5: Misery Magnifiers

It is amazing how some people are able to use anguish to turn a minor disappointment into a major catastrophe. Others can use a spark of criticism to ignite an explosion of rage. While temporary flare-ups of strong emotion may seem commonplace, severe problems can occur if we are unwilling to moderate our reaction to these “hurts.” Instead of calmly accepting unpleasantness, many people prefer to collect and highlight all the vivid details of the slights, criticism, insults, and disrespect they experience. Then, by obsessing on them, they build up a high state of frustration. It is as if a single occurrence of an insult, loss, or defeat is not enough. They feel compelled to return to unpleasant memories and endlessly recycle them until their suffering is magnified beyond reason.

The most powerful way to practice psychic self-destruction is to use misery magnifiers to expand and intensify our emotional pain and suffering. It is natu- ral to assume that no one “in his right mind” would do such a thing. After all, we are not masochists, just ordinary people who can be hurt by the rudeness and selfishness of others. Yet we often injure ourselves in ways that seem as natural and normal as blinking our eyes.

Misery magnifiers are bad habits that trap us in brooding on failures and losses. It could be a tendency to remember and relive highlights of disasters, arguments, or our greatest humiliations. We stew in continual anxiety, conjuring up all types of possible disasters that might occur. Or we wander aimlessly in a fog of self-pity about how awful our life has become. We may even fall into a rabbit hole of endless analysis of what went wrong and who did it to us.

All of these habits will magnify and intensify our anger, fear, doubt, grief, and guilt—and, as a result, our misery. This increase in suffering is guaranteed by the laws that govern the use of mental and emotional energies. These laws are a direct correlation of the laws of physics which tell us that adding fuel to a fire will increase the intensity and duration of the fire. We do exactly the same when we add more resentment to anger, more disappointment to sadness, more doubt and anxiety to fear, and more regret to guilt.

These habits of pseudo-analysis—brooding on what is missing in our life, regretting our mistakes and lost opportunities—are common and even considered “healthy” and natural in some quarters. Indeed, through a cunning shift of language, the use of these misery magnets is sometimes artfully disguised as “treatment and healing” of anxiety, depression, and anger. In such instances, these very same practices are referred to as “self-examination,” “life review,” “nurturing the self,” and “emotional release.” The choice of label is irrelevant. Their use is still harm- ful, most of the time. Whether we call manure fertilizer or something else does not change the nature of manure. The same idea applies to certain types of “life review” and “self-nurturing” practices.

Many people are heavily indoctrinated with the notion that their practice of self-examination is safe, and never recognize how much of their effort is contaminated with self-pity, resentment, and disappointment about what might have been. The worst examples of these excesses are found in certain types of support groups. Allegedly, these groups are designed to offer comfort and acceptance to the emotionally wounded and mentally bewildered. A few groups actually offer compassionate support and encouragement. Others, however, just promote disastrous orgies of intensified self-pity, anguish, and anger. These types should be renamed “misery support groups,” because this is what they encourage and increase.

If we are concerned about psychic self-destruction, we must be alert to the signs that we are engaging in the practice of misery magnification. Obviously, it is healthy to be concerned about our continued comfort and ability to thrive, and we must be aware of any threats to our well-being. Likewise, we cannot ignore the terrible events that trigger our fears, disappointments, and anger. However, we need to comprehend that there is no law that demands we must be angry or depressed by losses or failure. There is also no law that commands us to be frightened at every threat. Nor must we take all criticism as a valid personal evaluation or as an insult. We have better choices than these.

The key to better choices of response to our legitimate concerns is to focus on what constructive measures we can take to cope with these issues. These choices must include the possibility that we can do nothing other than calmly accept what we cannot change. Trying to change the unchangeable or fix the unfixable can only create more stress and frustration. Looking for practical solutions is the first option we must seek. Unfortunately, the habitually frustrated and wounded person is easily sidetracked into more episodes of recycling past and current suffering in a mood of despair and defeat. Our old reactions of anger, anxiety, defeat, and guilt come back to haunt us and often dominate our response once more—even as we presume we are now trying to sort out our feelings and memories.

It is important, therefore, that we recognize the signs that we have relapsed into using misery magnifiers once again. An honest examination of our mood and train of thought will quickly reveal if we are on the right track. A major clue is the manner we use to review and analyze our problems and issues. Are we just reliving them over and over? Do we re-experience these old unpleasant events, re-argue old battles, scold our adversaries once more, or wallow in anguish and humiliation yet another time? The difference between reviewing and reliving a distressful experience is that reliving it just increases our distress, while reviewing it has the potential to reveal some healthy insights. We might, for instance, extract a lesson from a difficult experience that would direct us to a better way to cope with similar problems in the future. An intelligent review might also help us see what we contributed to creating or sustaining the problem and what we now must stop doing. Other times, a healthy review helps us see this problem in a better perspective, such as viewing it as a learning experience that teaches us much about how to cope with similar issues.

A skillful review of our issues and challenges has the potential to reveal a way out of our suffering. Merely reliving a bad experience in our imagination is a direct path to adding a new layer of distress to our old fears, sadness, anger, and guilt.

Another red flag that we are engaging in misery magnification is to check our focus of identity. Are we identified with our misery and problems and looking only for escape or rescue? Or are we identified with our healing resources and capacity to act as a healer and problem solver? Any tendency to keep probing what went wrong, what mistakes were made, and whom is to blame keeps us identified with our misery and magnifying our distress. If, however, we are looking for genuine solutions about what to do, then we will be identified with our capacities for wis- dom, problem solving, confidence, courage, self-control, tolerance, and many other virtues. Our concern will be about what we can salvage from the situation, what we need to stop doing, where can we get some help, and when we start.

It is amazing how many people presume to follow this advice, but actually still spend the bulk of their time blaming, complaining, and fussing. Very often, their concentration on what is wrong or missing in life becomes an obsession that keeps grinding out more anger, disappointment, and guilt. While many attempt to correct this by the occasional positive thought and brief burst of optimism, such feeble efforts often are quickly overshadowed by mountains of disappointment, gloom, and resentment about how difficult life has become.

To keep this regression in check, we need to monitor our thoughts about our issues and problems. Are we truly finding better solutions that will help us get through our problems—or are we just recycling anger, self-pity, and defeat? If the latter, we need to give our- self a break and then start over, after renewing our determination to stay constructive in thought, attitude, and intention.

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