This non-scientific “experiment” was inspired by a bad day gone better. Admittedly, I was labeling many of my days as “bad” at the time. Even though, factually, life was going fine, it didn’t feel fine. I had a tendency to ruminate, I’d been told; in particular, my mistakes quickly became larger than life. It was like there was a mechanism in my brain that could turn marshmallow-sized incidents into Stay Puft Marshmallow Men of worry. (I only know that they were just marshmallows because I checked with the people I trust. Many times over.) Essentially, “Man, I wish I’d handled that differently” quickly evolved into “I’m really [insert negative quality here], and this proves it.”
On this particular day, I was obsessing over something I’d said the night before. Immediately after it came out of my mouth, I could feel the marshmallow expanding. Oh my gosh that was weird and possibly mean and why did I say that?? What is wrong with me?? When I woke up the next morning, these thoughts were still trampling through my mind, so I sought the counsel of one of my entrusted. They were of the opinion that what I said only mattered inasmuch as it was affecting me; aka, let it go. But I just couldn’t. Until, after ruminating through much of the morning, a very good piece of advice popped into my head. At other moments in my life, when I’d been struggling with one thing or another, my dad suggested that I think about what I’d say to a friend if they were in the same situation.
I was surprised enough by the thought that it momentarily threw me off the rumination carousel. Okay. I pictured one of my friends, who I know struggles with anxiety at times, coming to me all worked up over the same situation. And I realized immediately, putting my thoughts in her mouth, that my first reaction would be . . . to laugh. In the kindest way possible, but still. Because, standing on the (imagined) outside, I’m no longer staring at the incident—I’m looking at my friend. And I can see how not-a-big-deal this situation is in the scheme of who she is and what she’s going through.
My (imagined) laughter was also at my (actual) self, and the immediate sense of relief I felt. My perception of the situation had palpably changed, and I believed I could let it go. For me, this was a really big deal, given how stuck I was able to get on “marshmallows” at that point in time. I thought something to the effect of, “I should do this more often!”
Over the next few days, I decided to do just that, and commit to the “What would I say to a friend?” strategy for a week, as a personal “experiment.” My plan, as written in my notebook, was this: “Whenever I’m stuck, or at a decision point, or struggling in some type of way, I’m going to ask myself, What would I say to a friend if they were in this position? What advice would I give? How would I look at the situation? . . . Then, I’m going to do my best to act upon that advice/perspective.” I took notes on my phone throughout the day and journaled throughout the week to document and reflect upon my experience.
New endeavors tend to come with a share of surprises and lessons to learn. Here’s what I found along the way:
Stepping outside myself allowed me to bypass beating myself up and move onto coming up with practical solutions.
I started my experiment on a Monday morning, and put it to use almost immediately. I had overslept. Again.
Granted, I don’t have to be to work until about noon (Awesome, right?). However, in the past, I had typically gotten up at 7:00 (okay, 7:00-ish) so I could write. The negative mindset and shaken confidence I was experiencing had been there for some time and had led to a few-months-long hiatus from writing. But I still wanted to be getting up and doing . . . something, even if it was “just” reading or going for a walk. However, “wanting to” had yet to transform into “actually doing.” Instead, I was shutting off my alarm, sleeping till nine or so, and then lollygagging (yes, actually lollygagging) in bed playing Cookie Jam or Sugar Smash until I was actually running late.
This morning was different, though. I was no longer just an oversleeper; I was a scientist, too. And I knew I’d found the perfect place to start my experiment. Because my oversleeping habit bothered me, at least a little. And lying there in bed, I quickly realized that if I was talking to a friend who was in the same situation, that’s the first thing I’d ask: do you want to change it, or are you cool with it? Because if they were going through a somewhat stressful time, and they decided sleeping extra for a while was okay with them, I’d understand. But if they wanted to change it, I’d help them come up with solutions.
That realization was, like, duh. I could give myself full permission to sleep in, or I could actively work at getting up earlier. Either choice would ultimately be better than leaving on my 7:00 a.m. alarm as a pretense, which only generated hurried mornings and guilty feelings.
I decided to give getting up earlier the effort it required. So, I came up with a plan. I brought my alarm clock out of retirement (previously, I’d only been using my phone, which I kept on or near my bed) and set it up across the room, so I’d have to actually get up to turn it off. Part two of my plan was deciding in advance what I’d want to do upon waking up, so I’d actually look forward to getting out of bed. I realized pretty quickly that what I wanted was simply to drink coffee at the kitchen table while checking my email (and, okay, maybe playing my phone games for a little bit).
I put this plan into action the next day. Guess what time I got up?
I was able to reframe negative thoughts in more positive, realistic ways.
Day Two of my experiment, thanks to my victory over the formidable opponent that is morning inertia, was off to a positive start. However, I quickly found myself filling up with dread. I had an appointment with my therapist that morning. Yes, in addition to consulting the “friend-self” in my head, I see a therapist. As much as I truly value the practice, sometimes I just really don’t want to do it; the idea of sitting for (nearly) an hour and talking about the things I wish I could wish away makes me a little squirmy, to say the least. Still, I had committed to not just the appointment, but this experiment, so I decided to use the time beforehand to brainstorm advice for myself.
