How to stop feeling sorry for myself and obsessing about my luck?
September 22, 2020 9:28 PM   Subscribe

Lately I've been having more frequent thoughts about luck, particularly of the bad sort, and feeling like it's been following me around. I know this is not a productive way of thinking. I would like to figure out why it's taken root so deeply in my psyche, and how I can stop seeing everything negative that happens to me through this lens of poor fortune.

This has been a very bad year, the worst year of my life without question, and my mental health has been at an all-time low. It's not lost on me that things are bad for many, many people, and in much worse ways than what I've experienced. Everyone out there is feeling at least some degree of helplessness, loss of control, and uncertainty. At the same time, this idea about bad luck did not originate in my own mind. I've had different friends remark on separate occasions (they've never met each other) that "these [bad] things always seem to happen to you," "if something can go wrong, it's bound to happen to you," and "you have the worst luck." Bad things just seem to follow me. I've even had the thought that maybe I'm cursed.

Lately my thoughts have been veering beyond luck, and into self blame. It also goes beyond taking constructive lessons from negative outcomes like, "You should have been more prepared," or "You could've seen the signs that this was coming," which I do relentlessly analyze situations for. It's gone into the territory of, "You must be a bad person who deserves this," and the other side of the coin, which is, "Others are being rewarded because they're simply better people than you."

Intellectually, I know that this is all a bunch of hooey. I'm a law-abiding person. I always tip well. I try to help others out whenever I can. I give without expectations of receiving. I donate to those in need and volunteer my time and skills. I know I'm far, far from perfect, but I do my best and I'm far from awful. And I can draw from personal knowledge of good friends who I know for certain to be truly good people, who've had bad things happen to them that they definitely didn't deserve. Some of them have had horrible things happen, and one has lost nearly everything due to events that could not be foreseen or prevented. Conversely, some of the worst people I know are thriving. Everything seems to fall neatly into place for them. And I think of the many corrupt billionaires out there who are happily lining their coffers during this pandemic, and I know there is no justice in the world. But I can't seem to internalize any of this to stop the negative self-talk.

Recently my "luck" seemed to be turning, and a couple of things that I've been working toward, but didn't dare get my hopes up for, actually came to fruition. But both times, I didn't even have one day to bask in happiness before other unforeseen bad things happened and ruined my joy. Today was one of those days, and I feel like the proverbial camel with the last straw. It's as though every time I manage to pick myself up, I get knocked right back down a peg or two. As the kids say, life is keeping me humble. And then of course I start a train of negative thinking about how weak I am, how much more resilient other people are, and my weak mind must be the reason I keep getting beaten down so easily.

I purchased a journal with guided entries on gratitude, to remind myself that I have many good things in my life to be grateful for and started writing in it today. I got a few lines into my first entry when some other badness came along and I no longer felt very grateful.

If anyone can identify with these thoughts and feelings, and got yourself out of the rut, please let me know what helped, which things worked for you. If anyone else has ideas, I'm open! Thanks!
posted by keep it under cover to Health & Fitness (12 answers total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
When I get in ruts like this -- where I'm ruminating on a thought or emotion that I know is irrational -- I find that doing is a far more effective treatment than any amount of thinking (meditation, journaling, etc). Specifically, you want to do something that is the opposite of the feeling, because every time you do it, you're giving yourself evidence that the feeling is wrong.

So in your case, your thought/feeling is that you're unlucky and not an agent in your own life. Which means you'll want to do something where you'll see good results and feel some sense of agency right away, and/or something where you interact with people who have been less lucky than you. Some ideas for that: (a) volunteering, if that's COVID-compatible where you are, in a way that lets you interact and where the feedback is immediate: something like tutoring or at a soup kitchen or whatever. (b) a hobby where you make something, and where greater effort yields greater reward, i.e., not super dependent on talent. cooking or a craft or learning to play an instrument. (c) taking up a sport or recreational activity that is also mostly dependent on effort and not talent, where you can see the payoff for dedicating time into it. running or swimming or friendly games of soccer or the like.

