I was thinking about the saying misery loves company this morning, and found myself wondering where that comes from and why.
According to the google, I am not the first person who has asked this question.
What I found was information about happiness and suicide rates, by location, discussion of a study of couples in relationships with an eye toward learning whether one person’s mood had a long-term impact on the other, (spoiler: it didn’t) and a missive about protecting yourself from toxic people.
And yet that really wasn’t what I was looking for.
My own example of misery
Having spent some amount of my life admittedly feeling miserable, and being able to remember that, I wanted to go deeper into the experience and dissect it.
The period following a final breakup with my ex-husband is prime ground for this.
Following that break-up (which was three years post-divorce, after which we had reconciled for a time but not re-married) I felt terrible.
On top of failing (as I perceived it) at my marriage, the year was also 2008, and I was attempting to work as a real estate agent. (I say attempting because it was difficult and frightening and unpredictable and highly financially precarious.)
I had also moved to North Minneapolis, to a community that was hard-hit by the foreclosure crisis. Homes around me were getting foreclosed, abandoned, and boarded-up at an alarming rate. At one point, my home (which was on a short block of six houses) was the only occupied home on the block.
As I think back to that time, I realize that the predominant emotion was fear. And while there was certainly fear of the future, there was also fear that I wasn’t good enough. In my relationship, I worried that it was all my fault that there was something fundamentally wrong with me. I found myself swirling in self-recrimination.
It was like being at the bottom of a well. While I did see a tiny spark of light at the top, it seemed awfully far away and I had no idea how to climb up to reach it.
When I think about how I felt, how I behaved, and how I connected with others during that time, it occurs to me that I was fueling my own misery in some ways. I spent more time complaining than I would like to admit. I even had a blog where I put my complaints into print, on the internet. My handle was – get this – the Rantirator.
I codified my own state through naming myself as one who rants.
In an effort to distract myself from the most painful personal woes, I turned my attention to other matters about which I could complain, namely the failings of local government in my community. And I gravitated toward others who did the same.
Which brings us back to the question at hand:
Why does misery love company?
There may be many answers.
For me, at that time, I believe it was that I wanted to be seen. At the time, expression of my deepest dissatisfaction felt cathartic. I thought it was helping me. And on some level, perhaps it did.
I felt less alone when I surrounded myself with others who had similar complaints to mine. It helped me to avoid wondering whether I was unique in what I believed to be my personal dysfunction.
What I didn’t know then is that thoughts become habits and that feelings become physically addictive.
And while it did help me on some level to know that I wasn’t alone in my dissatisfaction with the world, the focus that I had on all that was negative did little more than to wear deep grooves of indignation and despair into the architecture of my brain.
And once those grooves have been worn in, it takes some serious renovation to correct.
In the years that have followed I have learned that it is possible to be much happier than I was then. And thankfully, I also learned that my happiness is a choice I get to make.
It’s not easy and its not instantaneous. Yet it IS possible through building purposeful habits of thinking.
I also learned that it’s okay to have negative feelings. Most people do from time to time. And attempting to shut out or ignore those negative feelings is a fool’s errand. (This goes for the negative feelings of others who are close to us as well.) We need to meet ourselves and others where we are in the moment, acknowledge and see the person.
And then ask questions that allow us to choose to move to a different level.
Here are some questions which have proven useful to me in this regard:
What am I not seeing, that if I saw it, would change how I’m thinking about this situation?
What would this look like if it were easy?
Who are some other people who have experienced what I’m experiencing and worked through it? What did they do and what can I learn from them?
This last question brings me back again to the idea of misery loving company.
Sometimes this concept is seen in a negative way – as in a miserable person seeking out others who will support the continuation of a negative environment.
And yet maybe there are cases where misery loves company because that company helps to pull us out – by showing us how they were miserable and yet worked their way out of it.
(By the way, if you’re interested in the concept of transcending misery, I suggest reading Victor Frankl’s incredible book, Man’s Search for Meaning.)
Beyond the utility of showing us their example and perhaps methods for change, knowing that others have been miserable too helps us to remember that we are not alone.
And above all, no matter where we are in this moment – emotional, physically, financially, socially, or spiritually, we MUST remember that we are not alone.
We are never alone.