Wednesday, 20 May 2009

The anatomy of a bad mood; or, in which I show you my dark side

Posted by Tania Kindersley.

The anatomy of a bad mood.

Moods, unlike proper, rubber-stamped emotions, are difficult to map, and hard to disperse. I like a reason for things. If I am sad, I usually know why; if I am angry or happy, I can see the origin of it. I am quite intolerant of people who indulge their moods, and let a rotten one infect the atmosphere like smoke, so that everyone else must suffer with it. I have read all the damn psychology books; I know that you cannot change the thing itself, but you can change the way you think about it. I like to believe that we have some dominion over our own selves; we are not unregulated pre-rational creatures, constantly startled by woolly mammoths. I am a tremendous believer in the wonderful attribute of free will: somehow, somewhere along the line, for a reason that even the neurobiologists still cannot quite explain, we developed oddly large pre-frontal lobes, which gave us the power of reasoning, and choice. One of my enduring beliefs is that humans, unlike other mammals, do not have to be slaves to our baser natures, chained by our own instincts. One of my crazier ideas, nurtured by too much education, is that you can think your way out of almost anything. Come along, fire up that grey matter, and all manner of things will be well.

So when I wake up, as I did this morning, in a five star stinker of a mood, the kind that you can’t dodge (everywhere you go, there it is) I have several instantaneous reactions. There is a cussed refusal to accept it: this is not right, this should not be happening now. There is a dogged desire to hunt it down and find out where it came from: there must be a reason for everything. There is a slight sense of disgust: oh for God’s sake, you are not living in the Congo, butch up. And there is a determination to find a remedy: now, how am I going to shake this off?

Then there is the slide into a disconcerting division of self. There is the good, rational, well-brought up self, which knows that life is earnest, life is real, and you just have to get on with it. This self understands how to call in The Perspective Police and write a little gratitude list: I have all my arms and legs, I live in a nice house with two enchanting dogs, I have command of all my faculties. I am not being held in a Burmese prison, or watching my children be sold into prostitution. I do not live in a theocracy, where I may not go outside without a close male relative by my side. Even as I count these blessings, and remind myself of the reality of things, there is another self, the one that slinks out of its lair when the bad mood hits. This second self is like a furious child, who cannot be reasoned with. This self says: I feel shitty and I won’t do my work and I’m not going to tidy the kitchen and why won’t everyone just bugger off and leave me alone? And then there is a shouting match between these two entities going on in my head, and I mostly want to go and lie down in a darkened room until it has passed.

There are remedies. I find that drinking a great deal of black coffee, putting Janis Joplin singing Take a Little Piece of My Heart on the stereo and shouting along to it at full blast is tremendously cathartic. Sometimes just jumping up and down in a room and shouting fuck fuck fuck fuck very loud can get those demons out. Walking in the open air can be good, although when I am really grumpy I may refuse to go outside. And, of course, there is writing it down. Writing a thing down is the surest way I know to draw its sting; there is something about getting the hurling words out of the head and onto the page which has an almost miraculous restorative effect on the sanity.

But thinking of this now, I wonder: must a remedy be the first resort? Clearly every functioning adult must work out a way of banishing hideous moods, so as to avoid spreading the contagion over innocent bystanders. It is unfair to drag other people into your demonic day. But what if the house is empty, and you have a little space? I tend to think of bad humour as a moral failing in myself: I must be a little ray of sunshine, come on, of course I must. Jung had the idea that deep in our dark side lies a lode of gold; by refusing to countenance the blacker side of human nature, we cut ourselves off from our greatest potential. Which is all very lovely in theory, but quite alarming in reality. It is so much easier and more comfortable to be sanguine and blithe. I begin to ponder: perhaps, sometimes, in the safety of my own room, I should just sit with my filthy mood, and see where it takes me. It’s not the end of the world. It’s just a thing. (Oddly, even as I write those words, I feel my shoulders begin to come down and my mouth curving into a small smile.) My co-writer Sarah, who has a good practical streak in her which I lack, is quite straightforward about these things. ‘I am in a terrible mood,’ I say, when she calls up for our daily morning talk. ‘Oh, all right,’ she says, unfazed. ‘I’ll ring back when you are less grumpy.’ She knows that not all things can be, or even must be, fixed. Let it run, and it will pass. I, on the other hand, must anatomise every element, explain it, put it in its place, until order is again restored to the universe. She knows that a bad mood is just a bad mood, not a national emergency.

