How to be completely miserable in five easy steps

Unless you’re living in a cave, it is impossible to avoid the assault of online self-improvement advice. It’s all over and it covers everything from stress management to changing habits. Pearls of wisdom are overflowing from all corners of the internet.

Couple on holiday (Lisbon, 2019)

I don’t know about you, but for me this continuous flow of (mostly) unrequested advice makes me want to break something. I mean, I can live with the fact that so many people feel entitled to give advice. But often the advice is just generic stuff regurgitated from other sources. You can immediately tell when you stumble upon pompous bullshit.

Instead of breaking stuff, I will offer my own advice on how to be utterly and completely miserable.

I am well aware that many of us manage extremely well to be miserable without any external help. However, I feel that additional structure and reasoning can only improve the quality of one’s misery.

I. Follow all the possible advice on how you can improve yourself. This will offer a unique opportunity to feel inadequate, as it’s simply impossible to assemble it in a coherent whole that actually benefits you. To add insult to injury, you will also feel like a total loser for not staying the course. For not mastering self-control in five weeks, like this random guy that offers you a discount on his course on self-control.

II. Get into arguments on social media. Everybody knows that this is how people change their opinions – by being lectured or insulted online by strangers.

III. Publish everything you create (be it writing, photography, drawing, music, anything really). Then agonize over the lack of sufficient validation in the form of likes, comments, shares, or anything else you tend to consider a sign of interest or appreciation.

IV. Be harsh on yourself over every little perceived failure. Tell yourself that you are simply unable to get it right. Don’t let it slide. Squeeze all possible self-loathing out of it.

V. Don’t be satisfied with current failures. Dwell on the past and replay mentally your moments of low and embarrassment. This will ensure that, rather than going through the normal process of gaining perspective and healing, you have the chance of keeping these wounds open.

There it goes. Actionable advice for both amateur and professional self-saboteurs. My modest contribution, based on personal experience, to the underrepresented field of self-undermining therapy.

Break of dawn

I’ve been walking across the fields waiting for the first light. Everything is covered in dew. There’s a strange stillness in the air, as if all creation is bracing for sunrise.

First light (Walloon countryside, Belgium, 2018).

Right here and now, everything seems possible. Everything seems to be still ahead, as if the world has been just created and none of its possibilities have been wasted yet.

Later in the day, the burden will maybe return on my shoulders. I will feel the full weight of my lived life and my unlived possibilities. I will feel as if the path ahead is narrowing. I will feel the weight of my past choices, like walls growing taller to the left and the right.

But right now, everything is lying ahead of me, still unborn.

Wired for stories

One of my earliest memories is me lying on the bed while my dad was reading me a story. It is so early I’m not even sure if it is a real memory, or rather something I’ve picked up along the way and made it mine. I don’t remember what the story was. But I do remember how it felt to be told a story.

Stories are ways of telling one another things that matter. Telling them without simply describing them, without lecturing about them, and without forcing our moral conclusions on the audience.

I’m not only talking about popular tales, short stories, novels and the like. We are storytelling creatures and we structure our experiences and our past along narrative lines. The way we see ourselves becomes our story. One that we rewrite and redefine as we go along.

Dia de Muertos in Brussels (2019). This Mexican holiday is associated with All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day (1st and 2nd of November). What sets it apart is the atmosphere of celebration rather than mourning.

Long before we set out to tell a story, we listen to or read countless other stories. From grandma’s tales to the latest psychological thriller, we live among narratives. Many of them become part of us. We learn, consciously or not, about different story patterns and plots. About how good storytelling feels.

Dia de Muertos in Brussels (2019). Three women prepare themselves as the procession is about to start.

When telling stories or listening to them, we rely on this implicit knowledge of what a story is and how it should be told. We don’t need to know about narrative arc, plot and conflict in order to feel that some stories feel right and others not so much.

We are wired to look for stories, understand them as stories and extract personal meaning from them.

That’s why good stories are at the same time personal and universal. They speak to us directly, as if they were written for us. And they do the same with countless other people.