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People seek help for all sorts of problems. But at a basic level, most people who seek help are unhappy or feeling bad about something in their life. They want to figure out a way to live a life that is more satisfying and meaningful.

In this blog post, I want to talk about three questions to ask yourself when you are feeling bad. These questions have been helpful for me in deciding what problems to focus on and what problems I might be able to accept or let go. My hope is these questions will be helpful to you as you navigate your life and the inevitable problems that come along the way.

Question #1: Did Something Bad Actually Happen?

The first question to ask yourself when you are feeling bad is whether something bad actually happened. This may seem like a silly question, but it’s really important. The point here is that a lot of bad things happen in this world. People get sick and die. Children are neglected and abused. Adults lose their jobs and can’t find work. Families don’t have enough to eat. The list goes on.

Often when we feel bad, it’s because something bad has happened to us. But sometimes we feel bad even though our lives are going well (or at least average). We might feel bad because we have set up unrealistic expectations for ourselves that are impossible to meet. We might feel bad because we are going through a normal life transition like having our kids going off to college. We might feel bad because we are dealing with things everyone has to go through, such as our bodies changing as we age. If you are feeling bad even when nothing bad has actually happened, you might be creating your own pain. The pain is real, and it may feel intense. But it may not be linked to something in your life that you need to change or deal with. It may be something you need to accept or let go.

Question #2: Is It Happening Right Now?

The second question to ask yourself when you are feeling bad is whether the bad thing is happening right now, or whether it is in the past or the future. If the bad thing is happening right now, that’s good, usually we can do something about it. However, if the bad thing happened in the past, it’s often not worth feeling bad about it. I know people who have punished themselves over and over again for something they have done years ago. When have you given yourself enough punishment? Where is the justice in carrying around a heavy burden of guilt and shame for years and years? If the bad thing happened in the past, it may be something you need to accept or let go.

On the other hand, if the bad thing might happen in the future, well, it actually hasn’t happened yet. Perhaps there is something you can do to plan for your future so the bad thing is less likely to happen. But feeling anxious about something that may not happen usually isn’t worth it.

Question #3: Can You Control It?

The third question to ask yourself when you are feeling bad is whether you can control the bad thing. Do you have the power to change your situation? If you do, that’s awesome! It’s time to get to work. You don’t have to do it alone. There are many opportunities to get help. You could look online for a book that addresses your problem. You could see a counselor. You could hire a coach. You could take a class. Pick one of these options and go for it.

However, there are some situations in which we don’t have any control. Perhaps our adult children are making a mess of their lives, and won’t listen to our offers for help. Maybe your spouse divorced you and as much as you tried to reconcile with them, they just aren’t coming back. If you don’t have control over the situation, it’s a losing battle to try to do a lot of things to fix the problem. It’s like banging your head against the wall. It might be something you need to accept or let go.

Action Step

The next time you are feeling unhappy about something, ask yourself these 3 questions. Did something bad happen? Is it happening right now? Can you control it? Write down your answers to these questions. A big part of happiness is learning to differentiate when you need to act and when you need to accept. These questions can help you navigate down the right path, and save some grief in the process.