I wonder how much of this is a woman thing. I know that not everything in the whole wide world can be put down to gender, but there is still, even in these post-feminist times, a low expectation that women should be sugar and spice. We are not really supposed to get scratchy and shouty, because we are the ones who are spilling over with empathy until our ears fall off. There is, even now, a lingering idea of the importance of being ladylike. I think this might be a contributory factor to my excessive alarm at a bit of bad temper. But I think the real fault line is my own irrational belief that everything must be rational. I don’t like things that just gallop up for no reason and take over the day.

Much as I long to imagine there is an answer to everything, and an explanation for everything, and a nice neat solution to everything, I may have to concede that this is not always the case. Maybe I should finally learn to understand that life is messy and muddly and unpredictable, and, however much I might want to, I can’t make it shiny and straightforward and explicable every day. The entire underlying premise of Backwards is the importance of accepting one’s very human flaws. I know this to be true. It’s just that every so often I have a slip, and fall back into the mad idea that the human condition is, in fact, perfectible. So I am going to sit very still, and embrace the random and the messy and the inexplicable, and put on Janis Joplin very loud indeed.


  1. I utterly identified with this. There's a fine old line between being a bit pissed off and being in a completely wretched mood that - on occasion - has reduced me to tears with my inability to feel that life is - and will be - ok. And I wonder if it is a woman thing - this complete black hole that swallows you up so the sun seems to have vanished - certainly my husband doesn't get them, but then, he isn't given to extremes of emotion in that way at all. And, when for whatever reason that day you've woken up and nothing is ever going to be right, you need to stomp and mutter and let it out - keeping it in is so hard, but to let it fly in another's direction is tempting, but rationally you know it's only going to be worse. They've done nothing to deserve your bad mood.
    And yet... and yet... The one thing that can be calculated to make me furious beyond measure and increase it to a vortex of rage is being told 'but you're usually so sunny/happy/jokey'. It makes me want to literally throw myself down on the floor yelling 'I have off days - so the f* what! I never said I was perfect' And you're made to feel - however unintentionally - as if your bad mood makes you less of a person. As if you're not quite the person they married/friends with/gave birth to.. and so boringly on. And of course, they would be devastated if they thought you thought that, but of course, that's where these black days lead - to complete and utter self-destruction.

    It took a good long year of a 'couch in Hampstead' to understand a few things. Perspective is all - and not just on your side. Yes it's your mood, you're responsible for it and others are not, but also that you are not diminished in stature by it. We are allowed off days. And when we're with the right person, they accept it as a package, come hell or high water.

    And whatever - the dogs will always love you. And blogs are for ranting.

  2. Oh Jo - as always, you are so lovely. It is true the dogs have not noticed at all; in fact one has just come and settled herself by my feet so that she can gaze adoringly.

    So glad I am not the only one who finds the bad mood a complicated thing - even after YEARS on the couch. Perhaps it is back to the drum I most love to bang - that women are creatures of mystifying complexity. So as you say, we may be often sunny and smiling, but also, when having an off day, grumpy and frowny, and not be defined as one or the other. Perhaps quite a good thing to keep people on their toes.

  3. Oh yes, we all know that feeling.

    The battle between the rational self (the one standing slightly to the side of the tantrum, watching impassionately, tutting slightly & dying to say 'Pull yourself together woman!') and the messy ball of emotion and irritation that is in the orgasmic throes of a filthy black pit of self-pity and rattiness.

    I had one of those days on Sunday and even in the midst of all but howling at the moon and vocally pummelling my Other Half, I was berating myself for being that way. And yet, at the same time, I knew that my complaints were well-founded - even if my reaction wasn't.

    Of course, whenever that happens, people (including the Other Half) stop and stare in horror that the usual upbeat cheerful and philosophical woman has been replaced by a hysterical harridon..... And yet when he has one of his shouty days, I must not raise an eyebrow or my voice in respone.

    Being female does not exempt us from having shitty moods, nor the right to express them. Our particular set of chromosomes does not make us automatically better, more patient or saintly. And yet, when we do have one of 'those days' it's labelled as hysterics or written off as being 'that time of the month'. And that's REALLY guaranteed to make me go ballistic!

    Anyway, I do hope that your black mood plays itself out soon and that tomorrow everything will be sweeter, kinder, more lovely for you. And if it's not, don't worry, you ARE entitled to a shitty mood now and again.

