Well, What Would Make it Better?

Do you remember the Well, what CAN you do? technique I use to make myself do more than nothing when I’m overwhelmed? I have a related thing I’m also finding helpful. It’s similar in that it involves talking very nicely to yourself, ideally aloud: if there are others in the house you can say it under your breath while in another room, but I think the “aloud” part is pretty key to it working for me. And it’s similar in that it’s a way to get yourself to take action when most of yourself thinks action is useless and hopeless and pointless but there’s still a small piece of yourself that feels it would be a good idea.

While the first technique is for overwhelmed hopelessness (“There’s TOO MUCH!! I CAN’T do it!!”), this technique is for something more like when everything feels bad. And here are the questions to patiently and repeatedly ask yourself out loud, just as if you were a kind and helpful and infinitely insightful/wise psychologist in a movie or TV show: “What would help?” and “What would make it better?” The “better” here is the better of comparison (“any place upwards of where it was before”) rather than the better of “I was sick, but now I’m all better.” It is the better of drops in a bucket, not the better of filling it.

Sometimes you will get answers that don’t go anywhere. Angry retorts, for example: “OH, I don’t know, A MILLION DOLLARS??” or “If EVERYTHING ABOUT MY LIFE were different!!” Follow those paths as long as the answers continue to make practical sense (“Is there a way you could acquire more money? How would that improve things?” and “Which thing about your life would you change first? How would that improve things?”), but abandon them if they turn out to be techniques the patient is using to avoid answering the question for real.

Sometimes you won’t be speaking to yourself, so you’ll get nothing but sullen silence. Wait patiently, like the good therapist you are. If you start to cry, just wait for yourself to be ready to talk.

Useful answers vary HUGELY. Sometimes it’s “….Eating a bowl of vanilla ice cream with Hershey’s syrup and peanuts. And watching Four Weddings and a Funeral.” Other times it’s “The music to be on while I fold this stupid laundry, even though the radio is in the kitchen and that means really blaring it too loudly at that end of the house so that I can hear it at this end of the house.” Sometimes it’s “Going to Target alone, and getting a coffee from the cafe to sip while I walk around.” If the request is possible to grant, I recommend granting it with huge approval and kindness: “Of COURSE you can have that! Of COURSE you can! That’s entirely reasonable! For goodness’ sake!” Don’t forget to say it out loud. You are perhaps thinking that saying it aloud is a minor thing and you’ll just skip that, but I encourage you to try it. Whispering is fine; a regular speaking voice is better. (You don’t have to do the answers out loud. Just the psychologist.)

If the request is not possible to grant at that time, imagine how the psychologist would deal with that. He or she might add it to a list. “Hm, yes, an excellent thought, and let’s add that to your plan for the future. Now, can we think of some ideas that would be more applicable to the present? something we could implement right now to bring you some relief?” Or he/she might want to discuss compromises/variations: “It sounds like that exact situation would be difficult; could we modify that to fit your current circumstances?” Maybe you’re home with little kids so you can’t go to Target alone or manage coffee while pushing the cart, but you could go with the kids and get a coffee at a drive-through to drink on the way there, and maybe that would be better than not going at all and feeling intense despair about life, which is the other option.

As the psychologist, you might expect all the requests to be indulgences/treats, but it’s surprising how often they aren’t. I remember back in the craziest new-baby days thinking things like, “I just want TEN SECONDS to wipe that stupid DRIED JUICE SPOT off the FLOOR so I can stop STEPPING STICKILY on it.” Often you will ask the patient what will help, and the patient will reply “A spinach smoothie, a multivitamin, three fish oil capsules.” Or “Getting that errand out of the way.” Or “Making any headway at all on the laundry.” Or “Wrestling that hard-to-clean-under heavy kitchen island two feet over so I can clean the floor under it.” You are the therapist with your clipboard. Make a note on your legal pad: you’re adding the idea to the list. Nod again; say, “I don’t see any reason that can’t be arranged.”



That DOES make things feel better for some reason. So did the ice cream.


When the patient gives an answer, don’t lose the momentum: go as quickly as possible from the hearing of the answer to the granting of it. Sometimes quickness will not be possible: perhaps a movie needs to arrive from Netflix, or a trip needs to be made to the grocery store for ice cream, or someone stronger needs to come home to move the counter. In that case, it is best to see if there are any other answers that have quicker implementations: doing something RIGHT AWAY is one of the best ways to make it work. Move the counter, if it can be moved; get out the blender and start making the smoothie; swallow the fish oil capsule. Don’t wait, or the patient will sink into her chair, losing both heart and inertia. If the movie is not available and there is no ice cream in the house, use the calm and patient psychologist’s voice to ask if there is anything else that would make things better right now. A big drink of water? Sitting outside on the steps for a few minutes with a coffee/tea/wine/beer? Warming up the laundry in the dryer for 5 minutes before you have to fold it? Loud music? Funny cat video?

