How To Be Miserable, Lesson 27

Putting the finishing touches on the Mental Health issue of our print magazine, and simply […]

David Zahl / 8.11.16

Putting the finishing touches on the Mental Health issue of our print magazine, and simply couldn’t wait to share an excerpt from one of the books we’re including in our list Non-Self-Help Self-Help Books. This comes from Randy J. Paterson’s recently released How to Be Miserable: 40 Strategies You Already Use, a tongue-in-cheek guide to being your own worst enemy. You’ll learn, for example, how to “filter for the negative”, “construct future hells”, and “rehearse the regrettable past.” As you can imagine, it’s all pretty much worth reprinting, but for the sake of brevity, here’s one of my favorites, the short chapter entitled:

Lesson 27: Bond with People’s Potential, Not Their Reality

Adobe Photoshop PDFOne way to ensure your own unhappiness is to form relationships with purely hypothetical people. This is not as difficult as it sounds, because you don’t have to hallucinate the flesh and blood. The raw materials are all around you, in the shapes of the people in your life.

People are inherently flawed, however. Look closely enough at your friends, your family members, your coworkers, or your partner, and you will see ample room for improvement. Almost anyone could be a bit better with a nip here, a tuck there, a change in personality, a nicer job, a spiffier haircut, an altered habit or two. it is this idealized image that you should bond with, not the person’s current manifestation.

Here‘s the strategy:

  • Find a person (male or female, but a flip of the coin makes him male for our example) whom you don’t really like all that much–at least not as he is.
  • Believe that within him you can see the raw materials of a truly wonderful person.
  • Begin a friendship or romance.
  • Fool him into believing that you are attracted to his present incarnation. not a fantasy of the future.
  • Once he’s hooked, take out your carpentry kit and get started on the renovation.

Put yourself to work caring for the person, tending to his needs, and subverting your own. Spend so much time and effort that you create a debt he can only repay by changing. Keep this accounting in your own mind, without letting him know about it. Tell yourself that the vacuum of his own contributions will eventually seep into his consciousness and, inspired by your selfless example, he will (select one): (a) give up drinking, (b) get a job, (c) go back to school, (d) learn some manners, (e) end his criminality, (f) treat you properly, (g) stop sleeping around. or (h) learn to take care of himself.

Needless to say, this will not happen. You are working from a contract he has not seen and would not sign, and you have never made the terms of the relationship clear. He will interpret your loving care as acceptance of him as he is. If anything, his motivation to change will fade, not grow. This will permit you to become resentful: here you are, slaving away for him, and he does nothing in return.


Eventually you should let the resentment boil over and, like a mayor unveiling a new statue, pull the sheet aside and reveal your true motivations in an angry rant. “I did all this only because I thought you were going to change!” He will be surprised and appalled and will react with anger. “What do you mean–I should quit drinking? You’ve been the one running to the liquor store ever since I lost my driver’s license!”

Even if you have been clear all along that you think a bit of monogamy might be fun or that drug dealing is not an ideal long-term career choice, your actions will have spoken louder than your words. You stayed. Obviously–at least in the mind of the other person–you did not really want the change all that much or you did not really expect it.

Furthermore, the time you have spent on your involuntary rehabilitation project will have enabled you to distract yourself from the issues percolating in your own life. Starved for attention, your problems will have become more pressing and intractable. This will make them more difficult to resolve and will, coincidentally, provide your friend or partner with ammunition for their defensive position. “Look at you! You’re hardly an example of perfect mental health yourself!” The person’s benign tolerance for your self-neglect will give him–or her–a rationale for not changing to suit you, and the problem can continue.

Does all this seem too taxing? You can always try out a much watered-down version in any close relationship. Try to make your spouse, child, parent, roommate, or best friend change on just a few small variables. Anything will do. The worldwide favorites are lateness versus promptness and messiness versus order.


Harangue your organizationally challenged husband to get to places on time or your overly busy wife to use the laundry hamper. Firmly refuse to change your expectations or behavior. Surely it is your spouse’s issue, not yours, so it is up to him or her to change. The fact that your spouse feels tyrannized by your enslavement to the clock or your overly fussy sense of sterility (“Oh, is Architectural Digest coming for a photo shoot?”) is only defensiveness on their part.

You could, if your standards were lower, accept your friends’ or family members’ flaws. Rather than urging them to be different, you could accommodate them:

  • Your “late” husband? You could try to make him as time conscious as you are–and fume every time you stand, drenched, waiting for him at a rainy street corner. Alternatively, you could give up and change yourself instead–perhaps by telling him that you will meet him inside the restaurant rather than out on the street.
  • Laundry is your chore, and your wife refuses to use the hamper? You could go on haranguing her to change. Or you could wash whatever you find in the hamper and ignore the bras on the floor nearby.
  • Your friend is notoriously bad with money? You could lecture him about how simple it is, or you could just refrain from making him the club treasurer.

If you were to end the power struggle, change might actually happen. Slowly. Over time. But it would not happen because of your fantasy or to suit you. indeed, by demanding that grown adults conform to your vision, you may be placing a roadblock in the way of their change, thus ensuring your misery. In order to remain autonomous, they must resist all of your efforts to reform them.

These battles will never be won, so you need not concern yourself that the brick wall, with repeat forehead strikes, will one day give way. It will go on providing you with the joys of futile effort forever. Sisyphus would be so pleased.

reprinted with permission: New Harbinger Publications, Inc.
copyright © 2016 Randy J. Paterson