How To Have A Bad Day
By Laurence Shorter
I used to be terrible at bad days — like many people, having a bad day was just bad. I’d rant, self medicate, threaten, berate, rage, refuse to accept my mood and eventually take refuge in impotent self pity. If I used caffeine to make myself feel better — which I frequently did — I succeeded only in pushing myself in ever diminishing circles around unproductive tracks that led to poor or no results. All this makes a bad day into what it feels like most of the time, for most people — really awful.
Yet there’s an art to having a bad day, and I’ve been getting better at it. These days when I have a bad day it’s still bad, but I can mitigate the badness of it by working the grain of its badness into a sort of polished artefact that I’m ok to live with or enjoy in a bittersweet way. I can even glean some goodness from a bad day in the form of tenderness, wisdom or — the summit of a Bad Day Artist’s bad day — some kind of satisfying, redemptive creativity.
So let me share with you what I think a good bad day looks like. Not a good day, certainly — but a not-bad bad day.
By the way, I wrote most of this article on a bad day. I woke up feeling awful — interrupted sleep and an accumulation of stressful travel days (holiday with small children) underpinned by overuse of sugar, fruit and coffee to keep me sharp.
Result: exhausted, demoralised and aggravated by my body’s refusal to feel energised for work. Like an old car on the side of the road, I couldn’t get it started, which made me even more miserable until I remembered … I was having a Bad Day.
Then, reminding myself this wasn’t a new experience for me, that there was a path out that I knew well, and with tenderness and efficiency walking it as best I could and — oh miracle — a creative spark emerged: an article started bursting its way through the fog and burning into the clear light of day.
Before I go into the process, it’s important to say that having a bad day is an art. In other words, there are no bullet points for it. I’ve had to learn as I go along, make mistakes, persist, develop some mastery, accept that I’m part of a community of other artists (the entire human race), and above all accept that I’m having a bad day. So to the ‘process’…
There are lots of things that can get a bad day rolling: poor sleep, ill health, other people, depression, other people, setbacks, bad news, other people or just heavy rainfall. Some causes are more obvious than others, but no one really understands why we feel the way we do on a given day — neurochemicals, beliefs and hormones all play a part as well as external events and the many interlocking fields of feeling we are entangled with as humans in community.
We’re very, very complicated – which is why we are not robots and have nothing to fear from Artifical Intelligence unless we collectively choose to give our power away. Almost always, we have judgements about what is going on inside us or outside in the world that make it all much worse than it has to be — hence the power and importance of mindfulness, therapy and coaching. But all we really know is that sometimes we have a bad day — and there’s no getting out of it.
There comes a point in every bad day when you realise you’re having a bad day. Up until then, there’s always the hope that you might be about to have a normal day or a good day, even though you’ve woken up exhausted or sad or you’ve had a fight with your partner / friend / colleague or you’re nervous about an upcoming event or you feel paralysed by some big decision.
It’s only breakfast time and already it feels like there is a force pushing against you or you’ve woken up with a sludgy fog in your core, but still there’s the hope that your morning coffee / gym visit / cold shower / twitter feed might lift your mood and drop you back onto the elevated mountaintop of nailing it. But if this is a bad day, and it may or may not be, that trick you normally use to get yourself in the mood is going to fall flat. This is the first indication that your day is going to be a bad one.
Of course, you can keep throwing drugs at yourself until you burst out of the bad day in a frenzy of cortisol and caffeine — just as farmers keep laying down chemical fertiliser on depleted top soil in the hope of staving off a bad year. But the law of diminishing returns means that sooner or later it’s going to stop working. As Charles Eisenstein wrote in The Ascent of Humanity: “Deserts can be made to bloom, yes, but only at an increasing cost and not forever.”
This is not going to be a ‘good’ day in any normal sense of the word. You’re not going to be finishing those tasks you set yourself (or if you do, no joy or inspiration will be squeezed from them). You’re not going to get that rush of adrenaline and enthusiasm — at least not until something shifts into a different mode. At this point, most people, the non-artists, push stubbornly on, refusing to accept the reality of their predicament, grimly hoping that their mojo will pop up, if they keep going. Others, the navel gazing analytical types, try to figure out what is ailing them in the hopes that a solution can turn up, cognitively. There’s a logic to both: sometimes these strategies work, sometimes an activity or a thought that shifts everything can — as if with the grace of God — emerge from the funk and you find yourself back to being yourself. Amazing! These are worthwhile breakthroughs.
But if this is a really bad day, the sort of bad day I’m talking about, it’s not going to yield easily to that kind of manipulation. A bad day has the nature of rock — it’s sullen, immobile, dense; it’s there to foil and test — its job is to thwart and therefore push you deeper into a relationship with yourself. This latter route can turn out to be a day rich with discovery. But for that to happen, the penalty is to give up any hope of having a good day. The quicker that is achieved, the better.
This is the pivot, the turning point, until the bad day is doomed to feel like nothing more than a horrible mistake. At this stage in any of your bad days, you can already consider yourself an advanced artist of the form: you’ve understood the true purpose of bad days. The tricky thing here is that your mind is going to tell you the exact opposite. It will hold that something else is causing your bad day. The idea of having a down day, a write off day, an unscheduled diversion from the plan, is so culturally odd and transgressive that every fibre of your being has been trained to resist it, and resist, it will (no gain no pain).
But once you wholeheartedly throw in the towel and sink into the experience of feeling just how bad you feel – provided you are not hamstrung by denial or self attack – what becomes immediately clear is that your body really needs this. As the Acceptance phase of the grief curve starts to die to the ego’s expectations for productivity, the realisation surfaces: it’s been days, weeks or even years since you really gave yourself what you need!
And what is it that you need? You need rest. You need a break. You need to soothe yourself as you would a crying child. You need to be told you’ve been doing an ok job, that nothing further is needed from you for now and that the world won’t collapse (and in fact will be infinitely benefited) by just giving yourself what you need for a change. You need to feel the emotion. You need to allow the exhaustion. You need to witness the thoughts that bubble up like panicked parents in the face of their kid’s inexplicable unhappiness.
You need to curl up in a ball and have a Bad Day.
One of the great ironies of having a bad day (to the dismay of my inner critic) is that a sadder, tireder version of me is often more productive. Rendered slower and more reflective through contact with emotion, my mind slows down and I start to make good decisions about how to use my time. I become creative. Neurologically speaking, I am vibrating on slower brain waves. I have sunk in.
And I can say all this with authority, because though I’ve been meditating and coaching people for years and authored a book about mindfulness and flow, I still struggle as any participant does in the wired up global business system to relax my nervous system – not just sometimes, but most of the time. So I can tell you that when a bad day comes along it is not just a massive pain in the arse but a moment of opportunity, a portal into a different world where you can actually take care of yourself for a change.
Knowing how to have a bad day, going all the way through the curve to kindness and creativity, is an experience that’s impossible to unlearn. Once tasted, your body wants more and for a time will even draw you into this state more often. Infuriating as it is, you have no choice but to go there, and as you do, it gets easier. Eventually you may no longer need to have bad days at all and can be creative all the time. I’ll let you know when that happens.