I had the occasion to observe a family of four briefly this weekend and their eldest child, a boy of about 9-years of age, offered such an elegant example of The Art of Making Yourself Miserable that I couldn’t take my eyes off him. We were in a larger assembly of patrons waiting for a table at a local breakfast restaurant where each group had been given a pager (to alert us when the host could seat us) according to our place in the queue.
The pager itself became the object of this child’s desire – he wanted to hold it. Briefly, his father permitted him to do so, but when his younger brother also wanted to hold it, the father made him share it with his sibling. This was the first step in the intricate process I call, The Art of Making Yourself Miserable, the realization that you are not going to get what you want. The boy was clearly upset at not getting his way in the matter.
Step two in this process was to make his displeasure known to those nearby. In the boy’s case, he hit his brother and kicked at his father to express his displeasure. This behavior got him some attention but did not get him the pager.
Shortly thereafter, the boy worked his way through the third step in the process, emphasize your sense of injustice or injury. For him this manifested as a very physical contrivance to make himself cry over the issue. It took some doing, he scrunched up his face, rubbed at his eyes, snorted through his nose, grunted from his throat and after some serious effort, managed to manufacture a tear or two – his mother ignored him (clearly, not the result he was going for).
Finally, and likely in an act of desperation, he lunged toward his dad not once, but three times in an effort to grab the pager out of his father’s hand. A maneuver which, in some families might have drawn a physically violent reaction; in his family no one flinched. He simply didn’t get the object of his desire. This is the fourth step in the process, lash out at the authority figure you believe is responsible for your unhappiness.
Within a few more moments, and with the child quietly raging over his personal misfortune, the pager went off and the family moved to the host station to be seated. I have no idea how long it took the boy to recover from his misery and realize that he was about to enjoy a delightful pancake breakfast.
This unhappy 9-year-old perfectly portrayed the steps we humans automatically take whenever we make ourselves miserable, and it is definitely an art. So let me again review these steps:
- Realize you’re not getting what you want and allow upset to be your response
- Express your displeasure to the available audience
- Emphasize your sense of injustice or injury
- Lash out at authority, believing they are responsible for your misery.
What if, at the very first step, the boy had imagined a different response to the problem? What if, when upset presented itself as the appropriate emotional reaction, he had said to himself instead, “No, my brother can have it, it’s only a dumb pager anyway!” and let it go at that?
Well, this observer would have seen such a mature, thoughtful, 9-year-old as an amazing, human anomaly – because a 9-year-old isn’t expected to have learned yet to manage his emotions, he’s still learning this craft.
Sadly, we see 19, 29, and even 59-year-olds who have yet to master their reactions to the realization that they’re not getting what they want! And in life, there are many occasions when we simply won’t get the thing we desire.
And while we’re adults, not children grabbing at a “dumb pager” we might find ourselves going through all these steps, artfully making ourselves miserable over things as common-place as missing a promotion, a house we wanted, a car someone else bought, or a love-interest we’ve had our heart set on winning.
Are you not allowed to be disappointed when you don’t get what you want? Of course, disappointments will come, and you have the right to feel your feelings when they do. But once you recognize you’re not getting what you want, while you still find yourself in step one, you have a choice!
And anytime we have a choice, we can choose NOT to make ourselves miserable – when can imagine for ourselves, a different path than the one that is guaranteed to bring us misery. For adults, those who wish to master the craft of managing their emotions, choice brings change.
Simply realizing that we HAVE A CHOICE can empower us to choose wisely – to take a different direction, to rise from disappointment to the discovery of something else, equally interesting, valuable, and worthy of our time and attention!
A wise mentor of mine once told me, “Pain is necessary, but suffering is optional!” That’s because the suffering comes from our well-practiced art of making ourselves miserable. The human challenge is to feel the pain, recognize the message it is sending, and move toward an unfamiliar reaction, a fresh solution, a new perspective, a re-defining of what you desire.
You always have a choice!