Don’t Make Things Worse

Sometimes – not often, not nearly as often as you think – something bad is going to happen to you that was well and truly not your fault. Some foul misfortune will befall you and it will be something you totally couldn’t have seen coming or reasonably prepared for; a true “black swan” event. Whatever negative consequences the event brings, it also brings an insidious trap, and it is your duty to avoid it.

Here is your mission, first and foremost: don’t make things worse.

When such an event befalls you, you’re going to have to work hard to fix things. To extract yourself from this unfortunate circumstance will require a great deal of effort, but the trap works against you. Let me explain the trap, so you can see it.

First, the black swan event. It’s bad, and you’re truly blameless. You become a figure deserving of sympathy. This is dangerous. Because the next thing that happens is that you do a whole bunch of stuff to make things worse, and then you get mad if anyone points it out. Now you’re worse off, you’re confused about the total causes of your current circumstance, and you’re less sympathetic – you find your allies evaporating and you don’t know why. Suddenly, your situation is too horrible to recover from.

Here’s an example of what I’m talking about:

Jane suffers a tragic event – despite taking all reasonable precautions, she loses her house in a fire. The insurance company pulls a few shady moves and fights her on the payout, resulting in Jane being in dire circumstances. By itself, this is a situation in which Jane deserves a lot of sympathy. But then Jane decides to invest the meager payout she’s already received from insurance on lottery tickets. When none of them hit, she trashes the hotel room she’s been put up in and gets kicked out. Since she has no shelter, her kids get taken away. She takes to social media to garner help and sympathy for her situation, claiming that she’s homeless and has had her children taken away because the insurance company did her dirty. When someone points out that she also blew what money she did have on lottery tickets and got herself kicked out of the hotel, she exclaims “My house burned down! How dare you?!”

You see the problem here?

The original problem was both severe and genuinely not Jane’s fault. But she failed to apply the proper triage. Instead of recognizing that her situation needed a lot of work and dilgence, she made things much worse. Some part of her took the fact that she had a temporary hall pass for bad behavior as a blank check to go completely bonkers. In her mind, everything wrong truly is still the fault of that original event and she remains blameless. As a result, she suffers increasing cognitive distance from anyone who could and would help her.

This exact trap is why so many bad events lead to spirals. It doesn’t have to be this way, and it won’t be that way for you if you remember what you need to do. Triage of bad events requires that you maintain a level of discipline above that of normal. This is more difficult, and no one’s claiming it isn’t! But if you lose your job due to a layoff, don’t go on a week-long bender and make things worse. If you go to jail for a crime you didn’t commit, don’t punch the judge when you get released. You absolutely can make things better, but before you do: don’t make things worse.

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