Today, nothing is going right.
You receive disappointing news. You’re late to work, of course, after spilling coffee all over your clothes. You didn’t get much sleep because you’re thinking of everything you needed to do yesterday. You’re also late paying your bills. You pick a fight with your partner.
The rain pounding on the pavement feels like it’s pounding directly on your head. You fall down the Facebook rabbit hole, and don’t emerge until an hour—let’s be honest, several hours—later. You realize that everyone’s lives are better and brighter, and you’re kind of a loser. The smallest tasks feel like rocket science. Walking feels like slogging through mud.
Whatever the cause, whatever happened, you’re having a difficult day.
“Bad days happen to all of us, but often we blame ourselves or someone else for how we are feeling,” said Jennifer Shannon, MFT, a psychotherapist and cofounder of the Santa Rosa Center for Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. We think: If only he didn’t do X. If only she did Y. If only I weren’t such an idiot! It shouldn’t be this way. I should think positively. I should be grateful. What’s wrong with me?!
“I can 100 percent guarantee your day will get worse if you have an inner monologue that says, ‘You shouldn’t be feeling the way you are feeling,’” said Traci Ruble, MFT, a psychotherapist and CEO of PSYCHED Therapy Clinic in San Francisco.
This is why the first step in dealing with a difficult day is to accept it. Avoid beating yourself up for having a normal, human reaction. After all, we have a range of emotions and emotional experiences.
Observe your feelings, accept them and soothe yourself, said Ruble, also director of Sidewalk Talk, a non-profit community listening project. Don’t pretend your painful feelings don’t exist. Don’t try to will them away.
What’s the benefit in making yourself even more miserable?
As an illustration, Ruble used this metaphor: “[E]very person will need different gear for different weather. If it is sunny and 70 but you still feel cold, rather than forcing yourself to enjoy the sun, go grab yourself a sweatshirt.”
Below, you’ll find other tips to try.
Be gentle with yourself. “Imagine a child or a loved one who is having a bad day. Would you tell them they should just suck it up, or would you give them a hug and words of encouragement?” asked Shannon, also author of several books, including Don’t Feed the Monkey Mind: How to Stop the Cycle of Anxiety, Fear, and Worry.
She suggested using difficult days as opportunities to practice self-compassion. Think of supportive, encouraging statements you can say to yourself, such as: “Everyone has bad days sometimes; I will do the best I can.”
Talk to your negative thinking. Really. When we’re having a difficult day, we tend to sink into a deep hole of dark thinking. Everything becomes terrible. Ruble suggested responding directly to that negative part of you. It “may need to be loved a little more that day.”
She shared this example of what you might say: “You are really frustrated and angry by life and everything seems hard and bad. That is such a painful place to be. I am here with you. I love you. We are going to make it through this.”
Have an SOS plan. Ruble encourages her clients to write out an SOS plan, and follow it when they have a bad day. Recently, she’s been conducting interviews about people’s top SOS strategies. These were the results: listening to music, exercising, calling a friend, helping someone else, and writing a self-compassionate letter of encouragement.
You might be wondering what a self-compassionate letter actually looks like, since most of us are not very familiar with being kind to ourselves. Here’s an excerpt from Ruble’s letter: “I see how hurt you are. You made a mistake and feel sad, mad and embarrassed…You are so lovable even though you messed up… You are earnest at learning from your mistakes. You can trust that…You made a mistake because I wasn’t nurturing you the way I know you need. I will do better to slow down and take care of you.”
Think small. Shannon suggested setting small goals for the day. This might be showering, responding to email for 15 minutes, or preparing dinner. “Remember, nobody can hit the bullseye every day. Today, it’s enough to hit the target.”
When you’re upset and unmotivated, thinking of working on a bigger task like laundry or a work report can feel overwhelming. Which is why Shannon suggested setting a timer for five minutes and focusing on getting started. Nothing else.
“After the five minutes are up, check in and see if now you are feeling more motivated to do a little more,” she said. “If so, keep going. If not, pat yourself on the back for getting started, which is often the hardest thing to do.”
Ruble likened life to the weather, because it is ever-changing. One day is sunshine. The next is a thunderstorm. The day after that is partly cloudy with a slight breeze. “We can’t control the weather, but we can dress accordingly.” Consider these tips as your closet of clothes.
What helps you get through a difficult day?