Ten Ways Misery Can Help

As a helping professional, have you ever encountered clients who seem to revel in their misery? It’s not that they are having any fun—misery is miserable, after all. But if you understand Choice Theory, you realize that all behavior is purposeful. Even in the most unfortunate circumstances, people gain some benefit from their misery.

Most helping professionals want to help alleviate the pain but are stymied by how to bring their clients out of their misery. It is important to help clients first understand that they mostly created their own misery and they did it for a reason.

This is not blaming the victim by assigning fault or shame to the subconscious choices people make. In fact, we should celebrate a person’s resiliency in finding behavior that has at least some positive effect in a horrible situation. Simultaneously, we need to help people understand their subconscious created this adaptive behavior for a reason. After understanding the purpose of their misery and the fact that it is a choice, people will often be able to let that misery go to make room for a more adaptive behavior. If they don’t believe there is a more adaptive behavior, then they can give themselves permission to consciously stay in their misery while acknowledging the benefit they are receiving from it.

I am suggesting there are ten potential reasons to choose misery. Can you think of others?

  1. Retention: It seems to be the best way to keep someone or something you’ve lost active in your mind. It is no longer part of your daily existence, so you continue to ruminate about the loss, keeping it present in your mind. Yes, this causes pain, but it is preferable to the total absence of what’s been lost.
  1. Attention: It gets you the attention you desperately want.
  1. Help: It can get you get assistance from others when you’re unable or unwilling to ask for help directly.
  1. Control: It can control others by causing them to feel guilty or sorry for you, so they become more willing to do what you want.
  1. Importance: Misery, albeit subconsciously, shows others how important the loss was to you. People often judge the strength of the loss by how hard and long a person grieves.
  1. Freedom: It can help free you from certain responsibilities or obligations. When you are distraught, those around you often give you a pass on things you would normally be expected to do.
  1. Space: It can slow life down for you, giving you the time and space you need to figure out your next step.
  1. Connection: It can bond you to others who are feeling the same way, creating a shared experience.
  1. Safety: In severe cases, sometimes misery takes the form of depression to keep you safe.
  1. Habit: Sometimes your misery isn’t working for you at all but has become a habit.

When working with clients that can’t seem to let go of their misery, help them understand that as painful as it is, their misery is helping them in some way. When they are able to accept there is benefit to their misery, they can make the conscious decision about whether misery is their best option. Dr. Glasser said, “It is almost impossible for anyone, even the most ineffective among us, to continue to choose misery after becoming aware that it is a choice.”

If you are a helping professional and would like to learn more about Choice Theory, consider taking a Basic Intensive Training leading toward certification.

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