This isn't an immediate solution, but in the long term this approach always helps me. Not only does it stop me from ruminating while I'm doing the thing, but it also provides daily evidence against the thought I'm ruminating on.

Good luck. I know it's very hard for a lot of folks right now. You can do it!
posted by forza at 10:20 PM on September 22, 2020 [8 favorites]

This is a bit unusual in our culture but have you considered doing a curse-breaking ritual? Look into your own traditions or consult a spiritual advisor who is meaningful to you or think up something that sounds meaningful... I don't know if you have access to anything like that, and I wouldn't recommend you reaching out to a psychic for hire or anything because I'd be too worried about it turning into a cycle/scam and making things worse.

But if you wanted to, say, buy a saint's charm and write down your bad luck on a paper and burn it with some incense, and walk to a place that feels holy to you to drop the ashes in a river...
posted by Lady Li at 12:34 AM on September 23, 2020 [5 favorites]

You haven’t mentioned the kinds of things that have happened. For health - apart from general lifestyle factors, that really is mostly odds. I’ve been “unlucky” in some ways, compared to some. I try to remember that compared to others, I have the much better deal, and I remember worse times I’ve experienced, and so I’m happy to have the good days and relative freedom from pain that I do. (There are a lot of people in terrible situations that I see daily, so that’s not a hard one.) Family, well, I guess I’m middle aged, and that’s about the time people tend to lose people, and other dynamics can get complex. Not uncommon.

Work. *Lots* of systemic factors here, late capitalism is a nightmare of inequality. From what you say, though, it does seem there’s a window of opportunity for some changes on your end - selflessness (to a point) is a virtue, but so are self-sufficiency and healthy self-regard. Assertiveness training may be helpful, if you’re a natural helper. I haven’t seen anything in your post to suggest you’re not charismatic (NYT), but likability tends to grease the groove when it comes to success (and is sometimes inhibited by anxiety, which you’ve talked about) - seems fixed but is a learnable set of soft skills. (I’m not looking for fault here, btw! just looking for opportunities to nudge **odds** [not luck] where at all possible.)

Shitty things happening to your home, in relation to finances etc, well, some of that can be helped with a focus on planning (doing scheduled maintenance, saving, etc.) Not all of it though, sometimes it’s bullshit that just happens to deal with.

Finally, ask your friends to stop talking about you and luck. Enough of that! (Although - is it possible some of them have similar things happening to them, but maybe they’re framing it differently, or not sharing about that? Just a thought.)
posted by cotton dress sock at 1:43 AM on September 23, 2020 [2 favorites]

Also - you’ve talked about things you’ve been working toward coming to fruition and then getting messed up - **persevere**. There are tons of really good reasons for organizations to falter right now. But if you keep at it, and if you stay connected, *something* will eventually come along. Until then please just be kind to yourself.
posted by cotton dress sock at 1:53 AM on September 23, 2020

Best answer: Have you heard this Kurt Vonnegut quote? I think of it often:

One of the things [Uncle Alex] found objectionable about human beings was that they so rarely noticed it when they were happy. He himself did his best to acknowledge it when times were sweet. We could be drinking lemonade in the shade of an apple tree in the summertime, and Uncle Alex would interrupt the conversation to say, “If this isn’t nice, what is?”

So I hope that you will do the same for the rest of your lives. When things are going sweetly and peacefully, please pause a moment, and then say out loud, “If this isn’t nice, what is?”

The idea is (and I think research will back me up on this) that people note and remember bad things more than good things. So you might look back on your day and think, my umbrella broke in the rain, I wasn't happy with that piece of work I did, my hip pain has come back, my boiler seems to be failing and I don't have the money to fix it. Or you might think, gosh that was funny when my umbrella broke and I had a laugh with the stranger about it, I want to put my mind to learning how to do that thing better at work, this hip pain is a reminder to do my physio exercises more regularly, and wow - what a nice lunch I had today. I must take my friend to that place soon.

