All the fun, half the guilt
February 17, 2005 1:12 PM   Subscribe

How can I learn to just let stupid shit go?

I am ridiculously bad at just letting go of the guilt, self-recrimination, whatever, when I do something that I'm not terribly proud of. For example, today I saw a person who has been terribly, terribly cruel to a close friend of mine, and when he tried to make small talk with me, I just turned around and left. I've felt pretty bad about it all day -- not because I didn't sit and have a friendly chat with him, but because I don't really want to be the kind of person who dials up the drama that much. I could have acted better.

Anyway, I wish that I could just take these things and think, "okay, duly noted, I'll act better next time." How do you learn to do that?
posted by LittleMissCranky to Human Relations (26 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
Response by poster: Oh, look, you don't have to write [more inside] anymore. Whoops -- guess I'm off to worry about that for the rest of the afternoon.
posted by LittleMissCranky at 1:19 PM on February 17, 2005

Oh, look, you don't have to write [more inside] anymore. Whoops -- guess I'm off to worry about that for the rest of the afternoon


"I'm not going to care about this on my deathbed." Know it's true, and it'll work for most all stupid shit.
posted by leapingsheep at 1:25 PM on February 17, 2005

LittleMissCranky: I am with you on the need/desire to learn how to let things go. It is very hard. I am trying the yoga+buddhism (without beliefs) method. So far, so good. But it is a daily battle. Good luck.
posted by terrapin at 1:38 PM on February 17, 2005

It'll probably be contrary to everyone else's advice, but honestly, I let myself fixate on it a little bit. It's when I try to supress things that they seem to become issues.

That doesn't mean confrontation, but honestly dealing with yourself about why it upsets you and how trivial it is, really.

I find that these things are like nightmares. If I say them out loud, I realize how silly they are and they have much less power over me. Trying to deny them just makes them stronger.
posted by Gucky at 1:39 PM on February 17, 2005

I've found that you make those little mental notes to yourself to do better and once you've built up a pattern of them you say to yourself "hey I really can do a better job next time!" and you start to relax about trusting yourself in situations either to handle things well, or in case you don't, to handle things better next time and then you can stop worrying about it.

Obsessing over things is rough. I do it a lot, especially in that morning-after quarterbacking sort of way. I have a few techniques that work for me.

1) make a deal with myself to balance my karma or whatever. If I'm lousy to someone and I feel bad about that, I can help myself feel better by being exceptionally nice to someone/something else. Usually the doing something else gets me to stop thinking about whatever the thing was that I could have done better.
2) keep a list of the lousy things I did. Go back to the list, realize how stupid many of the things that seemed lousy at the time really were, learn to laugh at me being such a spazzmo.
3) fess up. If you really do feel bad about something, fix it. In many cases you'll probably be surprised that even though you were obsessing over treating someone badly, they might not have even noticed you or your strange antics. I've done this in some cases, apologized to people for things that had anguished me for months, years even, and often I've gotten these perplexed "what are you talking about?" looks.
posted by jessamyn at 1:42 PM on February 17, 2005 [1 favorite]

I'm not quite sure how you come to accept this realization, but I think there's also something to be said for realizing that you're probably not as important to everyone else as you may think. I don't mean that in a snarky way, but just kind of what Jessamyn said -- half the stuff that you do, even when you think it's big, other people don't even notice. So you can really just let yourself off the hook for a lot of it.

Related to this, if you're one of those people who assumes that other people's bad moods are caused by something you did, stop it. That can definitely fuel the obsessing. Make a conscious effort not to shoulder the blame.
posted by occhiblu at 1:57 PM on February 17, 2005 [1 favorite]

I feel like people/we/I are not honest enough with each other, so we bottle it up, fixate, and don't actually give the issue the attention it deserves and work it out. Your issues with that guy are perfectly valid, and I feel like as social beings where the only way we learn how to live our lives is to communicate with one another, that not communicating (example: with that guy) leads to hanging on to shit. We don't work this stuff out enough so they become this huge obstacle, when issues are brought up it becomes a whole confrontation, and I think it can be simpler. So, I think it would help you to actually figure out a way to say what you really think.
posted by scazza at 2:08 PM on February 17, 2005