  4. Oh no - I just wrote a lengthy comment and then it disappeared.
    I have a close knit family and we are not afraid to tell each other if we're in a grumpy mood. Then I find I don't go nuts on one of them for no particular reason.
    When young, my mother would tell us (not often) that she was in a bad mood and we just knew not to annoy her.
    I find that taking a small walk to get the blood flowing, with my Ipod usually puts me into a different frame of mind. I don't really suffer from really bad moods all that much but when they hit I do allow myself to indulge in them.
    And after having had 10 years on the couch the wise sages don't have any answers either. Mine used to say "tomorrow is another day" ....there you go. xoxox

  5. I think that Jung is right. And you need to feel shit to appreciate the happy mood. No rainbow without both sun AND rain, man! Also, I think that bad moods are usually down to one thing. EXHAUSTION. And the best things for that are a walk or a swim. All that said, I the bad mnood is my default setting, I'm afraid...

  6. Why do I always produce typos in my comments? More haste less speed.

  7. I think also that if you are a generally sunny person then the black moods are almost extra shocking - both to you and those around you. Like Jo the more people say how different you are from normal, the more you want to scream at them. I have to say, when I go foul tempered I really GO and it doesn't happen very often. Perhaps it's all the tiny little grumps that we have ignored and brushed off and then just pile up inside us waiting for a day when they can all be indulged at once. But ignoring them, or pretending they're not ther is definitely bad. And being grown up enough to say I am in a BAD mood, is very satisfying...

  8. My French friends are great believers in 'le benchmarking': I take this to mean that success-ie, happiness- depends a lot on where you set the level. If you never have any really arse-wipingly bad days, when you're just beset by cantankerousness or gloom, then neither will you know days of delicious joy. Somewhere in between lies contentment, but without the extremes one can't recognise it. Fight for the right to feel utterly rageous. Its counterpoint is well worth it.

  9. She Means Well - oh the hormonal question is the WORST. Someone should sit all gentlemen down and say now repeat after me: the one question you never, ever ask a lady is Is it that time of the month?

    So Lovely - I was on the couch for years too (my old shrink kept asking me to leave and I would not go, I was having too much fun) and what amazes me about that is there is no doubt you learn a lot, but there is still so much you don't know. Maybe that's what makes it all interesting.

    Cassandra - so, so agree. Someone once said to me: it's easy to behave well when you are not tired. When one is worn out all sense of proportion is lost, I think.

    Fabhat - yes, yes. I am pretty sunny, mostly think the best of people and things, so sudden maxiumum grumpiness for no reason is always a shock. Keeps me on my toes, I suppose.

    Mrs T - I want chic French buddies who tell me of 'le benchmarking'. Love 'the right to feel utterly rageous'. We should all have that on t-shirts.

    And to all of you lovelies - the best thing about this blog is the amount of identifying that goes on. I love it. The moment I say something, you all write and say Oh yes, we know that one; and so we all know that we are not alone. It's one of the things that women do so well for each other, and I thought of it when I wrote the female friendship section in Backwards, but I had no idea it could be found out here in the blogosphere. I do thank you for that. xxx

  10. Beautifully put. I can really relate to what you've written.

    Perspective is everything and everything is relative. x

  11. Hello there.

    Gosh - timing is such an odd thing. I was in an absolute fury about something (see below) so thought I'd cheer myself up by reading some favourite blogs (sorry if that sounds crawly).

    The piece below has just made me more apoplectic than I can describe. I almost think it wrong to share it further - but I have a question (see below if you can bear it):

    My wondering is: Is it ok to be hurled into an utterly furious mood by something as utterly fascist as this or does that mean they have won so one should remain serene?

    Utter rot from the DM of course but so depressing. It would appear a section of our community still feels we are supposed to be not only sugar and spice but also stuck in the 1950's.

    I'm sorry to blight your lovely, thoughtful, clever blog with this - but had to share some fury and try to get some perspective!

    I suppose, in a nutshell, sometimes the inexplicable is also impossible to embrace.

  12. littlebrownbird - thank you so much. So agree about everything being relative.

    HenriettaBird - too curious. I too saw that piece this morning and was thrown into a rage by its utter stupidity. But since I had managed to chase off my bad mood of yesterday I decided to remain serene and make croque monsieur instead.

    I think the Daily Madness's remit is to make everyone, particularly women, as fearful and cross as possible. So in some ways, to get cross means they have succeeded. On the other hand, some things deserve righteous fury and this is one of them. Will post a long thought on it tomorrow. In the meantime, there is always strong drink...

  13. Yes, yes, yes.
    I have extreme moods. It has been said I have a "mood disorder". At the moment things are manageable, but about once in every ten days I hit a stinker. Nothing in my life is right, I'm useless, no purpose, with a habit of depression and self-loathing.
    Then it passes and I'm a person again, sliding along a happier scale of crazy (sanguine to cackling.

    Your book sounds interesting, am going to look around for it. Please read my fledgling blog - I need some hits!


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