I don't mean to minimise the events in your life that have made you feel bad lately. And your wording around "the straw that broke the camel's back" makes me think that you are feeling overwhelmed, and sinking, and that is the time to seek professional help if you can - therapy can help to untangle things and see more clearly.

But there is another little piece of work you can do by yourself - note the good things in life when they happen. Treasure them, remember them. You say "I didn't even have one day to bask in happiness before other unforeseen bad things happened and ruined my joy". I know it's hard to do sometimes, but don't let the bad thing take the good thing away. Meditate on the good thing, force yourself to bask! Hold tight to it, even while feeling the feelings from the bad thing.

Perspective is so powerful. I have been utterly miserable at times in my life when, to anyone standing outside it, I have everything I want and need. I have been blissfully happy in the middle of all kinds of turmoil. Work on your perspective if you can, and if you need help from a professional, get it - you deserve to not feel like this.
posted by greenish at 3:12 AM on September 23, 2020 [16 favorites]

I am not saying that this is guaranteed to work for you, this recommendation is 100% anecdotal.

When I was in a similar place - where I was thinking I was on a super-long streak of bad luck - one day I had the perspective that this was liberating in a way. Meaning: "oh, I just have super bad luck. So anything I do is gonna get into trouble anyway. So that doesn't really matter what I do, and that means I can do whatever the hell I want."

I grant that it's a bit nihilistic, but for me and my own brain, that ended up being a positive thing. I was no longer trying to obsess over whether "oh if I do things this way maybe it'll be better than that way" or "oh gosh should I try for this now or should I wait". Instead, my attitude turned into "doesn't matter what I do at the end of the day. So if it doesn't matter whether I do this or not....why not do it just for the hell of it?"

You know yourself well enough to know whether this would actually work for you, or whether it would make things worse. For me, though, it kinda worked. Especially since some of the "oh what the hell" things did work out despite what I was thinking. And...I had more fun.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 6:15 AM on September 23, 2020 [12 favorites]

I have a friend who was for some time known in our friend group as someone who had "bad luck" and was that guy that bad things "always happened to". I have since realised that it's actually really shitty for "friends" to perpetuate this kind of joke about a friend, and I hope that anyone else reading your account will be able to see why.

I know that this is kind of tangential to your question, but I think it's important to point out that the friends who said this stuff to you were wrong. If they both came up with this idea independently, it's probably because they both knew you during a time when multiple bad things happened to you. I guess sometimes people say this kind of thing as a form of commiseration -- they want to express sympathy that something bad has happened to you, and use a figure of speech without thinking about it too deeply or considering the effects of their words. Maybe they even think that they're making you feel better by emphasizing that these things just happen and are not your fault (without realising the implications of the phrasing).

When multiple bad things happen to you in a short space of time, it's normal to feel unhappy, and when you feel unhappy it's easy to start noticing more and more bad things and not give equal weight to positive and neutral things -- this can lead to a spiral of negativity where everything seems terrible.

I think it's also a natural human instinct to criticise yourself retroactively and consider how you could have avoided a bad thing. We like to feel in control of our lives, and to believe that we can avoid bad things if we just try hard enough. This is the same impulse that leads to victim-blaming -- if we can just not do whatever that person did wrong, then the bad thing won't happen to us! Except that here that person is you, and by doing this you're being really unkind to yourself. It may be easy in hindsight to see what you should have done in a particular situation, but that doesn't mean that you could have foreseen that, or that you did not behave reasonably and correctly according to the knowledge that you had at the time.

