Out With the Old, In With the New
We all have habits — things we do in life that we’re convinced will lift our mood when we’re having a particularly rough day at work or at home. When something happens that bothers me, for example, I will dissect it down to its smallest minutiae and ruminate about it, convinced that replaying the details of it will somehow lead me to a solution. (Luckily, my husband is very patient since he’s usually the one on the receiving end of my musings.)
It seems like a good idea. But the reality is that replaying an event over and over usually just leads to more anxiety — not answers. So why do I do it? For the same reason so many of us fall into habits we think are helping us, but probably aren't: It's what we're accustomed to doing and we may not know another way to react (or even realize it would benefit us to change our behavior). The good news: By being aware of what you're doing, and the effect it has, and making small shifts, you can change patterns that aren't really working to your advantage.
Not sure where to start? Here are six common habits you might think will help you, but usually don't, plus better ways to deal with the situation.
Replaying the Details of a Bad Situation Over and Over Again
You go on a job interview and get tongue-tied answering questions about your past achievements and why you’re a fit for the role. Afterwards, you end up replaying the awkward scenario to your friends, thinking that it will make you feel better to talk about it.
Why It Can Make Us Feel Worse: “Reflection and self-assessment are a really important part of professional and personal growth, but if that’s all we do, we’re not changing our behavior,” says Julie Cohen, a career and leadership coach from Philadelphia and author of “Your Work, Your Life...Your Way: 7 Keys to Work-Life Balance.”
“When you obsess over a negative situation, it just aggravates the negative emotion that you felt around it,” adds Dr. Stephanie Levey, a New York City-based clinical psychologist and member of the Women’s Mental Health Consortium.
A Better Approach: Acknowledge if something didn’t quite go your way — that job interview that wasn’t your most shining moment, for example — and then decide on a goal. Come up with a plan or strategy that helps you rather than just replaying the details, says Levey: For example, rehearse your elevator pitch about what value you bring so that the next job interview you go on, you’re armed and ready.
Have you ever found yourself trying to get your point across but somehow what you intended to be a couple of sentences turns into a lengthy monologue? You’re not alone. Over-explaining is a habit that can happen when we’re just trying to be heard — or when we’re trying to defend, explain or justify ourselves. There’s even a portmanteau (or blended word) for that: dexify.
Why It Can Make Us Feel Worse: “When someone repeats 10 times in 10 different ways what they’re trying to say, it definitely makes you feel like there’s some anxiety in the message,” explains Levey. Adds Cohen, who likens the scenario to a hamster running on a wheel but not getting anywhere: “Sometimes we move to autopilot and keep going. It dilutes your message.”
A Better Approach: Take a breath first. “Share and then get the input from the other person and see if they need more information,” says Cohen. “A critical effectiveness tool both personally and professionally is pausing.” Levey also recommends thinking ahead about what you want to communicate. “That way you have a kind of synthesized, concise way of sharing something. Develop confidence in your message — really believe in what you’re saying, therefore you say it once.”
Apologizing Too Much
There are many occasions where saying “I’m sorry” is the right thing to do: You inadvertently hurt someone’s feelings or you snapped at your daughter after having a particularly stressful day at work. But a recent set of studies by Karina Schumann and Michael Ross in the journal “Psychological Science” found that women apologize more than men in their daily lives.
The reason? Female participants reported more apology-worthy offenses than the men in the study. “For women, it’s almost a reflexive habit. It’s a societal pressure — that’s how we are taught to be polite,” says Levey.
Why It Can Make Us Feel Worse: By over-apologizing, we negate our belief that we have the right to assert ourselves. Cohen recalls a client who would walk into their meetings and apologize — as if she was interrupting. “She really minimized her presence,” explains Cohen. “She was so concerned that she was ruffling things. If she’s apologizing for what she’s saying, why should anyone else think it’s valuable?”
A Better Approach: First, notice that you do it. Many people don’t even realize they have the habit. “Identify whether there is a realistic need to apologize rather than giving in to a reflexive habit,” explains Levey. “Really think through, ‘Is this a necessary thing? Have I done something that I shouldn’t have?’” If not, by being more aware, you may realize you’re apologizing just to apologize — which serves no one, especially not you.
You didn’t get that job you were vying for and a trip to the mall for a pair of shoes to cheer yourself up turns into a full-blown shopping spree. Retail therapy is very real: One study published in the “Psychological Science” journal found that people who feel sad and self-focused pay more money for goods than those in neutral states, even when purchasing the same item.
Why It Can Make Us Feel Worse: “You get some kind of immediate gratification from it but it’s just an illusion of gratification because the momentary satisfaction is so transient,” explains Levey. “What happens most of the time is there’s ensuing regret and guilt so quickly following.”
In fact, findings from a study published in the “Journal of Consumer Research” showed that when people are feeling down, shopping can actually make them feel more depressed and alone. A “loop of loneliness” ensues.
A Better Approach: “It’s not that all shopping is horrible for you, but it’s very different to do it impulsively than to do it in a planned way,” explains Levey. Take yourself on a shopping date to buy that dress for an upcoming event but have a budget in mind. “Even though you may be doing it for relief, you’re doing it in a conscious and aware way versus a way just to fill some kind of need.”
Bad Mouthing Someone Who Made You Feel Bad
When someone has wronged us, we may think we'll feel better by talking about that person to someone else. There may even be a sense of camaraderie if that friend you talk to agrees with you — you’re not the only one who feels this way. “There is some value in talking about things that frustrate us to get a reality check or to get another perspective. But are you doing it in the appropriate place and are you doing it in the appropriate way?” asks Cohen.
Why It Can Make Us Feel Worse: The problem arises when you do it continually. Think about that person in the workplace who always seems to feel a perceived slight. After awhile, they lose credibility, says Cohen. “You don’t want to get labeled because it can have a long-term effect,” she adds. Complaining about someone else may backire in other ways too — if you end up patching things up with that person, for example, and now feel guilty for speaking about her behind her back.
A Better Approach: There’s a fine line between having a conversation and expressing your feelings and trashing someone. “One of the ways that I encourage people to think about it is if you were to hear this conversation about you, how would you like it worded? Therefore, that’s how you word it back to someone else,” advises Levey. “You could say ‘That really upset me’ instead of ‘That idiot….’ The same message may be expressed.”
Not “Burdening” Others
For some, when a life challenge crops up, they choose to process it by themselves so as not to bother a loved one or a friend. “Some people will feel that they can deal with it, they don’t have to face the world and people won’t see on their faces what’s wrong — therefore that will make them feel better,” says Levey.
Why It Can Make Us Feel Worse: Unfortunately, it often has the opposite effect. By opting not to reveal what’s bothering you, you will often feel disconnected emotionally. “It just worsens the mood because you are isolated and therefore focused on all of your faults and ruminating on why you’re upset,” Levey explains.
A Better Approach: It’s okay to take some time for yourself to process things when you’ve had a personal or professional disappointment. But when you’re ready, make sure you share your concerns or frustration with someone else. “The social connection piece will help,” says Levey. “It’s always coming up with a balance.”