So you’re ambling through life, minding your own business. It’s summertime, and the livin’ is easy. Daddy’s rich, Ma’s good lookin’, and you just saved 10% on your car insurance. But then one afternoon you’re at work. You glance up at the clock. Three more hours until you get to go home. You feel tired, annoyed, and gloomy. Frustrated and upset for what feels like no good reason. Or maybe more reasons than you can handle. A cloud of anxiety and depression has been creeping up on your for days, even weeks without your notice. And now you find yourself caught out in the storm.
This place you have landed is what I call the funk, that twilight zone where negative thoughts and swirling emotions threaten to overtake you. Things that used to feel important now lack interest. A job you were appreciative of last month becomes a living hell. You start to feel angry towards those closest to you. It may be summertime, but all you’re conscious of is the stifling heat.
The funny thing is, your circumstances have hardly changed at all. What has changed is the lens through which you view them, your mind’s eye. The funk is a dangerous and vulnerable place to find yourself. In the funk, all is not what it appears. Things are distorted and strange, twisted beyond recognition.
When we wake up in the funk, we might start asking why? What is causing this? Why did I feel fine and now suddenly I don’t? The answers to that are varied and complex. If your moods have been mostly cheerful but are filled with anxiety now, it’s likely some new stressor has been affecting your life. Maybe you haven’t been getting enough sleep, or a shift in your circumstances is surfacing fear and uncertainty. It could be a conversation with a friend has been bugging you, or a relationship has taken a turn for the worse.
Any number of physical or psychological changes can put you in the funk. Trying to find a reason for the funk can be like trying to find a reason for the number two. At some point, it’s actually counterproductive to keep looking for explanations. And even if you find one, that doesn’t necessarily change your down in the mouth outlook. We all want to find a quick fix, a psychological antibiotic that can stop the funk in its tracks. But fighting your thoughts and feelings just leads to staying stuck in them.
So what can you do? How do you survive the full onslaught of your negative thoughts and emotions, threatening to destroy you? The key is to raise your awareness.
Awareness is the ability to step back out of the storm of your thoughts and feelings and see them for what they are: an endless stream of experiences, some helpful, some not so much. It’s important to realize this stream is not you, or at least, not the only you. You exist outside of these internal experiences. You can watch them fly by. You can buy into them or not.
In the midst of the funk, you might look at yourself in the mirror and have the thought that you hate what you see, no matter how hard you’re working to improve your body, no matter how attractive you felt last week. But that thought is just one of an endless stream of judgments your mind is making all the time. You can accept what your mind says without allowing it to control you, without reifying the thought, giving it a life of its own it doesn’t deserve.
It’s important to be especially compassionate towards yourself in the funk. This is a time when the mind can be incredibly critical, can make you feel as if nothing is working, worth doing, or meaningful. The problem is not that these thoughts are untrue. Maybe they are true. Maybe you are struggling to act consistently with your deepest values and your mind is quick to remind you, to guilt you. But what’s really important is whether or not buying into the thoughts is helpful.
Is it helpful to act on the thought that you look disgusting, for instance, regardless of how it appears to (for the moment) align with reality? If you buy into the thought that you hate your body, you are likely to start mistreating yourself, to stop keeping up your physical appearance, to become socially withdrawn, etc. But whether you are the ugliest person on earth or the most beautiful, if you value your physical well-being and appearance, you can live out that value regardless of what your mind tells you about how you look. You can take the committed actions in the present moment to move in the direction of the things you most value.
The real test of the funk is how well we are able to defuse from unhelpful thoughts and feelings, recognizing them not as truths, but looking at them critically with an eye to helpfulness. The things we valued last week are likely the same things we value this week. Just because the mind is chattering away with negative this and doom that doesn’t mean we need to act any differently. At all times (and especially in this present moment) we need to bring our values back to the forefront of our minds so we can take committed action in pursuit of the things we most care about. Who do I want to be in this situation? Is this what I want to stand for? What is meaningful to me here?
At the end of the day, we either are or are not willing to act on our values, to accept our thoughts and feelings while not taking them as gospel, to take small steps right now towards the stuff that matters. Cultivating the willingness to act in alignment with our deepest desires despite the ceaseless yakking of our minds is what thriving in the funk is all about. In the funk or on top of the world, the path towards a rich and fulfilling life is always pointed out to us by our values. In each moment the path is ours to take, if we are only willing.