How to Stop Making Things Worse for Yourself

So, this happened…

Now that I’ve begun with some melodrama, allow me to bring it down.

I actually chose this situation. It was a planned, fairly major foot surgery that was decades in the making.

One of the reasons I’d put it off is that it’s notoriously gnarly. In fact, many people who’d been in my shoes (so to speak) told me not to have it. They said it was too horrible. Painful. Debilitating.

Needless to say, the nights leading up to it found me sleepless, tossing and turning as I thought about it. Which was bad enough.

But then I made it worse.

I didn’t just think about the surgery. I created a mental novel about it.

Despite not really knowing how it would all go down, I crafted thoroughly terrifying, highly descriptive stories about how much it would hurt. About bad reactions to the meds I’d have. About how trapped I’d feel when I couldn’t walk around by myself.

About how much chafing those crutches would cause. (Okay, that one is true.)

And so, I didn’t just have to deal with the stress of the surgery, but also the stress caused by that very descriptive novel I’d written inside my head.

Even if you’ve never considered yourself a writer, I promise you that you are. We’re all amazing mental novelists. And we engage in it all the time:

  • We’re preparing for a big presentation and, in addition to feeling some stress about it, we imagine all of the ways we’ll screw it up
  • We haven’t heard from a friend in a while and, in addition to missing them, we make it worse by imagining all of the horrible things we’ve done to offend them
  • We upset our boss by missing a deadline and, in addition to thinking through how to address it, we make it worse by imaging just how we’ll manage living on the streets when we get fired

Let me point out, these scenarios will likely not happen. At least not in the ways we imagine. We almost never really know exactly how things will turn out or how we’ll feel. And, even if we do, all that extra novel-writing just adds to the additional, pointless stress.

So why do we do it? Because our minds LOVE to play around with our thoughts. And it focuses on the dramatic genres: the horrors and the mysteries and the tragedies. It’s human nature. But that doesn’t make mental novel-writing a good thing. It’s not.

To be clear, I’m not saying that – when a situation arises and we feel stressed or fearful – we shouldn’t think about it, plan for it, and address it.

What I am saying is that we need to stop there…and quit the storytelling that twists a real issue into some kind of make-believe land of subsequent scenarios and consequences that we can’t possibly predict.

So, how to curtail our inner novelists…especially when we’ve spent a lifetime honing the craft?

A few steps:

1) Pay attention

The most important thing you can do to curb your inner novelist is to be aware when it gets to work. You’ll know because your stress will elevate in direct proportion to the strength of the emotional hurricane your stories create.

2) Name and Break

Name that your novelist is at play. You can even greet it (“Oh, hello Mr. Novelist!”) to lighten things up. The key is that this will break the stream of thoughts that have been taking over. Once you break it, you’ve begun to take your power back.

3) Switch to your inner journalist…

Let your fiction-writer take a break and turn to the facts. Which is that you are facing a situation that you need to address, and how you will do so. That’s it.

4) …then go to the outer world

Get out of that head of yours and focus on something else. Distract as needed – a book, a movie, some music, cooking. You get the gist.

5) Be diligent

Our inner novelists are resilient buggers – popping up at all times – so we have to be as well. So stay alert.

These steps actually worked wonders for me. Heck, I actually switched to my inner journalist while being wheeled into the operating room.

And, in the end, none of those fiction stories about the pain and the meds and the feeling trapped were what I’d imagined.

Plus, I also found a handy solution to that crutch-chafing.

Which, thank goodness, made for the happiest of endings.

PS – This post ties in nicely with a previous post that focuses on the stories we make up when it comes to the other people in our lives. It’s a fan favorite and you can find it here: why you must consider the other option


14 responses to “How to Stop Making Things Worse for Yourself”

  1. Meg Avatar

    “Oh hello, novelist.” Love this! I have found it works in all kinds of Negative self-talk. Question for you: what about (too) positive thoughts? Like fantasy thoughts about how great everything will be, when in fact, it might be a very risky situation. Thanks for all your help!

    1. Deirdre Maloney Avatar

      Thanks for a great question! While positive thinking is certainly helpful, I do think there’s a limit to keeping it real. Being overly optimistic or just hoping for a specific outcome can really set us up when things don’t happen the way we expect. Then, we’re not just dealing with the issue, but the disappointment, blame and anger that comes with it. It’s another way of adding more stress…it just comes afterwards instead of beforehand. Thanks again!

  2. Neville Billimoria Avatar
    Neville Billimoria

    thanks for reminding us how to turn our stumbling blocks into stepping stones Deirdre!

    1. Deirdre Maloney Avatar

      Thank YOU for giving it a read, Neville…hope you’re doing splendidly!

  3. Cheri Friedman Avatar
    Cheri Friedman

    I’ve been working for the past 3 months in destroying the tape in my head that I allowed to be put there as a small child. I decided it was time to do something positive, and working with a psychologist I have been able to erase the negative tape and put a positive in its place. The hard part is going to make sure I keep the positive tape playing in my mind and not allow the negative one to return.

    1. Deirdre Maloney Avatar

      Good for you, Cheri, for doing what you need to do to work through those negative tapes. I know they are incredibly resilient and applaud your efforts to work through them. All the best on this journey!

  4. Sharon Avatar

    I broke my upper arm in mid Dec working at a school. Almost 3 months of sitting at home. Wondering when workers comp ends, when i’ll regain functionality of upper right arm, and iwoll ever be able to use right arm over my head. Pretty calm about this now, but need to start doing something productive. Are those scooter things hard on your knees?

    1. Deirdre Maloney Avatar

      Sorry to hear it Sharon…definitely sounds very frustrating. I hope you are able to find relief soon! On your question, we splurged on the extra foam pad on top of the knee rest, so it’s actually been great.

  5. Samantha Goldstein Avatar
    Samantha Goldstein

    Oh sweetie, I’m glad it all went well and you are on the mend. Thinking of you and missing you.

    1. Deirdre Maloney Avatar

      Thank you so much, Sam!! I so appreciate your kind thoughts…miss you back, my friend! 🙂

  6. Patty Costa Avatar
    Patty Costa

    Thank you Deirdre for such a great topic. I am a worry wart by nature and this is so good to hear. Great job!

    1. Deirdre Maloney Avatar

      Thanks, Patty! I’ve been a worrier as well and this definitely helps me clear some of those useless thoughts out of my head. Appreciate the comment!

  7. Jackie Reed Avatar
    Jackie Reed

    As always, such a great read during a busy day. Hope you are healing quickly!

    1. Deirdre Maloney Avatar

      🙂 Thanks so much…I so appreciate you taking the time to read it with everything going on. Means a lot!