Last night I reached out to a friend to confirm some upcoming plans. I had texted her twice during the day without response and was getting worried. When we finally connected by phone, it became clear that she was suffering a really bad day.
First, she had been disappointed at work. She had been looking forward to a particular training seminar that hadn’t been offered in her workplace in almost 10 years. I wasn’t able to find out what kind of seminar it was, but gathered through the conversation that it had something to do with connecting with their customers, something she feels passionate about and, at the same time, struggles with. Unfortunately, the facilitator had been the one who had delivered it the last time – 10 years ago! – and recognized a handful of the participants. The facilitator had then tailored the content for repeat participants who probably didn’t feel like they needed it, to the detriment of the majority of the participants who really wanted to learn. (There’s a lesson for all of us here.) My friend was bitterly disappointed that something she had looked so forward to had not met her expectations. And then, because she had been at a seminar for several hours, she had fallen behind in the rest of her work and was feeling pressure there.
She is someone who takes solace in her family. There is an epidemic of loneliness in the world right now, and she feels it strongly. She has always found it hard to make new friends and gets most of her social comfort from her husband her kids. Unfortunately for her, they have other social groups that meet these needs for them. Her husband is outgoing and makes friends easily. And her kids make friends at school. When she returned home yesterday, she found that her daughter had an event at school that evening that required a parent’s attendance. Which meant that her husband wasn’t available to attend a seminar that my friend had signed them up for, as something the two of them could do together, and now she would have to go alone. Attempting to regroup, she invited her son to join her for dinner at his favorite restaurant beforehand, and he could do his homework while she was at the class. He declined – spend an evening with his clearly grumpy mom? Nope.
I suggested that she take herself out to dinner and maybe bring a notebook and spend some time writing. Writing has always been her self-indulgence, and she usually has a notebook with her and squeezes in writing in spare moments, when waiting for the kids to get out of school, while waiting in line at the bank, etc. Until recently she had an office in her house but, as the kids have grown older, she wanted them to have their own rooms, and sacrificed her office for the greater good. The planned replacement was a she-shack in the backyard, but the shack requires some work – it’s full of unpacked boxes and requires some weatherproofing. So whenever she thinks about it, all she can think about is the amount of work that needs to be done. And, I suspect, it’s a little too disconnected from the rest of the family. In any case, my suggestion was rejected – she needed quiet to write and public spaces were too noisy.
Nothing was going to make my friend happy last night and she recognized that fact. She attributed it to a chronic lack of sleep, to the stress of managing her elderly mother, who she loves greatly but who adds another level of complication to her seemingly overwhelming life. She recognized that she was reacting rather than responding or acting. She saw all this — and still everything felt like it was spiraling out of control and that the universe conspired against her. And the recognition itself just caused a feeling of guilt.
I can relate to her situation in a number of ways. Life can feel overwhelming. It’s terrible when something you’ve been looking forward to disappoints you. I know how it feels when you want to spend time with people and they have other plans. Several years ago I went through a period when I, too, couldn’t sleep for days on end – if you’ve never suffered from this, it’s debilitating; you wander through a fog and can’t concentrate, and nothing feels manageable. You desperately want to take control of your life and can’t because situations and people are out of your control. And it’s horrible when the simple things you take pleasure in aren’t bringing you pleasure.
And then you get caught up in your own negativity and everything spirals out of control, although you recognize that you’re doing it to yourself. Even well-meaning suggestions from your best friends and hugs through the phone can’t jar you out of the black hole you have fallen into. And every new thing that happens to you feels like another penny weighing down the scale of how the world is against you.
I confess that I woke up yesterday in a black mood. I started writing about everything bad that was going on in my life and how overwhelmed I felt. But then I wondered whether I would feel better if I wrote about something I felt good about, a simple moment of gratitude. So I tried it. And it did.
Sometimes focusing on what you feel grateful for shifts your frame of reference just long enough to create the space for change.