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When Something A Bit Rubbish Happens

Posted 18 Apr '13 by Bay Whitaker

Whether it’s an argument with a friend, an embarrassing mistake at work, losing something you really wanted to keep, or being hurt by accident… when something a bit rubbish happens to us, it usually takes some time for us to process the experience.  It would be nice if we could just ‘get over it’ immediately, forget that it happened and move onto the next thing.  Some people, some of the time, will be able to do this. 

But often when something unpleasant has happened, we find ourselves replaying the events, thinking about what we might have said or done differently.  This is part of our way of processing the experience.  Sometimes it feels as if we can’t help but go over what happened again and again, even though doing so brings up feelings of anger, upset, embarrassment, anxiety, or other distressing emotions.

A 3-Step Guide to processing negative experience

If after a few days or even weeks, you find that you are still thinking about what happened, you may like to try this 3-step exercise of writing about it in a more organised way.  Doing this will help get the thoughts out of your head, put in a kind of order, and moving towards resolution.   This simple approach should help you process the experience in a way that separates out the facts, feelings and implications of whatever has happened.


Beginning at the beginning, describe what happened, purely in terms of the facts, as you remember them.   You don’t need to go into lots of detail – try to write out what happened in simple terms, perhaps as bullet points or just a few sentences.  Resist the temptation to add interpretation or comment to this part of the telling.  You will be doing this in the next two steps.


The next step is to go through your writing and for each of the facts or events that you have written, now list what you felt when that happened.  Try and include words that name emotions, (e.g. ‘embarrassed’, ‘scared’, ‘angry’, ‘sad’).  Depending on how complex the events were, you may have had just one feeling about it, or there may have been different feelings that emerged as you went through the experience.   When you have done this, think about what you feel now, as you tell the narrative.  Write this down too – it may be that you feel the same now about it as when it happened, or the feelings may be a bit different.


Now think about the implications of what has happened.  In the aftermath, did it affect any of your choices afterwards, such as whether to avoid particular people or situations?  Did it affect how you see yourself, or how you see other people or situations?  Did what happened remind you of any other situation, real or fictional?  Write down these thoughts.  Finally, think about these implications as they stand for you at the present.  Have some of them receded?  Are some of them still affecting your choices, or the way you think? 


Give yourself permission to let the thoughts you have written down just sit with you.  You don’t have to come to any decisions or do anything.  Having ordered your thoughts into this 3-step model, you  may find you feel more able to discuss what happened with others, or just to put the event behind you.  At the very least, the act of writing should have helped you see your thoughts and emotions in a fresh way.
And finally, before you start…

Remember, this is an exercise in therapeutic writing.  That means that the only purpose in the writing is to help you understand yourself better.  Take time out alone to do this writing, it may only take 15 minutes or it may take longer.  Nobody else need ever see what you write, and so you don’t need to worry about spelling, grammar, or writing things in an elegant or tactful way.  Just write from the heart and let the words or phrases emerge.  

This exercise is adapted from Herbert and Wetmore: Overcoming Traumatic Stress