When I start obsessing over something, I have a little mantra that I repeat to myself. It's even set to music (arranged by Prof. Peter Schickele of PDQ Bach fame... and I can't find a link to it on the Web, dammit):
Oh, well, what the hell,
Doodly doodly doodly doo,
Oh, well, what the hell,
Doodly doodly doo.
The really charming thing about this little song is that it can be sung as a round (like, e.g. "Row, Row, Row Your Boat") so that if you can get a couple of friends or colleagues to sing it with you it sounds especially good.

Even sung as a solo, and under my breath, it generally makes me feel better.
posted by enrevanche at 2:11 PM on February 17, 2005 [1 favorite]

Now I have "Row, Row, Row Your Boat" stuck in my head, except with "doodly doodly doo" replacing all the lyrics.

I'm with Gucky - if it's something I can tell someone close who I know will still love me, I do, and then it goes away.

I've also gone back years later, like Jessamyn says, and gotten a "huh? I don't remember that." Which is kind of anticlimactic, actually.
posted by librarina at 2:19 PM on February 17, 2005

You know part of doing this is just practicing it until you get good at it. Deciding to. It's only been in the most recent 2 years or so, for me, that I can watch myself starting to ruminate, regret, or feel bad about something I've done. Just before I spin off into that hellacious "what if I just ruined my entire relationship with x / professional reputation / hope of another date / whatever", I am actually able to stop, tell myself "OK, I'm done thinking about this now", and mean it. And it came from just experimenting to see whether that worked. And in fact, it did. I found that a) other people are mostly not as obsessed with my behavior as I myself am, b) we are more in control of our choices to feel and think things than we think, and c) when you stop thinking about something, you tend to forget about it, and at that point letting go is a non-issue.

Sometimes I can observe that something I did was really actually wrong, or childish, or unfair. In those cases, what I try to do now is just recognize that I acted that way, remember that I would prefer not to act that way, and resolve to avoid it or try something different in the future. Again, in each instance, it takes a few practices before new behavior takes hold, but I believe there is overall progress.

The one thing I'm sure of, at this point in my life, is that I have never made anything better by stewing about it. Never. Not ever.
posted by Miko at 2:31 PM on February 17, 2005

I started asking myself, "So, will it get anyone hurt, arrested, or killed? No? Not that big a deal, then, is it?" I also had to occasionally remind myself that my place in the universe is really a lot smaller than I sometimes think it is. It took a while, but I finally quit manufacturing/borrowing drama and live a much happier life for it.

If only I'd known the "What the hell" song, I might have learned even faster.
posted by Lyn Never at 2:34 PM on February 17, 2005 [1 favorite]

Just make a conscious decision to focus on the future rather than the past. I used to beat myself up over stuff like that a lot, but I realized--it's already happened. It's over. Cry, laugh, whatever--it's not going to change what happened.

So, make a mental note: "Don't do that again," and move on. Look ahead, not behind.
posted by RikiTikiTavi at 2:45 PM on February 17, 2005

Last year I read The Power of Now, by Eckhardt Tolle, and I highly recommend it. It's a very quick read, and even though it's a "guide" to spiritual enlightenment, you may just gleam some ways of getting over your guilt by living more in the moment. The mind can be a huge burden when it hangs on the past, and writing as someone who has a terrible time shutting down my wandering brain, I can tell you that this book gave me a new focus that has come to the rescue many times since. Your ego is obsessing - when you recognize this, you can accept and move on or act on it.
posted by brheavy at 2:46 PM on February 17, 2005

Oh, LittleMissCranky, we must be cut from the same mold...
I find not giving a fuck helps. I mean that in a positive way...I'm sure I don't know the whole story, but I see your reaction here as a good quality. In fact, in doing what you did, it seems you avoided drama. It seems this person possesses qualities that you'd rather not deal with, so you decided not to waste your time with him. Kudos! Perhaps how you acted it out could be perfected, so maybe just do it with more confidence and detachment next time. Think This person sucks = I'm walking away now. Who cares what he thinks?

