What Can Catholics Do To Conquer A Bad Day?

by Faith & Life

We’ve all been there. The day just isn’t going well. The culprit could be a rough night with the kiddos, bad news, or maybe you’re just in a funk and don’t know why. I don’t enjoy any of those, but for me, the worst part is that a bad day can be hard to shake. It’s like walking into a spiderweb; there are little threads on you forever at that point. You’re doomed to feel real or phantom tickles for the rest of the day. 

Fortunately, hard doesn’t mean impossible. While bad days are sticky, they can be turned around. The better news is, the all-powerful God loves and cares about us, and his grace will help too.  As St. Thomas Aquinas said, grace builds on nature, and I’m here to offer both some natural and spiritual tips on how to shut down a bad day.

Change Your Perspective

Changing perspective is all about changing your view of the situation. It doesn’t mean we have to pretend that a challenge isn’t a challenge, but usually, on a bad day part of the problem is how we are looking at ourselves, the day, and/or the situation. 

Pray

We’ll start with the obvious one. Talk to God. Here’s the thing though, I think we often set ourselves up for disappointment when we pray. What I mean by that is we pray with a mindset about God and prayer that just isn’t very realistic. We often pray asking God to fix it. “Lord, I’m having a lousy day, please turn it around.” This is a great way to get more frustrated, because we’re asking God to behave in a way that just isn’t much like him. If God was the kind of guy to just wave away bad days do you really think he’d be up for letting his son be tortured to death? And whose son, rather than be upset at the Father for doing this, told his disciples, “Take up your cross and follow me.” God isn’t one to shy away from suffering. He doesn’t actively will it for any of us, but when it comes up he’s not usually going to rush to make it go away. Instead, he is going to be with us through it. He will give grace to suffer well. To rise to the occasion. His presence with us is what makes the difference, and that is something we are promised. So, I would encourage you not to ask God to fix it, but just talk to him like you’re sitting with a trusted confidant. Let him show up in that bad day as your friend.

Learn the Psalms

Sometimes I just don’t have the mental energy to come up with a coherent sentence. I need some help. The psalms are great. King David, who wrote many of them, had some really world class bad days. You don’t have to be a biblical scholar to realize that so did some of the other folks who wrote the psalms we have in the Bible. I encourage you to tab a psalm or three where the author is struggling and crying out to God. That way you’ve got some psalms in your back pocket when you’re having a rough day and can’t think of what to say. Some of my go to psalms for rough days are 57 and 143. Also, many psalms are great for just instilling some hope. A few of my favorite hopeful psalms are 27, 121, and 43.

Use Sacramentals

One of the hard things about perspective is that suffering by nature tends to limit it. This is true of bad days as much as any other suffering. A faith-filled perspective can seem impossibly far away or immaterial when we’re wrapped up in suffering. Sacramentals are a fantastic way to help make the faith concrete and physically present as a reminder of God’s presence and closeness to us. The term sacramental covers a wide range of things, but here I am specifically referring to physical things that are signs of spiritual reality which aid in making us holy. Some good examples of these are crucifixes, rosaries, and holy water. Keeping a physical reminder of God’s presence with you can help open your heart and mind to his presence. Think of the way people keep photos of loved ones on their car dash, or as the background of their phone. It’s a way of keeping loved ones close. It’s the same idea with having a sacramental on you. It helps keep you in a God-oriented perspective.

Practice Gratitude

Gratitude bridges perspective and context as a tool to help with a rough day, and it is indispensable. There is more and more science showing that gratitude positively impacts our mental health. Our brains are wired to keep us alive, and often that means focusing on what could go wrong and how to survive it. As a result, developing a grateful perspective can be a bit of an uphill battle, but it is one well worth fighting. A quick Google search will reveal dozens if not hundreds of books, articles, and blogs on gratitude, and I’m going to point you there for more about gratitude itself. For now, I’ll just share the two most effective gratitude practices that I have found in my life. The first is listing 10 things to be thankful for before I get out of bed. It doesn’t matter what else is going on. I might have kids literally jumping on me, but I am going to think of 10 things. Not fancy things, it can be as simple as warm socks on a chilly morning, but they should be as sincere as you can make them. The second practice takes longer to develop. It consists of training your brain to reach for gratitude when you’re surprised by bad news or something goes wrong. Too quickly something bad happens and we jump to a sort of despair. “Figures that THIS would happen,” “What else could go wrong,” etc. Instead, when something bad happens try to train yourself to jump to “Well, at least ________ is good.” Keeping in mind that there are always things to be grateful for can help us move on from a tough moment before it has a chance to affect the whole day. 

Broaden the Context

Broadening the context means increasing the number of things you are considering when you look at a day or a given situation. It could also mean deliberately adding or subtracting something from the mix. Perspective is about how you’re looking, context is about what you’re looking at. It’s like adding more pieces to the puzzle rather than examining the pieces you already had in a new way.

How do you broaden the context?

Count your blessings

This first one is similar to gratitude. It is to take an inventory of blessings. As mentioned above, one of the effects of suffering is blinding us to everything but the suffering itself and its cause. Usually, with a bad day, there is really just one or maybe a few things that have gone wrong, and those things become all we can see. Kind of like taking a quarter and holding an inch from your face. The quarter isn’t that big, but it’s still all you can see. Taking time to consciously look for the good helps us pull the quarter back a little bit and notice some of the other things going on. I’ll give a brief example. I worked as an in-home service tech and one of the things we were measured on was how many jobs we got done in a day. On this particular day my work was all over. I probably spent as much or more time driving than I did actually working. About halfway through the day I had a particularly long drive and I was frustrated. It was a bad day and I was feeling it. As I drove, I made myself look at more of the picture. It was a beautiful day. I was driving in the hill country of Texas, which is quite picturesque. I had the radio on with music I liked. And, to top it all off, the job was hourly. I was getting paid to take a scenic drive on a beautiful day jamming to some great tunes. The exact same pay I would get if I were crawling in mud under a house. All of sudden the day didn’t seem so bad. Context helped move past the negative focus that was feeding the bad day to see what was going right. The bad day evaporated almost instantly.

