Stuck in a rut feeling sorry for yourself?

Here’s what can help you move from pity to positivity.

Posted Jun 26, 2019

Suzie Pileggi Pawelski
Suzie's milestone birthday billboard her sister Lisa made
Source: Suzie Pileggi Pawelski

I (Suzie) just celebrated a milestone birthday a few weeks ago and am still savoring the great time I had. I'm grateful for my friends and family who helped me celebrate the birthday that I almost let slip by. 

I clearly envisioned how I'd celebrate my big birthday weekend: Friday night drinks with girlfriends at sunset on our balcony on the eve of my birthday followed by a big Italian feast with family on Saturday, the actual day of my birthday. It was all set. Friends and family were contacted. Plenty of prosecco was purchased. Catering booked. 

And then life happened, as it always does, which we could not have planned.  

First, our 8-year-old son's baseball team made it into the championship series, which of course, in itself is terrific news. The thing is, the first game fell on Friday night, the very same evening I had planned to usher in my big birthday by toasting with friends.

Next, the caterer for my family party suffered a freak accident two days before the big party. In the middle of the night he suddenly got a charley horse in his leg, caught his foot in the comforter, and slammed head first into his dresser drawer, resulting in a broken nose and a broken bone in his neck. (Yes, this actually happened.)

Now What? What to Do When Life Throws You a Curve Ball

At first, I felt deflated that all my were plans were shot and that perhaps my big birthday wasn't meant to be celebrated. I moped around the house griping to my husband, James, that maybe we should just forget about my birthday this year despite my best efforts things were just not coming together. The only type of party I thought I'd be capable of having at that point was one I was already experiencing: a pity party.  

Fortunately, my rational-minded husband wouldn't let me wallow in the mire feeling sorry for myself. And thank goodness he didn’t try to force me to be happy, especially since we know from research that tends to backfire making us feel even worse. Instead, he acknowledged my feelings and the unforeseen circumstances, and then helped redirect my attention to what I could control in the moment. 

Put Things into Perspective

He then gently pointed out to me how I was catastrophizing and helped me to “put things into perspective,” by using a tool from positive psychology, which helps you ground yourself when your mind starts racing out of control and dwelling on the negative, like mine was doing at that very moment. The mental tool involves asking yourself the following three questions:  

  • What is the worst possible outcome?
  • What is the best possible outcome?
  • What is most likely going to happen?

I thought about these three questions and realized that the worst possible outcome would be that my birthday would be a complete disaster demonstrating that no one cared. No one would visit or call me. My birthday would go unnoticed and my friends and family would never talk to me again. 

Okay, that's a little crazy and unrealistic, right? That's the point of the exercise: To answer in a way that has about zero chance of happening which helps you to realize that our worst fears almost never happen so there's no use worrying about them. I startled chuckling a bit realizing how outlandish my thoughts were and how the mind can really play tricks on us making us feel worse. 

The best possible outcome would be that my birthday celebrations would go off without a hitch, as I meticulously planned. On the eve of my birthday, we’d joyously pop open the prosecco at precisely the exact moment the glorious sun would set for a perfect toast with friends while Beethoven’s 9th magically played in the background. I realized this idea  was unrealistic, since we already knew that we couldn't proceed as originally planned given the latest developments. 

Finally, I thought about the third question: What is most likely to happen?

After giving it some thought the tension released from my shoulders and my face relaxed. I noticed a broad smile appearing across my face as I uttered aloud to James: "Well, I'll always have another night to meet up with my friends to celebrate. I'll never have this same exact moment to watch our son's first baseball championship game. I know I will have an amazing time with him and will savor the memory forever. And on Saturday night, I'll have a terrific time celebrating with my family. It doesn't matter whether we have fancy finger food or are enjoying the evening over pizza and prosecco. The important thing is that I'll be with my family which is how I most wanted to celebrate my day.” 

Suzie Pileggi Pawelski
James and Suzie celebrating together
Source: Suzie Pileggi Pawelski

James smiled. And I realized that I had emerged from being consumed by my pity party and was now able to usher in my celebratory weekend by cultivating a positivity party. 

Fast forward. I ended up having a marvelous time at my son’s championship game and was grateful to have the chance to coach first base the final time this season. I was in awe of his pitching skills, and thoroughly enjoyed watching him engaging with his teammates.  

Suzie Pileggi Pawelski
Liam pitching in his championship game
Source: Suzie Pileggi Pawelski

He was selected to play in the All-Star game and I was elated to witness and share his joy in the moment he learned he was chosen. I wouldn't have missed this moment for all the prosecco in the world. 

And more good news: The caterer ended up being okay, thank God. He not only made it to the party, he didn’t miss a beat. I ended up writing him a glowing testimonial emphasizing how despite a broken neck bone and nose, he not only delivered, but hit it out of the park.

Suzie Pileggi Pawelski
Suzie with caterer Mike, co-owner of Cosmi's in South Philly.
Source: Suzie Pileggi Pawelski
Suzie Pileggi Pawelski
Cosmi's catering delivers!
Source: Suzie Pileggi Pawelski

One week later, although a bit behind schedule, I finally had that sunset get-together on my balcony with my friends. The monsoon-like weather even managed to hold off for at least the first hour so we could sip our prosecco without getting soaked.  

Suzie Pileggi Pawelski
Celebrating magical moments
Source: Suzie Pileggi Pawelski

This milestone birthday was yet another opportunity to realize the importance of our relationships, that celebrating one another and the good times together are what is most important to well-being. It’s not anxiously orchestrating plans for momentous occasions, but rather celebrating and savoring the moments with others, that matters.

References

Mauss, I. B., Tamir, M., Anderson, C. L. & Savino, N. S. (2011). Can seeking happiness make people happy? Paradoxical effects of valuing happiness. Emotion 11(4), 807-815. 

Pileggi Pawelski, S & Pawelski, J. (2018). Happy Together: Using the Science of Positive Psychology to Build Love That Lasts. New York: TarcherPerigee.