Less specifically, you could always become a jewish comedian. Also, what jessamyn said about writing it down and reviewing it makes sense.

BTW, I've seen lots of [more inside]s, but yours had to be the most annoying one ever...somehow.
posted by hellbient at 3:03 PM on February 17, 2005

My personal theory of guilt, developed through years of work at overcoming a Jewish upbringing, is that it's always really about trying to live up to an image of who you think you want to be that's not really you. Maybe you really are a Little Miss Cranky, and maybe you're not full of serenity, love, and generosity for everyone all the time. And maybe there's nothing wrong with that.

A good indicator is if you hold yourself to a higher standard of behavior than the one you use for other people. Why do you have to be proud of everything you do? Why is it important for you to be nice to people who are cruel to others? Why should your real feelings take a back seat to your ideal of who you should be?

If that's the case, then reading books about self-help and spirituality is the worst thing you can possibly do. That kind of advice just feeds your desire to be a more perfectly enlightened person, which is where all that guilt is coming from in the first place. Stop trying to be a better person, and just try to be who you are. Your real friends will love you that way, and you will too.
posted by fuzz at 3:31 PM on February 17, 2005 [1 favorite]

Similar to the what the hell song, you could sing Sarah Vowell's It Could Be Worse song (which, as I just learned from the wiki linked herein, has been set to music and recorded by They Might Be Giants).
posted by matildaben at 4:31 PM on February 17, 2005 [1 favorite]

In this specific instance, cutting someone dead is unsubtle, but if you had said something more nominally polite such as "Excuse me, I have to run" and then walked away, surely you would have done the same thing, but just delivered the message with a slight sugar coating; it woudl still be one which the person in question would have understood perfectly. In which case, I wouldn't worry too much about tweaking your response; it was an honest one, at least. Manners and all the apparatus of social navigation are useful and necessary, but in this one case I wouldn't blame yourself or be angry at yourself for 'cranking up the drama'. Sometimes it's appropriate to let your feelings show. And cruelty should have consequences, really.

Most events where I feel unable to let go of guilt and shame are those horrible social faux pas; this has happened to me a couple of times in the last few years, and has always involved meeting an acquaintance, or student, and absolutely not being able to place him or her, and then thinking that they are someone else. It's mostly a symptom of sleep deprivation combined with being absorbed in thinking about something else, and once happened to me with a woman I had seen at work a couple of times, when I mixed her up with another woman I knew about as well. The horror came with the fact that both women were Asian, and I am white, and to this day I am mortified. (She knew, too.) Sometimes you just have to write stuff off; everyone makes mistakes, and many people make much worse ones than that. It wasn't intentional; I would take it back if I could, but what I learned is to just try to be more attentive, and not do it again. What else can one do? (I apologized at the time. She laughed. I did not.)

And I would also second the idea that often one has much less effect on others than one might think, and is under observation far less. I have a friend who had a bit of a depressive crash in her 20s, and took to her bed, hid out in her room, for almost three weeks. Much later, she tried to explain herself to one of her former roommates-- and she had been ashamed of this episode for years-- it turned out that they had never even noticed.

Everyone is involved in their own dramas, and sometimes we are all just bit players. So: take a breath, cut yourself some slack, go for a walk. You sound like a deeply contentious person who cares for the feelings of others, who would never hurt anyone if you could avoid it. Would that more people were like you.
posted by jokeefe at 5:10 PM on February 17, 2005

Oh. And what fuzz said, too. Excellent advice, imo.
posted by jokeefe at 5:17 PM on February 17, 2005

Read this book.
posted by noius at 7:16 PM on February 17, 2005 [1 favorite]

You need a friend you can bounce things off. If my friend told me the story you just told above I'd say, "That's nothing! You could have been nicer but he didn't deserve your kindness. Don't feel bad. Save your energy for those that deserve it. You are a good person. You know it. I know it. You have to trust your instincts. You have good instincts."

