I’d like you to imagine a little situation with me, and them I’m going to ask you a question.
You leave the house to go for a walk and the next thing you know the skies open up and you get caught in a downpour. You run home, and the person who greets you when you walk in asks, “Wow, how’d you get so wet?”
Quick: what’s your answer?
. . . . .
Did your answer have the word rain in it? Like, “I got caught in the rain,” or “It suddenly started raining,” or “It started raining and I had to run home.” Or anything having to do with the rain?
If so, you’re like the vast majority of people. It’s obvious! You got wet because of the rain.
But while it’s true that the rain sure as hell made you wet, that’s still in a way the wrong answer. Every once in a while someone says the answer to “Wow, how’d you get so wet?” is “I forgot my umbrella.” And that, or something like it, is the correct answer.
Why that’s the case is one of the most important things a person can ever understand, and it has nothing to do with rain or umbrellas.
To say the rain made you wet is to blame your problem—being wet—on circumstances—the rain. The connection between problems and circumstances, in this case anyway, is pretty clear, but if you wanted to set up a pattern for keeping yourself behind the eight ball—emotionally, practically, every which way—you couldn’t come up with a better plan than to blame circumstances.
“I got wet because of the rain. I lose my temper because my job is stressful. I’m depressed because I never got any support growing up. I’m anxious because I’ve screwed up a number of times in the past.” Always the problem comes from some circumstance outside of your control.
Now the rain is real, and so are all the other circumstances. But here’s the big question: what does mental health look like? What do mentally healthy people do? Not “what do they have?” or “what are they like?” but what do they actually do?
That’s the difference between mental and physical health. You can’t be physically healthy by behaving like physically healthy people. But far, far more than you can imagine, you CAN be mentally healthy JUST by behaving like mentally healthy people.
And what mentally healthy people don’t do is attribute problems to the past or to other things they have no control over. However real those things may be, the way the rain is real.
What mentally healthy people do do, people who are happy and function well and get the things they want out of life, is this:
When it starts to rain they don’t say, What the fuck!,
they say, Where’s my umbrella?
To put it in different words, they see life not as problems and suffering, but as problems and tools. For every problem there’s a tool that can either prevent the problem, or solve the problem, or make the problem bearable.
And why, oh why, would you spend energy attributing the problem to some circumstance unless that circumstance could point directly to the solution?
Here’s how to drive yourself sane, if you’ve been dripping, soaked, in a storm of misery, frustration, and general lousy feelings. Attribute your suffering NOT to some cause, or the need to find some cause. Instead, ask, what are my missing tools?
There’s a world of help for you out there, if you take this point of view.
Take the problem of worrying, for example. Yeah, I get it. Things are shitty. There’s lots to worry about. Anyone who says to you everything will be all right just doesn’t get. But right now, for you, the rain that’s soaking you wet is the worrying itself, the worrying that won’t leave you any peace.
Pointing to circumstances will just keep you stuck in worrying, so the hell with that. The question is, and always is, what are some tools to help you.
One great tool is to ask, what is it exactly that I’m doing here? Well, the moment you think about it, it’s clear that worrying is going over and over and over all the same problems and fears over and over and over again. It’s literally doing nothing, but in the most painful way. So when people say, Don’t worry, they’re not being stupid—well, they are being stupid—they’re just needing to say that anything you do with your mind and time other than worrying is time much better spent. Which actually is helpful, because so many of us think of worrying as thinking, and worrying is to thinking what constipation is to you know what.
Another great tool when it comes to worry is the tool I call One Thing. Out of the mess of things you’re worried about, what’s one thing you could do one thing about. One step forward about one thing. One phone call. One thing you look up on Google. One email to a friend.
It’s how you clean up a messy living room after a party that got a little out of hand. It’s a mess, yeah, an overwhelming disaster actually, but one thing at a time, and then the next thing you know, it’s all cleaned up.
So you see? I’m not meaning to oversimplify, but even in the case of worrying, I’ve just shown you two tools you can pop over your head like an umbrella in a rainstorm and it’ll make things better. That’s how people feel safe. Not because the world is safe. But because they have the tools to help them cope with a difficult and too-often unfriendly world.
This is what our website, our lifetime of doing therapy, and all of our books are all about. Not empty words. But finding the tools, and making those tools available to people, that’ll help you cope with all the storms that might come your way.
Every post here offers some tool or other, maybe something practical, maybe just a new way of thinking about things. But they all move you up and out of whatever state you’re in.