What to Do When You’re Feeling Distressed: A 3-Step Listing Exercise

Reader’s Email:

I’m far from happy working in a cubicle and I feel strangled. I’m in a limbo. There are things I want to do for the future that will make me happier. I just wish I could find the courage inside of me to get out of this limbo, pursue my passion, and roll the dice.

— A.S.

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A 3-step listing exercise

There’s an exercise I usually do when I’m rolling in distress, feeling dissatisfied, or struggling with uneasiness.

Here’s the thing: sometimes we don’t really know exactly what caused us this distress, dissatisfaction, or uneasiness. Not knowing, sometimes, lead us to further distress.

Thus, the first step I do at this stage is to list down the probable causes of my distress.

Step 1. Create the HATE list.

When I am in a limbo (to me this means: not really knowing what’s wrong, but at the same time knowing that something is wrong), I take a piece of paper and a pen, then start listing down the things that make me feel unhappy, uncomfortable, or stressed.

Sometimes, this is a short list–and other times, a really long one. I list down everything: things I dislike or even ‘hate’. Things I’ve been worrying about. Things that have been bugging my mind. What stresses me out? What makes me feel dissatisfied and uneasy?

But the idea is not about creating an endless stream-of-consciousness journal.

The idea is simply to create a list:

For instance:

  • I hate being trapped in a 9-to-5 routine.
  • I am worried about my parents’ health.
  • I am angry at myself because I feel unproductive.
  • I hate last-minute cancellations.

Step 2. Translate the HATE list into a LOVE list.


When I feel like I have no more things to say, I stop writing and look at my list. There, I can see all the things I hate, I dislike. Things that stress me out, that makes me feel angry, depleted, or unhappy.

But the truth is this: what we hate actually tells us more about what we love.

If you hate injustice, maybe it means you love fairness. If you hate people who lie, maybe it means you love openness and honesty.

So, when we said we hate 9-to-5 routine, for instance, what is it that we actually love?

Maybe hating 9-to-5 routine means we love spontaneity or adventure. For some people, hating 9-to-5 routine means they wish to have more variety in the work they do. For some, this means they simply need a rest, a holiday, a break, the ability to work from anywhere in the world, or a few days in a week to wake up later than usual. For others, this means they would love to have a job that gives them a sense of purpose, or a new challenge.

>>> Related post: How to Make Decisions, Especially When It’s Difficult

 

Although it might seem that we ‘hate’ the same thing, each one may translate to a different kind of love on the opposite side.

Everyone is different. So, the next step is to turn each sentence in our ‘hate’ list into a ‘love’ list.

For instance:

  • I hate being trapped in 9-to-5 routine >> I love having the flexibility to work from anywhere in the world
  • I am worried about my parents’ health >> I love knowing that my parents are healthy
  • I am angry at myself because I feel unproductive >> I love the feeling when I can finish a personal project
  • I hate last-minute cancellations >> I love having online meetings because any cancellations won’t waste too much of my time

Notice that the ‘love’ list is the way I translated the ‘hate’ list. You might translate the ‘hate’ list into a different kind of ‘love’ list.

Step 3. Turn the LOVE list into a list of SMALLEST ACTION.


All of us can make plans for the future: if I have this, I can be happier. If I am that, I can be better.

Making future plan is good (I love making plans!) but most of the times, we are also making up excuses along the way. I cannot do it right now because of this and that. I need to get this and that first, only then I can follow through with my plan. We all know how it ends: the plan stays being a plan.

Why? Because the action we need to take is too big. Because the action we need to take is too far away from our current situation, condition, and limitation. So, now, looking at my LOVE list, I ask myself: how can I get more of these things I love into my life, no matter how small, with the situation and condition I am in right now?

For instance:

  • I love having the flexibility to work from anywhere in the world. Of course, an ideal action plan could be quitting my job and be a freelancer. But this is big and risky. The smallest action I can do at the moment with my situation and condition would probably >> Work on my passion project for 3 hours this weekend from a place that inspires me. This is something I know I can do, and I can commit to.
  • I love knowing that my parents are healthy >> Cook only vegetable dishes for Dad tomorrow.
  • I love the feeling when I can finish a personal project >> Make a 6-line poem and publish it on Facebook tonight.
  • I love having online meetings because any cancellations won’t waste too much of my time >> Always ask the client to do meeting via Skype or phone call first.

I think you got the idea.

List down the smallest action you can do, immediately. It should be too small to the point that you can’t really make excuses for NOT doing it. If you’re still NOT doing it, make the action even smaller!

How it helps me

In my case, when I started freelancing after leaving my corporate job a few years ago, I was surprised to find myself feeling low and unhappy. It was confusing. Wasn’t this my ideal kind of working condition? To work from anywhere, to work with clients I like, to work on projects I am inspired with? Then, why did I feel distressed?

As I was doing the 3-step exercise, I realized that I was worried because I no longer have a ‘safe’ monthly income. I hated to feel uncertain, unprotected and insecure. I was uneasy with what might happen if I was sick and couldn’t work for a while because I no longer have the health insurance benefit my old company used to provide me with.

I love to feel safe and protected. I love to feel supported. I love to feel at ease.

Some of the smallest actions I chose to do in the following months:

  • Bought the cheapest health insurance I could afford.
  • Say the affirmation “I AM SUPPORTED” 15x before bed tonight.
  • Have no-shopping day once a week so I can save more.
  • Eat more fruits and vegetables.
  • Watch a course on meditation on YouTube,
  • and more small actions follow in the upcoming month.

Buying the cheap health insurance was actually the very first thing I did after making my list. The feeling when I got back home with my insurance policy was amazing. I felt so light and happy as if part of my burden and happiness had been lifted up. Just by doing this simple act, I felt instantly better.

Does this mean I am 100% safe, protected, supported, and at ease?
Of course not.

But that feeling of satisfaction when I knew I have done something (no matter how small) to get closer to the kind of life I want to experience, is enough to drastically reduce my distress, worries, and uneasiness.

I wish you could feel that feeling, too.

Hanny Kusumawati

PS: Feel free to let me know if this exercise works for you, too. You can also email me here if you like to share some of your personal/professional stories 🙂

Leave your traces here. I want to hear :)