“Misery is Optional”

The favourite saying of one of my coaching teachers, Colin Brett of Coaching Development, is “misery is optional.” Whenever I find myself in the doldrums, giving in to those inner gremlin voices, or just irritable about something that I don’t like, I think of Colin looking me straight in the eye and saying in an even voice, “Misery is optional.”

The phrase reflects a principle of Transactional Analysis, which encourages us to break the cycles of unwanted patterns in our lives by finding choices in our mental and emotional states.  The principle of emotional maturity–controlling our emotions so they don’t control us–is also commonly found in mindfulness meditation.  The mindfulness book Search Inside Yourself by Chade-Meng Tan starts its chapter on developing emotional self-mastery with a relevant anecdote illustrating the power of choice in developing our emotional self-regulation:

Once upon a time in ancient China, a man on a horse rode past a man standing on the side of the road. The standing man asked, “Rider, where are you going?” The man on the horse answered, “I don’t know. Ask the horse.”

Whenever I think of “Misery is optional,” it serves to remind me that I do have agency in my life: no matter the circumstances, there are always choices. Usually this is enough to get me back in touch with my inner creativity and resourcefulness, helping me to see the situation in a different way.  Suddenly there are options!

Yes, there are circumstances over which we have no control; things that suddenly transform our lives in ways we hadn’t considered. Even in these circumstances we still have the power to consider how we make meaning out of the situation.  We can use our values, beliefs, and states of mind to decide how we want to respond.  And sometimes misery IS the right option. Sadness, grief, anger–all those negative emotions are natural parts of our lives.

Even in the worst times, realising that misery is optional–that it is a transitory state which won’t last forever–helps me to mitigate its negative effects.  From there it’s much easier to move towards being the best version of myself.

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