“You Can Have a Bad Day and Still Be Doing Well”
Recently, I had a major personal breakthrough. I have struggled for a long time with the major upswings and downturns of my life. The cyclical nature in which over time a “good” period gets abruptly stopped by a negative event, feeling, or interaction, known outside clinical circles as a “bad” day.
Much of my life has been like a hamster wheel. I start walking, the wheel moves. I go faster, so does the wheel. Momentum builds, all is going as designed. Suddenly, I get distracted by an outside source and boom I go flying off the wheel, collapse in exhaustion, and promptly begin beating myself up with negative self-talk about what a failure I am and how I should have tried harder, and wondering why I am never enough. Then slowly I recharge, hesitantly get back on the wheel, and start the cycle all over again. It isn’t pleasant, it never ends differently, and it is impossible to maintain.
When I started therapy after my diagnosis, one of my main goals was stop that cycle of severe ups and downs and learn to create a more stable and balanced life. In other words, I wanted to go from a roller coaster ride to a row boat on a lake. After years of work, I had made enough changes inside and out to start seeing my life even out; become a slow stream, rather than a raging river. I was enjoying my life on a daily basis and wanting to get up every day.
And then, the inevitable. A bad day!
I could swear I heard the click of a safety bar. No. No more roller coasters! Why? I was doing so well! I don’t understand!!! And then I went to the therapist…
As it turns out, this “bad day” thing is not an unusual experience for spectrumites. Many of us struggle with our nature as black and white thinkers. In other words, for us, everything is either all “good or all “bad”. It’s either a 1 or a 10. We either love it or hate it. I like that about myself most of the time. Some people say it makes me stubborn and opinionated. I say that’s the New York flowing through my blood. It makes me a fabulous decision maker, as fence-sitting is near impossible for me, and it makes a pretty darn handy person to have around in an emergency or an emotionally charged situation. Not a bad turn around, right? Took the same characteristic that is viewed as a negative and found my positives in it.
Black and white thinking works, doesn’t it?
Of course, it doesn’t, or at least not all the time. The biggest problem with black and white thinking is that the world is full of gray. Yes, while I might have an immediate and definite take on everything, the world is a wishy-washy place full of the “maybe”, “sort of”, “sooner or later”, “possibly”, and “we’ll see” kind of thinking. It’s a challenge being black and white thinker in a gray thinking world. But that’s not a new experience. I have gotten used to my place as the odd woman out but, wait a second, perhaps I didn’t have to be. Maybe there was something to this gray thinking. In mindfulness, we call this “walking the middle path”. That there is more than one way to see a situation or solve a problem by balancing acceptance and change.
The goal is to change painful or difficult thoughts, feelings, or circumstances, while at the same time accepting yourself, others, and circumstances as they are in that moment. A similar idea is found in Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT). DBT is based on four behavioral skill sets. Mindfulness, the practice of being fully aware and present in this one moment. Distress tolerance or how to tolerate pain in difficult situations, not change it. Interpersonal effectiveness, asking for what you want and saying no while maintaining your self-respect and relationships. And lastly, emotion regulation, how to change emotions that you want to change. Both concepts work on the basis of getting comfortable in the gray. If gray thinking was useless, why all the focus on it. Moreover, why do so may do it? It must have some benefit.
There is a great Mindfulness handout that has a drawing of a see-saw on it. It comes in many forms but in each drawing the idea is the same. On either end of the see-saw in each drawing are two seemingly opposites concepts, like reasonable mind and emotional mind. When they weigh the same, the see saw is balanced, and, in theory, so is your thinking. When you rely too heavily on one notion or the other, the see-saw tips and so does your inner balance. Well, the balanced see-saw is most certainly closer to row boat life than a roller coaster, isn’t it?
Maybe gray thinking on occasion could work. And, in fact, it did.
The next time I had a good upswing going and things were running smoothly, I reminded myself that I needed to keep the see-saw balanced. And when the “bad day” came, and it always does, I was ready. This time I told myself, one or two or three bad days do NOT mean suddenly I am not doing well. It means I had a bad day and I am STILL doing well. The see-saw tipped but I quickly adjusted for imbalance, realizing that to let a few bad days sink the see-saw was not result I wanted. I wanted to move smoothly through bad days and maintain a well-balanced mindset. I didn’t want to say “what a horrible day. I was awful. I can’t do this,”. Instead, I took a break, paused, and said, “I can have a ‘bad day’ and still be ‘doing well’,”. I can have a bump in the road but still be traveling in the right direction. I don’t have to choose black or white. I can go gray, pick up my oars and calmly, row downstream.
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