First, I thought about how therapy is like exercise; you don’t always feel like doing it, but once you’re done, you usually feel good (and even if you don’t, you’ve still contributed to your long-term progress). I reminded myself, as I would a friend, that I deserve the support I’m seeking, but that thought lacked in either the believability or pertinence needed to affect how I felt. But then, something occurred to me. Directly underneath my anxiousness were some major positives: I really liked my therapist and appreciated the support she’d given me. Add in the fact that I’d opened up to her more than most, and I naturally felt vulnerable; my anxiety went straight for that soft spot. Still, though an easy opening was left for worry, the threat wasn’t there; no matter how large the shadow appeared, it was only being cast by a bunny.
This particular situation held significance beyond the moment. Leading up to this experiment, I was going through a phase in my life where I felt incapable of calming myself down. The only way I seemed to be able to get through the difficult moments was by seeking repeated reassurance from a couple of people I trust. This isn’t real, right? I don’t need to worry about this, right? But this morning, I was able to re-see a situation in a more positive, realistic light, beyond the filter my emotions put on it. And I did it all by myself. Well, with the help of my friend-self.
Empathetic listening is a good tool to use with my friends—and also myself.
On Day Three, I decided to use my drive time after work to brainstorm advice for myself on a few different subjects. Throughout the day, I’d noticed this underlying thought that, as I put it in my journal, “my bad moods lately have been ‘ruining everything’ (or something less dramatic).” For example, I had recently become closer friends with someone from work, and I felt like I hadn’t been as “good” or “fun” of a friend to her as I could be. I realized pretty quickly that this was probably one of those times where my “bad mood filter” was making a situation appear more dire than it really was. Yes, my bad mood was making my bad mood look worse.
But then, I rode the train of thought one stop further, and as I wrote in my journal, “I was able to empathize, as a friend would, that the fear was rooted in some very real places.” Meaning, I wasn’t wrong that things were harder than they were before. When I’m feeling down, everything—from work to writing to joking with friends—requires extra effort. What’s more, I’ve been here before. I went through a few periods when I was younger where I was less happy than the facts suggest I could have been. It’s hard not to wish, at least a little, that I could go back in time and better enjoy the experiences, appreciate the people surrounding me, and make stuff happen. So, naturally, I have a sense of concern about potentially ending up in that place again. Bleak as those realizations may sound, taking the time to acknowledge them made me feel better.
Looking back over my journal, I found it striking and a little funny that I said I “empathized” with myself. The purpose of empathy is to put yourself in another person’s shoes so you can get a sense for what they’re feeling. And my feelings, well, they’re plenty loud enough for me to hear. Still, the way I approached my concern during that drive was different from the way I usually do—but similar to how I approach my friends and their experiences. I want to improve my empathy skills, and where I’ve started with my friends is by simply working at being a better listener. Because when I slow down, ask thoughtful questions, and really try to understand their perspective, I’m more likely to be able to help—or, at the very least, actually be there with them, because I actually get it. Taking a moment to pause and let my thoughts and feelings “speak,” I was able to get a deeper understanding of the situation, which—though I didn’t find a “solution”—ultimately made me feel better.
Sometimes, I also need to reach for outside support.
For all the powerful moments in this experiment where I learned how to better help myself, there were also a few where I, to quote my journal, “unraveled.” Day Six was the most notable. I skipped journaling that day. I skipped doing much of anything, to be honest. No situation in particular set me off. I was just sad. And tired. And frustrated. And I didn’t have the will to try and overcome all of it that day. So I accepted some support. Aka, I stayed over at Mom and Dad’s.
This week was full of unexpecteds, but every fall—including this one—was a fall forward, because I learned something. On Day Seven, I summed it up like this:
“When I’m in the right frame of mind, I can help myself. I can move past the ‘you suck’ phase into the problem-solving phase with relative ease. Sometimes, I can see a situation in a new, less-catastrophic light if I imagine one of my friends in it instead. And when I’m doing at least okay, every second I spend brainstorming what I might say to a friend—even if a ‘perfect solution’ isn’t found—is one where I’m not ruminating or beating myself up. And that’s a very good thing.
“Now, I have also realized that there are limits. Some days, some moments, I can’t do it on my own. Sometimes, I am too far down the rabbit hole to see any other perspective on my own . . . And that might not be magical or self-affirming, but that’s okay. Because, think about it: if one of your friends was going through a hard time, and she was like, ‘I can’t always do it on my own,’ what would you think? Would you think that she probably just sucked fundamentally as a human being, and that’s why she couldn’t solve her problems? No. In fact, you’d think she’s strong and a badass for being able to admit as much, and seek help when she needed it.”
Of course this experiment didn’t “fix” me; I still deal with marshmallows of various sizes, and try to come at them from a variety of angles (with varying degrees of success). Giving myself the advice I’d give a friend was definitely useful, and in a broader sense, confirmed a few things I believe to be true when it comes to attempting to grow through the tough times: try things that could be good for you (even and especially when you feel like you don’t deserve to), be kind (to others and yourself), and ask for help, often.