Steph, as we’ll call her, is one of my favorite clients. Also one of my best friends. Any woman you can trust to tell you the truth with a side of Jack Daniels is worth keeping around.
She’s also flat-out one of the strongest people I know. The sheer magnitude and variety of shit-storms this woman has endured and triumphed over would have sent lesser people to the rubber room.
But when Steph called the other day for one of our regular coaching calls, I could tell something was seriously amiss even before we’d made it past the pleasantries. It was in her voice — she’d smacked right up against The Wall, and I knew what was coming next.
“It’s just … everything,” she said. There was a pause, and then it started.
The Litany of Sorrows.
Yes, friends. It was “Hail Mary, praise God, and pass the tequila, ’cause I’m gonna need it” time.
“Client X thinks I’m an idiot, but he didn’t send me everything he needed, and his secretary has that tone every time I call — the one that says ‘oh you poor thing, I feel so sorry for you.’ And this stupid landlord will NOT fix the bloody toilet, even though I’ve been telling him about this since I moved in a freaking YEAR ago. My phone won’t answer the damn call half the time, and the other time, it keeps dropping the signal. My cardiologist wants me to take a stress test — are you freaking kidding me?! MY LIFE IS A STRESS TEST!”
This, my brothers and sisters, is the Litany of Sorrows. The overpowering compulsion to list out every single thing that’s gone wrong in our lives.
Please note that word: compulsion. I don’t choose that word lightly. It is a compulsion — a deeply-rooted, almost primal impulse that we just cannot ignore. It wells up slowly at first, manifesting as a vague itchiness, a feeling like ants crawling on our skin, building up into a crescendo of frustration and downright panicky desperation until we have no choice but to give voice to it and recite Every Damn Thing That’s Gone Wrong Or Is About To.
The trick is to first recognize what the Litany is trying to tell us, and then to deal with it.
The Message Behind the Litany of Sorrows
Where most of us initially go off track with the LoS is right there at the beginning — before the words come tumbling out to any poor soul within earshot:
We fail to acknowledge the urgent communication behind the LoS.
Like most emotional sea changes, the onset of the LoS is trying to tell us something desperately, something we really need to hear and heed and DO something about, ferpetessake. In the case of the LoS, the message is, thankfully, fairly simple, and it’s coming from your poor, poor brain:
GET ME THE HELL OUT OF THIS HOLE YOU’VE DUG FOR ME,
‘CAUSE I CANNOT POSSIBLY HOLD ONE MORE SINGLE PIECE OF MISSION-CRITICAL INFORMATION IN HERE!
Your brain, as marvelous as it is, was not built for holding endless lists of crap for endless periods of time. When the LoS starts bubbling away in your soul, you can bet the alpaca farm that you’re asking too much of your brain, and it’s time to sit down with the pen and paper for some Serious Strategic Thinking Time.
We read this emotional upset as overwhelm of a very particular sort: the overwhelm of Too Much Crap Going On At Once.
When the world starts intruding on our blissful lives (I know, I know, just pretend for a minute while I play this out), there’s usually one thing going off-track. Your love life is aces, work’s going great, your financial house is in order … and then you and your BFF get into a knock-down dragout cage match in the parking lot of the local corner bar at 2 AM.
Or, y’know, something. Not that this has ever happened to me.
Or, work’s fine, your mom is FINALLY treating you like an adult, but you haven’t had a romantic experience in eons — well, at least, not one involving another person.
Like that. (Again with the personal experience or lack thereof.)
But sometimes — ah, snowflake, sometimes it really is Everything:
- Work sucks.
- There’s a problem with your checking account and you’re overdrawn.
- Your significant other isn’t speaking to you.
- The car broke down.
- AND your mother can only chastise you for your many perceived failings instead of offering you just the most TINIEST LITTLE BIT OF FREAKING SUPPORT.
And that’s when your Inner Choir starts warming up to sing the Litany.
It’s because there are all these disparate forces bearing down on you, causing you to encounter obstacles in your path from dawn to dusk, but you can’t keep it all in your head, because your head — as pretty and awesome as it is — wasn’t built for that kind of work.
You know what was built for that kind of work? Pen and paper.
You know what your pretty and awesome head was built for? Strategizing and planning.
Getting the Litany on Paper = Freeing Your Brain to Do What It Does Best
Now, please, don’t get me wrong: Litanizing feels really good. At least in the beginning. Hell, if it didn’t, we wouldn’t do it.
But it’s a short-lived feel-good. At the end of the litany, you might experience a short emotional catharsis, but it goes away pretty quickly and is replaced by a nagging sense that nothing’s changed. (Hint: that’s because nothing HAS changed.)
And soon enough — all too soon — you’ll find yourself facing yet another sympathetic person and feeling the compulsion to start the Litany all over again.
So what can you do to break the cycle and get some control back?
It’s simple — but it ain’t easy.
First, you have to get the Litany on paper. I find it easier to do this when I’m in that “Litanizing” frame of mind. When my emotions are good and cooked, my brain is frantic, and I feel like my cells are vibrating so fast I might jump right out of my skin into another dimension. That’s an excellent time to pull out a composition book and a pen, and just get it all down on paper. No rhyme or reason. Just a list — the exact same way you’d say it out loud to a friend, only this time, the friend is YOU.
Don’t stop until you reach that moment of catharsis that tells you “Yep, that’s about everything. We’re done now.”
Then, take a break. Seriously, go take a walk or a nap or a bubble bath or a shot or five of Jack – whatever. ‘Cause that shit’s hard and takes it right out of you.
Moving Past Litanizing Into Strategy-Creation
Once you’ve got the Litany down on paper, your brain will immediately start to relax. That’s a good thing, ’cause it’s been way overtaxed.
But then, you need to get it back on track doing what it does best: figuring a way OUT of this mess.
There’s any number of ways to do this, and you may need several approaches, depending on the kinds of issues on your Litany list. But basically, the goal is simple:
- Divide the list into “Can Totally Change This” and “Sucks But Can’t Do a Damn Thing About It” sublists. Put away the latter list for awhile until you’re in a generally calmer headspace.
- On the “Can Totally Change This” list, carve up each item into the smallest possible chunks of actions.
- Do the smallest thing. Cross it off. Proceed to the next smallest thing. Cross it off. Lather. Rinse. Repeat.
There’s a trick with that second list, by the way, and that’s to actually change YOU. Or more accurately, change how you respond to the thing you can’t change. But that’s another post entirely.
By first figuring out what’s inside our spheres of influence, and what’s outside our control completely, we free ourselves up from having to deal with each huge problem that crosses the radar. By carving up the actions we can take to effect that change into the smallest bite-sized pieces imaginable, we’re making it easier on our sore, tired brain muscles.
(We’re also generating The Big Mo — that’s momentum — which is key to jumpstarting our little zoom-mobiles over the rocks in the road.)
A Final Benediction, If You Will
The worst feeling in the world is that “OMG, EVERYONE’S OUT TO GET ME AND I’M ALL ALONE IN THIS” sensation.
And, to an extent, that’s right. We are alone, in the sense that we can’t change others, and the only thing we can change is ourselves — our reactions, and our actions.
But in the larger, more metaphysical sense, that’s completely wrong. We all go through this. So, please, please, please for the love of God, do NOT keep this crap bottled up inside. If you’re sharing this with others who love you, great. If the act of sharing isn’t helping — isn’t making you feel less alone, that is — then go talk to a counselor.
‘Cause the Litany of Sorrows is a siren song that will drag your ass underwater before you even know you’re all wet.