“The difference between pain and misery?
Pain is what we walk through; misery is what we sit in.”
I hesitate to write about a quote that says, “misery is what we sit in,” because I don’t want to come across as flippant when it comes to misery and sadness. I can write about these two approaches, though, because I have experienced them both – I have walked through pain and I have sat in misery. For me, I see now that I have a choice as to which course I will pursue.
Looking back I can see times that I chose to sit in misery. At first glance, it may seem strange to consider this as a chosen behavior, but I have talked to many others who admit to this choice as well. The thing to keep in mind is that all behavior is purposeful. In other words, we behave for a reason; we behave to satisfy a need. More simply, with a behavior comes a payback.
All behavior is purposeful.
This is where it gets interesting. Why, for instance, would someone choose to be miserable? What is the payback for misery? I can remember being miserable when work felt overwhelming or when my wife wasn’t reading my mind like I needed her to. Instead of taking a step at a time and seeking other’s assistance at work, or instead of talking to my wife about a frustration or perceived unfairness, I would go into a dark tunnel and distance and separate and withdraw. And to a degree, even though I felt miserable, I also felt kind of good. I clutched my misery and nurtured it, like Gollum talking to himself about his Precious. If my wife wasn’t treating me like I wanted, then I wouldn’t treat her like she probably wanted. Fair is fair. I deserve fairness, I defended, even as I shrunk further away from the very thing, the very person whose intimacy I sought.
Glasser alerted me to this kind of thinking in his book Control Theory* (1985). In fact, he listed four reasons for people to choose misery.
1. It keeps angering under control
Rather than expressing our anger outward, and maybe even threatening and hurting other people, we turn it inward. We don’t know how to deal with our anger in the public arena, so we direct it to a private location. (Besides this kind of behavior hurting our relationships, it also can harm our physical bodies, as anger triggers the release of adrenaline and cortisol into our systems. Over time misery can lead to organs and joints being affected.)
2. It gets others to help us
When we show up as miserable or depressed it can serve as a cry for help, which can be especially appealing for men, who often don’t like to just come out and ask for help.
3. It excuses our unwillingness to do something more effective
The more miserable or depressed we become, the more helpless we become, too. We convey that we are not capable of doing much when we are overcome with misery.
4. It helps us regain control
When we feel out of control because of how someone else is treating us or because of the difficulty of a circumstance, choosing to be miserable or to depress can very much increase our sense of control. No one can challenge us when we are helpless.
Any of these behaviors can make sense at the moment. We are desperate for a behavior that will help us feel better and we rummage around in our behavior system for something that will give us even a smidgeon of control. Being miserable doesn’t feel that great, but it feels better than the alternative, whatever we perceive the alternative to be. Somehow, misery is need-satisfying.
Of course, it is not usually a good idea to tell a person who is in the midst of being depressed or miserable that he/she is choosing it. A miserable person can become quite defensive of their misery. But there will come a time, when things are better or when the pressure is off a bit, when he/she will be more open to considering their role in the misery process.
And what a special moment it is when you first realize that misery isn’t something that just happens to you. An awareness begins to dawn in your thinking, an empowering awareness that maybe, just maybe, you can literally choose your state of mind. As you grow in your understanding of choice theory, it’s like you become immunized against misery and even depression. Yes, it can be scary to realize how much power and responsibility you have for your own mental health, but the trade from victim to empowerment is well worth it.
Yeh, heck yeh. For me it was #1, the one about keeping anger under control. I had never understood it in that way. But it made perfect sense to me as I thought about it. It actually inspired me to get a little help . . . with the anger thing, you know. TJ
Mine was a combination of #2 and #3. I really did want others to view me as helpless, and to come to my aid. I see now that it was kind of manipulative, but I didn’t think that at the moment I was being miserable. BD
I think there should be a #5 on the list, since my being miserable had more to do with punishing others, especially my wife. #5 should be about punishment, about getting back at another person. HR