I’ve always had a tendency to dream big—really big.

As I child and teen I spent a lot of time daydreaming about (what many would consider) unattainable things. You know those thoughts—those inspired, imagination filled moments when you are winning an Oscar or an Olympic medal or becoming a dancer at the Paris Opera Ballet, and you’re just certain that your future holds something exactly that exciting in store for you. For me, these were some pretty tall ambitions considering I don’t act, I don’t play a sport, and I dropped out of ballet class after first grade.

While I never actually did any of these particular things, my tendency to imagine the best possible scenario is, admittedly, still something I can’t quite shake. And I’m not sure I want to. After all, there are plenty of times in my life when all this dreamy optimism has served me well in. Without it, for example, I probably wouldn’t have (once upon a time) uprooted myself and moved 3,194 miles from home without so much as two pennies to rub together—and, at the very worst moment of my life, no less.

Dreaming big pushes me forward, gets me moving, and keeps me excited about the future and all its unknown possibilities. But a rich fantasy life also has a dark side. Being a dreamer also tends to make me a little extremely hard on myself when I find that whatever real-life situation I actually find myself in is less than ground-breaking.

I’m still berating myself, for example, for deciding on a career in publishing in my twenties, and not finding my way into that swanky Manhattan publishing house where—as editor-extraordinaire—I would discover the next Harry Potter series (seriously, that didn’t happen?). Nor did I become a 12-year-old fashion prodigy successfully running an acclaimed clothing line (this actually did happen—but to someone else). And I certainly am not the fabulous young mompreneur who was all over morning TV a couple of years ago making a splash manufacturing healthy French fries in a dozen flavors (wait—I might still be working on that one).

Last week, I talked a little bit about success and how society views those who attain it—and, by contrast, how it views those who don’t (not, at least, in the outward sense). But what I realize now—after a harsh week thinking about the things I haven’t done and comparing that to what other people have done—is that we are actually much harder on ourselves than society is on us.

Comparing ourselves to the endless barrage of success stories we constantly hear is, of course, a big mistake. I know this, but that doesn’t mean that I’m not susceptible to doing it on occasion. In fact, most people are. The important thing is knowing how to come out the other side of optimism gone wrong. Here’s what I suggest:

  1. Recognize your bad mood for what it is. Quite simply, it’s just a bad mood—and that’s it. The negativity will pass. The thoughts resulting from this mood are not a reflection of who you are, what your level of competence is, or the current state of your life. You’re not on the wrong track—you’re just feeling surly at this particular moment.
  2. Find your muse. We all have something that inspires us and lifts us to a higher place. Maybe it’s spirituality, a favorite author, an inspirational speaker or writer you love, a favorite movie or songs, or a good friend. Surround yourself with these things as much as possible, and you are sure to shorten the duration of your funk substantially. It’s almost impossible to feel bad about yourself when surrounded by your favorite things (at least, not for very long).
  3. Be grateful.  Take a few minutes to stop and think about everything in your life (present or past) that you are thankful for. I can’t stress this one enough—these are the thoughts you are putting out there into the world so make them good ones. If it helps you focus, make a list. And when you are done (if you’re feeling really brave), make another list of all the ways you might have helped someone or made another person’s life better in the past year.
  4. Serve others. This is, perhaps, the fastest way to regain a higher perspective on your true purpose in the world. By doing for someone else, you remove yourself from your own troubles and allow yourself to connect with a fellow human. This most often leads to…joy.

Bad mood, be gone!