Help! A Good Thing happened but I feel terrible!
Hi, hello, come on in. We’ve been expecting you.
I don’t get it. I’ve wanted this Thing for years. Shouldn’t I feel amazing now that I’ve [gotten married/gotten published/gotten the award/gotten the cool job]?!
First of all, it’s not just you. Capitalism is a jerk. You’ve been sold the idea that [getting married/published/an award/a cool job] would cure your eczema, sing you to sleep, go back in time and heal your childhood trauma.
Capitalism needs us to believe this so that we keep striving and keep the big machine going. And then, when we get there and it doesn’t magically wave a happiness-wand, we assume that it’s just because the next thing will cure our eczema and childhood trauma, so we just keep going (this is called the Hedonic Treadmill) and powering the machine. You’ve been sold a bill of goods, kid.
Fuck. That’s dark.
Everyone around me expects me to be over-the-moon.
And are their expectations helping you to feel over-the-moon?
No! It’s making it worse! No one wants to hear that I was so anxious for my wedding to go perfectly that my back started spasming, or that the show I won that award for was a fucking nightmare, or that I’ve been spiraling since I got promoted because I’m terrified that I won’t deliver. No one wants to hear that shit.
I want to hear!
No, you don’t. I’m an asshole for even thinking about this when other people have Real Problems. Some people are literally dying!
Does thinking about them make you feel better about your Good Thing? Or does it just make you feel guilty for daring to be unhappy when you’re not literally dying?
Well, of course I feel guilty. Remember when I said I’m an asshole?
Does your guilt make life better for the people who are literally dying?
…No, but still, what right do I have to feel bad about this?
Look, maybe you have some element of privilege that played a role in your getting a Good Thing, and it’s awesome that you care about that and are aware of it. Your attempts to maintain perspective speak well of you! And by all means, if you can, go do some things for the people who are literally dying!
But here’s my take on it: Remember the myth I mentioned earlier, about how your Good Thing would cure your eczema and sing you to sleep? The pervasiveness of this myth is a BIG FUCKING PROBLEM that’s keeping a lot of people unhappy, and you’re experiencing that problem up-close. You’re far from the only person experiencing this, so don’t beat yourself up! Shit, lots of people’s lives have been ruined by winning the lottery.
But why is this happening at all? Why can’t I just shut up and enjoy myself?
A number of possible things could be going on, or some combination thereof:
Good Thing not actually that good: Maybe the “Good Thing” just…wasn’t that great of an experience. Maybe everything that could go wrong at your wedding, did. Maybe the colleagues that you won a Nobel Prize with are douchebags but now you’re tied to them forever. Maybe your new gorgeous house has termites and black mold.
Good Thing comes with side effects: Another possibility is that your Good Thing, while certainly good in some ways, has some unexpected Not Good aspects to it. Like, Brene Brown talks in her new Netflix special about how when her TED Talk went viral, she made the mistake of reading the comments. They were so bad that she ended up on the couch all day with peanut butter and Downton Abbey.
It makes sense: if you hit your thumb with a hammer, you’re not thinking about the nine fingers that are fine, because our brains gravitate to Bad Things in order to protect us from threats and keep us alive! Thanks for looking out for us, brains!
Good Thing and Bad Thing co-occurring: Or maybe the Good Thing is happening concurrently with an unrelated Not-Good Thing, and you feel guilty for paying attention to the Not-Good Thing when you have a Good Thing. For fretting about your father’s health or grieving your breakup or having feelings about your chronic pain flare-up, instead of just being a walking beacon of euphoria in light of your “happy” news.
Good Thing makes you feel like an imposter: If you’ve ascended upwards in your career, and you don’t feel that you belong there, that can definitely make your Good Thing feel Not Good! You might have anxiety that you’ll be “found out” for not actually being good at your job, or that you won’t be able to deliver. Total buzzkill!
Good Thing could technically have been better and you can’t stop thinking about it: Your movie did pretty decently on the festival circuit! The reviews were all positive! You’re even getting distributed on a streaming service! This is all above and beyond what you expected! But…your friend from art school also made a movie, and it went to Sundance. Or maybe someone at a screening said, “This should be at Sundance!” Or maybe you just heard the word “Sundance” recently.
You have no complaints about your own experience; you love this film you made, you had a great time making it, and you’re proud of its success. But you are now obsessed with the fact that you didn’t go to Sundance.
Good Thing doesn’t actually change anything: There are some Good Things to which people attribute “Success,” but which don’t actually mean anything. Sometimes an award just means a cheap trophy and a pat on the back; sometimes a fancy title change at work means doing the same work with different business cards; sometimes you perform on a larger stage and nothing comes of it. And then you have to field questions like, “Wow! What now?” and you just have to keep telling people, “Literally nothing in my life has changed.” Which can get old!