The goal is not to fix it. No. That is too large a goal, and we are not attempting it, any more than we’d attempt to rebuild Rome in a day. In fact, say that out loud to the patient: “We’re not looking for ways to fix it, because we can’t do that during this one session. But is there anything that could make it a little better than it is right now? Any improvements at all, no matter how small?”

Psychological stuff is like home maintenance: some of it needs a professional, and some of it you can do yourself. If you have the psychological equivalent of a roof caving in, I wouldn’t try to tinker with that on your own. And if you ask your patient what would make it better, and she suggests it would help to wash her hands a hundred times or put a line of burns up her arm or leap off a building, then you can start filling out that referral form, Dr. Phyllis. But if you just get sad/low/miserable sometimes for no particular reason and you know it’s hormones or seasons or temperament, and there is at least a small part of you that recognizes that it is likely to pass as it always has before (there has to be at least a small part of you recognizing this, or else there will be no one to play the role of the psychologist), this technique can make a huge difference for some of us.

Psychologists often get to the bottom of things by asking YOU to get to the bottom of things. They ask you to tell them who you are, what the situation is, and what will help. Then they tell it back to you. This costs a lot of money, and is sometimes completely necessary and worth it, especially if you’re not currently speaking to yourself and need a go-between, or if your problem is the kind where you really don’t know and they really do, or where medication is needed. Other times, you can do it yourself. You’ve seen psychologists on TV; you know how they talk; you know how they nod; you know the tones of voice they use; you know the yellow legal pad. You can try using those on YOURSELF.

If this turns out to be your thing, with time it can get quicker, easier, and more effective. At first you might not be accustomed to the questions and might not know what to say or have any idea what might help. After awhile, this changes: you get a running list of things that often DO help, and you get used to implementing them. You might find yourself thinking in broader categories: Do I need to do something fun? something productive? something physical? something social? something that turns my attention away from myself? Do I need a change? a treat? a distraction? something funny? something heart-warming? a good cry? Do I need to get up, or do I need to sit down? Do I need something familiar/comforting or something new/fresh? Do I need time by myself or do I need time with other human beings? A dose of perspective? something that makes me stop thinking about myself and what I need for awhile? That sort of thing.

30 thoughts on “Well, What Would Make it Better?

  1. Alison

    I like this idea very much. Thank you.

    We’re currently living abroad – far north and in the booniest of boonies – and I am on my own all day with 2 under 2 (both nonverbal) with no childcare, family, and just a few friends, and a husband who works long hours. There is still 3 feet of snow in our yard. I have had a hard time adjusting. Usually I’m fine, but man, some days….

    This sounds nice and concrete. Like something I can actually implement immediately. I think I’ll try it.

  2. Alison

    Though I do think having a Target available would in of itself very much improve my general outlook – but that kind of thinking is not getting me anywhere.

  3. Lynn

    This is why I love your blog – sensible, little things you can do to make your life easier, and validation, because it’s important and worth it and YOU CAN DO IT. Thanks, Swistle!

  4. jen

    I think you should consider being a therapist/counselor. I was feeling a bit weepy this morning, for no particular reason, and then I read this and thought a walk over lunch would make it a little better. And it so totally did. Thank you for the free therapy this morning!

  5. Lisa

    I love this, thanks Swistle. I want to share with everyone, but maybe the “be your own psychologist” is just a mind blowing concept for me. I also loved your “What CAN you do” post. Very great stuff here.

  6. Rachel

    I LOVE this. I have been sort of doing this already, but wrong–as in, “Chocolate would make things better, I need to eat some NOW!” Your way is much better, and such a good idea. I find that I often long for a wise, older woman to talk to and comfort me when things are difficult (my mother died years ago), and this is a way of sort of being that for yourself. Thank you.

  7. Rah

    I never thought I would admit this out loud. I have a great big rectangular laundry basket and, with the Psychologist’s approval (ahem) the Client tied a big cord on the end of it so it can be dragged (drug?), full of clean clothes, to the living room with one hand while the other holds a cup of hot coffee (the first time I did this was one of those days when two trips to the living room seemed just too much to bear). The clothes are folded and sorted into stacks almost without thought during a good movie/tv show. And they are put away room by room during commercials if that seems easier to the Client. Alternatively, buy an inexpensive radio for the laundry room. You spend a good portion of your life there, and you’re worth it. And besides it will necessitate a trip to Target. (grins).

  8. Alexa

    This is so wonderful. I adore you.

    I utilize this technique myself and am glad you acknowledged that the first response of the patient may be rather hysterical and belligerent. I find this to be the case quite often, at least with the patient population I deal with.

    I would like to add a VERY IMPORTANT POINT:
    If, by some chance, you happen to have a spouse who actually is a therapist, they should by no means attempt to play the role of the therapist in this type of scenario. Not so much for ethical reasons as for reasons of their own personal safety. It will only result in violence (or at least thoughts of violence), even if the things they say are EXACTLY the things you know to be true/would say to yourself.