I've never been in a situation directly analogous to yours, but I had a really bad time for several months after a breakup, which included serious doubts about my own ability to feel normal human emotions and function as a normal human being. I thought that I was fundamentally broken, the way I felt things and the way I behaved and the things I liked and disliked were all just wrong, I didn't have any real friends and was completely alone, etc.. What helped me was 1) time, 2) having to do a whole bunch of administrative things that absolutely had to be done, and 3) re-establishing connections with other people, which had atrophied away to almost nothing during the miserable final stages of my relationship. So I guess my advice is 1) give yourself some time to process your feelings, 2) keep busy with something, and 3) don't isolate yourself; reach out to other people. Even if you haven't spoken to them much recently and it's a bit weird and awkward.

Sometimes it helps just to talk to another person -- whether it's talking directly about the things that are upsetting you, just to get a different perspective, or about something completely different, just to remind yourself about the existence of things beyond the things that are upsetting you.
posted by confluency at 7:24 AM on September 23, 2020 [4 favorites]

(If like me you're an introvert and enjoy social interaction in moderation, please don't take this as advice to immediately turn all your friendship knobs all the way up to eleven at once. But as an introvert I realise that it's easy for me to default to not talking to people and dealing with my problems alone -- and sometimes that's not the best idea.)
posted by confluency at 7:30 AM on September 23, 2020 [1 favorite]

Another suggestion would be that it can help to try and do a few small things to help other people near you with their problems. In my immediate, nearest and dearest social circle right now I have people who are experiencing chronic pain, someone with a newborn who is screaming all the time (colic), someone in rehab from a series of strokes who will probably never regain independence, two parents of severely autistic children, and someone with a "perfectly fine family" whose teenagers are trying to boycott zoom school and who is constantly at their wits end over it.

It's commonly recommended for depression and anxiety to get out if your head and I can confirm it works for me. Being able to do something to brighten their day just a little makes everything feel better, and even just thinking about what I can do for them is a really healthy refocus away from dwelling on my own crap all the time.
posted by Lady Li at 7:39 AM on September 23, 2020 [4 favorites]

The Luck Factor by Dr. Richard Wiseman. This book discusses people that are lucky do things differently. One of them is to talk to strangers a lot.
posted by saturdaymornings at 11:48 AM on September 23, 2020 [1 favorite]

- Gratitude journaling doesn't work for everyone. I tried it over and over and it doesn't help me. You have an internet stranger's permission to stop if you don't like it.

- The cure for the mulleygrubs is to bake a cake. Actually doing some tiny positive thing helps me get back on track - if I have the energy I do often bake, if not I wash dishes / clean the toilet / sort the mail. Builds your self-efficacy and you get a more pleasant home.

- My attitude may not be right for you, but I find it counterproductive to sort people into good and awful. Everyone is doing the best they can, even if sometimes that seems not very good at all and also extremely misguided. In religious terms, you are not saved by works but by grace alone. In therapy terms, this translates into unconditional positive regard for yourself and for others. Bad things happen to everyone. Sometimes they're clustered into really lousy times. Very little of what happens to people is what they deserve.
posted by momus_window at 1:14 PM on September 23, 2020 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Have you tried re-framing your thoughts at all about "the big picture"? At this moment, you can't know for sure what the long term outcomes about the events of your year. Perhaps something that you initially thought was "unlucky" will eventually lead to a new opportunity. Or perhaps this year's ultimate purpose is to remind you (in the future, when things are better) how bad things can be.

FWIW (but YMMV, of course) I have found the concept of luck to be an unhelpful framework for 2020. This year in particular, I have found that concepts of luck and fortune and privilege have intertwined themselves in ways that make me uncomfortable. I am acutely aware of the contradiction that I have found this year to be very difficult, yet I am privileged compared to many. Earlier this year, I was saying "sometimes the bunny hill is hard enough" as a non gaming example of the difficulty levels mentioned in this post. Now I'm saying "2020 has been a terrible, sh*tty year for just about everyone. Most of us are struggling and not okay. 2020 repeatedly likes to remind us that things can always get worse." My new goal for 2020 is to endure, and try to make it better for myself and others when I can. In the long term, I maintain the hope that things will (eventually) get better.
posted by oceano at 2:07 PM on September 23, 2020 [4 favorites]

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