“Real life” pales in comparison to Good Thing and you’re depressed: Google “post-Olympic depression”! Olympic gold medal winners can get hella depressed when they have to return to the real world after the high of competition. It’s like, what now? When your whole life has been built around striving for X, and you finally get X, what does life even mean anymore? My favorite example of this is from Dan Bern’s song “Tiger Woods”:
“I got a friend whose goal in life
Was to one day go down on Madonna
That's all he wanted
That was all
To one day go down on Madonna
And when my friend was thirty-four
He got his wish in Rome one night
He got to go down on Madonna
In Rome one night in some hotel
And ever since he's been depressed
'Cause life is shit from here on in
And all our friends just shake their heads
And say, "Too soon, too soon, too soon,
He went down on Madonna too soon”
Good Thing has ended the suspense and now you’re bored: When coach Nick Saban took over Alabama college football team Crimson Tide and they started winning nonstop, student attendance at games went down. A little bit of uncertainty is engaging; it keeps us coming back. When we start to take our good fortune for granted, it stops feeling so magical.
Good Thing has brought out a not-so-good side of you/people you love: You’re a scrappy punk band that performs in basements and DIY spaces. Suddenly, a major arts venue wants you to perform in their space. And before you know it, you and your beloved bandmates are at each other’s throats, each of you trying to get your piece of the pie or control how things go. It was easy for things to be chill and fun when the stakes were lower, but now that there’s prestige/money involved, everyone has become a low-key ego-driven monster.
So any of these things can make your Good Thing feel very Not Good indeed!
Damn, now I’m even more depressed. Can I do anything about this?
You absolutely can! Here are a few ideas:
Get super clear on what your expectations were vs. what actually happened. Sometimes we mistake “expected vs. unexpected” for “good vs. bad.” By cultivating awareness of our expectations, we come to see how they color our experience, and we can work toward releasing our disappointment. You can do this in writing, with the other people involved (if appropriate), or with a friend/therapist/coach/confidante.
I’ve created a worksheet for exactly this purpose, which you can download here.
It might sound cheesy, but: gratitude, gratitude, gratitude. And not just an “attitude of gratitude,” but a gratitude practice. Literally write down or say out loud three things you’re grateful for, every single day, whether you feel grateful in the moment or not. It doesn’t have to be about your Good Thing, but that might be a great place to start!
Cultivating a gratitude practice is not the same as policing emotion; there’s no requirement for how you have to feel. But practicing looking for what’s good strengthens that neural pathway in your brain, which makes gratitude self-perpetuating. (There are tons of written gratitude tools and apps out there; if you’d like to practice gratitude while taking a walk, I like this gratitude practice from the Awesome with Alison podcast.)
And let’s not forget gratitude’s badass cousin, pride: Track your “wins.” Give yourself credit for your Good Thing, but also for your little wins, too. Did you keep your cool during a shitty conversation? Make yourself an excellent sandwich? Get to work on time even when traffic went bananas? Good job! Give yourself a gold star! (WinStreak is an extremely simple tool for doing this.)
Talk to whoever you need to talk to. If the Not-Good feeling of your Good Thing involves other people and their behavior, maybe they need to be held accountable for how they’ve acted. Or, maybe you’re the one who needs to be held accountable; maybe you have some apologies to make.
To have these hard conversations, I highly recommend reading Brene Brown’s Dare to Lead; if you’re short on time, she also has some extremely useful downloadable tools on her website, like this Engaged Feedback Checklist or this post-shitshow “Story Rumble” process. (For the Story Rumble you might have to Google a few terms, like “rumble,” “permission slips,” and “SFDs” [shitty first drafts], but I promise it’s worth it.)
Come out of the “Good Thing Feels Bad” closet. You don’t have any obligation to pretend that your Good Thing was better than it was. You’re allowed to have a bad time or a bad mood. Use your discretion, obviously; sometimes there are consequences for admitting that a Good Thing didn’t feel uniformly good. But if you can, give yourself permission to be honest about the experience. The dissonance of performing pure positivity is just making you feel worse, and contributing to the pervasive myth that Good Things cure our eczema and sing us to sleep.
What is the smallest, simplest way you could give yourself pleasure? Do that! Voilà: feeling good without a great big Good Thing. Repeat this ad nauseum.
Again, I’ve created a handy-dandy worksheet to help you understand why your Good Thing feels bad and what you can do about it. You can download it here.
I created this worksheet - and this blog post - because I couldn’t understand why I felt so shitty about my own Good Thing (getting my Young Adult novel Squad published). I’ve test-driven this worksheet for you, and even though I wrote it, I still discovered some surprises in filling it out that have been *super* helpful. Please give it a shot, and then let me know how it went!
Thanks for reading!