Once you get used to hearing this from another person you can imagine what that person would say without them actually being there. Then soon enough you will have your very own little voice in your head and you will soothe your own soul.
posted by tinamonster at 8:55 PM on February 17, 2005

Oh lord. For what it's worth, and I know this is late, but the word that was supposed to be in the last paragraph of my earlier long post was not "contentious". It was meant to be "conscientious". Oy. Too fast on the spellcheck.
posted by jokeefe at 11:38 PM on February 17, 2005

Letting go may be, and I say this with all seriousness, the single hardest thing to learn to do. It's wrapped up in so many human foibles; from grand, dramatic things such as the ability to forgive the love of a lifetime when they've done you wrong, or the ability of a young boy not to hate every member of a creed of people that did injury to his family, all the way down to trivialities such as letting the jackass who cut you off in traffic have his way. Letting things simmer inside of you will eat you up, like an emotional cancer. For my own part, what little skill I have in this department comes down to actively focusing on letting go, realizing the real world priority of any imagined slight or lingering argument. It isn't easy, it doesn't always work (hell, look at my stupid arguments with y2k or rushmc on this very site), but it has provided some help, from time to time. Part of the trick of focusing usually involves making a mental promise, such as "I'm going to go do X, and by the time that is done, this will not bother me any more". Although, as a tip, if X = drink heavily, your mileage may vary.
posted by jonson at 12:15 AM on February 18, 2005

I saw a person who has been terribly, terribly cruel to a close friend of mine, and when he tried to make small talk with me, I just turned around and left.

I'm sorry; maybe I'm just failing to see the forest or whatever, but this sort of behavior, to me, doesn't sound like a problem. If I did something like that I'd be rather proud of myself. You're really the only person fit to judge, of course, but I don't think that any degree of regret is warranted.
posted by Clay201 at 12:43 AM on February 18, 2005

Clearly, most of us struggle with this problem! I have two suggestions (and it's a constant battle to take my own advice):

1) Have compassion. If you're trying to let go of something someone else did, try to remember that they're human, that they may have made a bad choice because of their own hurt, and that you can imagine making a similarly bad choice yourself. We all make mistakes. And often a bad choice (like cruelty) comes to hurt the person who made it much more than anyone else. If you're trying to let go of something you did, the same applies! Being compassionate (not pitying or excuse-making or self-congratulatory) towards yourself is one of the hardest and most important things you can learn.

2) Focus on the long term. This isn't to say that you should ignore the present or the past in favor of the future, but when you're subsumed by emotions that you just can't let go of, try to imagine how much that thing will matter to you in one year's time (or 5 years, or 10 years, etc.). And try to take actions that you know you'll be able to respect in 10 years.

Of course, I certainly don't think that refusing to talk to someone who was cruel is an awful thing. Are you really blaming yourself for that action, or are you wondering if it was right or not? Maybe you're holding on to it because you're not sure what to think of it yourself.

A wise, wise man once told me that we carry things around until we've figured out what good we can take from them, what lesson we can glean. I find that I get over my anger at someone once I start to remember why I ever liked them in the first place. That doesn't mean that I would become friends with them again, or seek out an environment that I didn't like...just that I can acknowledge both the good and the bad, and then I can let it go. YMMV.
posted by equipoise at 8:28 AM on February 18, 2005

I'm sorry; maybe I'm just failing to see the forest or whatever, but this sort of behavior, to me, doesn't sound like a problem.

Knowing, on some intellectual level, that one shouldn't feel guilty about having done something (or should feel only some minimal level of guilt) is not the same as actually not feeling guilty about it. Therein lies LMC's problem.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 8:41 AM on February 18, 2005

DevilsAdvocate: I see your point, certainly, but the thing is, LMC still feels that it was wrong to act as she did. I'm saying it wasn't. She wants help with what she sees as an over-reaction to a mistake. I'm suggesting she try to stop seeing such actions as a mistake in the first place.
posted by Clay201 at 10:54 PM on February 18, 2005

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