When adversity strikes, here’s how to avoid self-pity

Carolyn Hax
Columnist January 7, 2013

Adapted from a recent online discussion.

Dear Carolyn:

Carolyn Hax started her advice column in 1997, after five years as a copy editor and news editor in Style and none as a therapist. The column includes cartoons by "relationship cartoonist" Nick Galifianakis -- Carolyn's ex-husband -- and appears in over 200 newspapers. View Archive

How do I stop feeling so sorry for myself that things don’t seem to go well? Or rather, that they start to go well and inevitably something ruins it?

I live paycheck to paycheck after a year of unemployment. I’m one car payment away from owning my car outright, and that extra $300 per month would go a long way toward paying down my personal debt, but my car is now making a new clunking noise and will take hundreds to fix (I have no savings). My workplace is moving within biking distance to my apartment in two months, so I have been looking forward to riding my bike to save money and wear-and-tear on my car, and last night, after working both my full-time and part-time jobs, I find someone had cut the lock and stolen it.

It has been this way my whole life. I get a glimmer of hope that my circumstances are getting better, but something comes along to mess it up. I’m at the point of wallowing, and after 27 years, I just don’t see an end.


How do I break out of this funk? It’s hard to live every day waiting for the other (millionth) shoe to drop.

One Step Forward, Two Steps Back

I appreciate how hard it is to be knocked back just as you’re getting close to some relief — but you’re actually making it harder on yourself by seeing it all as part of a larger narrative.

You know there isn’t some specter hovering over you and stealing your bike just as your workplace is about to move closer, and you know the bank didn’t notify the engine gremlins that you were down to your last car payment.

It all just broke that way. Well, mostly: If the specter really had it in for you, it would have waited another eight weeks to steal your bike, but it makes a better story to round it all up or down to fit the narrative.

It’s also convenient, since it internalizes randomness — making you the sun in your larger universe — and externalizes fault.

And that’s where you can help yourself the most. Tell yourself — out loud even, like a dork — that things really don’t work this way and you aren’t starring in the Cosmic-Conspiracy Show. What you’re dealing with are just bummers, which are not only better than catastrophes but also make you tougher, more resourceful, funnier (that’s where narrative skills come in handy), more empathetic, and more grateful for the good things that come your way — like, say, having your job relocate nearby.

Neither good things nor bad things are permanent, only change is. And with change will always come good breaks and bad breaks — so, another shoe is always about to drop even with people who appear to have it all.

Plus, good things come even to you. Think about your good breaks if you’re skeptical: You have a job, you’re paying down debt, you’ll bike to work in a matter of months, be it 2 or 6. Adversity is all in how you summon your strength in response. With good fortune, you just need to notice it’s there. 

Write to Carolyn Hax, Style, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071, or tellme@washpost.com. Subscribe at www.facebook.com/carolynhax.

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