to yourself).

Yes, even (especially) around your imperfections. For me, this was the first step to being able to doubt my doom-and-gloom stories and collect evidence that no matter how bad my mood was, it always (always!) eventually passed. Being mean to myself didn't make it happen any faster.

The frustrating thing is that I can know all this stuff about myself, but still get fooled over and over.

And then I have to send love to my inner perfectionist and work at not getting down on myself for falling for the same trick yet again, or for wasting all that time feeling like crap when "I should know better by now.”

It doesn't say anything about you when things stop working.

This is really the takeaway I want to give you. I could go into all the various tools you could use after you get to this point, but that’s not really the purpose of this article.

It doesn’t really matter whether you try a bunch of different things to get back on track or give up and wait for things to get better on their own.

What matters is how much patience and compassion you can show yourself when things go stop working, even if it takes you a while to get there. Because no matter what other systems in your life break down, that skill will always come in handy.

Photo credit: freeimages.com/african_fi

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