  9. Lawyerish

    Oh, this is SO GOOD. Sometimes, I am good at the self-Q&A/self-care, but sometimes I feel so discouraged/overwhelmed/grouchy that I forget that this is even an option. What a perfect reminder. I just wrote a note to myself: “Well, what WOULD make it better?” so that I will not forget anymore.

    Love, love, love. You’re saving me a lot of money in therapy.

  10. Ami

    I never comment, but I must, just to say that you are awesome and should be a life coach.

  11. nonsoccermom

    How timely! Not even an hour ago I was on my daily lunch walk with a friend, lamenting how I am just in such a funk. I’m overwhelmed at work, drowning at home, and basically having an existential crisis about the futility of it all. I’m going to give this a try!

  12. Another Heather

    I read this post this morning while battling a horrible sore throat, grouchy husband, and cat who seemed to think there were ghosts in the walls that needed to be attacked, in the process knocking over several piles of things that shouldn’t have been left piled in the first place.
    I would just like to say thank you, as I suck on the ricola lemon lozenges I bought for myself at the grocery store. They really did make things better.

  13. MomQueenBee

    Your posts make me think “That is BRILLIANT” more than any other blogger’s posts on the internet, and that is saying a mouthful because the internet is big and wide. Nonetheless, this is BRILLIANT.

  14. G

    I love this concept and I love even more that you said (more than once) that “sometimes you won’t be speaking to yourself.” Because that is exactly what I do when I try to talk myself out of a funk. I shall have to try being more persistent. :)

  15. KD

    I really enjoyed this post and the recent one where you encourage dabbling. Such great ideas, and so revolutionary to those of us who get mired by perfectionism and feeling overwhelmed! I LOVE the “Well, What CAN You Do?” post. It has inspired me to try to clean my apartment little bits at a time today. It’s amazing how one tiny improvement can beget another, which can beget another… Thanks for the life inspiration! :)

  16. Jenine

    So practical! So full of the encouraging and accepting kind of love! You should be very proud of this.

  17. betttina

    Oh, this is BEAUTIFUL. I was talking to a colleague who’s feeling grumpy lately about your Life Points and attitude-adjusting FitBit.

    I always felt aggravated at myself for going to the basement, getting distracted by laundry and forgetting the pantry item I went to the basement to get in the first place. Now that I have a FitBit, when I forget something from the basement, I’m like, “Oh, well, more FitBit points!” HUGE attitude adjustment for me.

    This calm, rational, well-thought-out-EMPATHY for yourself and others is part of why I think you would enjoy and be good at being a CNA. You have these great people skills – you are such an ENCOURAGER.

  18. Erin

    Just want to second everyone’s comments! Swistle, I love your blog(s) so much! Thank you, thank you!

  19. Jodie

    I do something like this–I bribe myself. So the alarm goes off and I am really tired but I have to get up I say to myself, “Jodie, if you get out of bed right now, you can have (fill in the blank)” It might be–earlier bedtime, or fancy coffee, or 15 minutes of non-guilty reading time, or blog time or whatever. And then I follow through. I also do this with chores I don’t want to do but must–“if you change the stinky frog water, you can (do whatever would make me happier)”

  20. Erica

    Good good good. I am going to be the Jane Krakowski psychologist from Everwood. Another thing I read once, which I think about all the time, is that motivation comes from action and not the other way around. That helps me a lot.

  21. Alice

    I am in the MIDST of one of those days (well, nights at this point), and this was a massively helpful thing to read right now. I’m borrowing some of the patience that this post describes, and am going to go get some water and go to bed. Because they won’t make it all better, and they feel like infinitesimal drops in a mammoth bucket, but they’re drops nonetheless.

    Thank you.

  22. Angela

    I do a version of this involving lists. I list out everything that I can think of that is bothering me and split them into small tasks. So if I have to scan something and mail it, I put scanning the thing as one item and mailing it as another. Then I pick a few of the easiest things and do them (sometimes I list things that I already did that day) and when I do them I get to draw a thick fat line through that thing with a permanent marker.

    I get this feeling that once I wrote down what I have to do, I can stop obsessively trying to remember it and actually move on with the tasks rather than thinking “I have to do this and this and this and oh god I’ll never get any of it done!”

    This is the only way that I am surviving being home alone all day with a 12 day old baby and a 2 year old.

  23. Marie

    This is a fantastic strategy. I have noticed that speaking out loud to myself makes me actually take myself seriously and pay attention rather than getting lost in my thoughts (which run in circles when I’m stressed). I use it for verbally high-fiving myself when I do any big or little thing I’ve been resisting working on. “You are doing a fantastic job! Get a snack and keep going!” Active cheerleading! I’m going to try it for my therapy moments too. Truly a great idea for self-nurturing.

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