Practice Generosity

This one may seem counterintuitive, but it is incredibly effective. Doing something generous when you’re having a bad day will flip it around quickly. First of all, it forces you to look at and for abundance rather than scarcity. We often have bad days because we’re convinced that there’s not enough of something. It could be time, money, energy, support, anything. Doing something generous forces you to realize that you have enough to give and it usually stops the negativity in its tracks. Actor Christopher Reeve, who played Superman before suffering a terrible accident and becoming paralyzed, was a living testament to this. He talked about how when he was really struggling he and his wife would go do something charitable, and it would help him get out of his funk. Dealing with paralysis goes way beyond a bad day, but the principle holds in either case. Generosity builds positivity and hope; a bad day can’t survive either.

This last one has become a bit of a mantra of mine. When something happens and I feel myself slipping into a pity party or just general negativity I say to myself, “If this is the worst thing that happens to me today, I’m doing pretty well.” Most recently I used this when I got a flat tire on the way to a meeting. I was very angry at first, and I was quickly slipping into throwing my whole day away. I stopped and said this line, with some of the details filled in. “If getting a flat on my second car that is paid off on my way to a job that I won’t lose because of missing this meeting while I get the flat fixed same day is the worst thing that happens to me today, I’m doing pretty well.” Is it the day I planned? No. Is that ok? Yes. There’s a lot of great things going on.

It’s important to note here that this can slip towards comparison. I can slide into telling myself that if this is the worst thing that happens it’s supposed to be ok because someone else has it worse. Knowing someone else has it worse is usually ineffective in turning a day around, unless you then do something generous about it like swing by a food pantry and drop off some supplies. Comparisons in general tend to dispose us more towards negativity than positivity. This is about looking at the context of your life and recognizing your blessings, not looking towards the lives of others.

Discover Purpose

Discovering purpose is all about addressing the why behind what is happening. Feeling like challenges or struggles are purposeless leads right to despair. When there’s a greater purpose behind it, the whole equation changes. I generally would prefer that my ribs stay intact. I would, however, be happy to have my rib broken if it’s because someone is performing CPR and trying to save my life. The connection to purpose beyond the suffering itself changes the experience. Looking beyond the surface of our bad day to a greater purpose can often help us find relief.

Develop Discipline

Use the day to develop discipline. On a natural level, you can treat a bad day like a workout. It’s not a bad day for nothing, it’s a bad day to give me chance to practice being the person I want to be even when I don’t feel like it. It’s a chance to build endurance. A chance to develop consistency. To become stronger. When you willingly embrace the challenge of a bad day and turn it towards personal growth, we engage more parts of ourselves and often find new reserves of strength. Even if a situation is out of your control and is objectively challenging, you can always decide what it means to you and how you will use it. Even a simple bad day can become the seed of something good. If nothing else, it’s training in discipline.

Exercise Your Faith

Similar to the first, you can purpose a bad day as an exercise in faith. Developing natural discipline is great, and developing your spiritual faith is similar. One of the most profound things about the psalms is that no matter how bad it is, and there’s some pretty rough psalms in there, they all include trust in God. Let a bad day be your exercise to grow in faith. To trust God even when you’re just not feeling it. If I’m being honest, I have some goofy beliefs about God. There’s a corner of my heart that still believes that if I do things right and God really loves me that I won’t suffer. A bad day is a great way to work against that. To make the choice to recognize that God loves me even in the suffering he allows in my life. That he’s not any further from me just because I’m having a bad day, and the fact that I’m having a bad day doesn’t mean that I’ve failed him. What better chance to strengthen my faith than on a bad day?

Make the suffering your prayer.

One of the incredible things about God is that he became incarnate. He took on flesh, and walked this earth. He showed us how to live in our very bodies. And he died, revealing to us a reality about suffering that is truly miraculous. Suffering is not the end of the story. Since the resurrection, suffering is defeated. It’s not the final word. Jesus accomplished the salvation of the entire human race by his suffering, and every time we suffer we have a chance to join in his salvific work. I’m not a theologian, I can’t explain the nuts and bolts of that, but I know that our suffering can take on divine meaning and power when we make it a prayer to God. You can simply pray “Lord, please unite my suffering today with the suffering of Christ. Please use my suffering to bring grace to this world.” For the last part you can even offer your suffering for a particular intention. Knowing that whatever suffering you are facing will make a positive impact on the life of another can be a powerful way of making the whole experience a net positive. When I’ve had a rough night of sleep with the kiddos and I’m just beat before work even starts I may know for sure it’s going to be a bad day. But when I make a prayer that my suffering may help grace my own children if or when they become parents completely changes the day. Now I have a reason to push through. Making your bad day a prayer can powerfully transform your experience of it.

In all likelihood, none of these ideas is a silver bullet that will always work right away. Some may never really work for you. That’s ok, but try them all out and figure out what works best. Bad days don’t have to be just a fact of life that you have to endure. You can fight back, find the sunshine and the silver lining, or at the very least make it about something worthy to offer up for the souls of others.

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