I recently embarked upon a happiness journey*. The first rule of the journey was, "Don't be Perfect. Be Real." This is the story of finding beauty in realness. You see, for a very long time (or at least five years that I am consciously aware of) my vision of happiness has been built upon a tyranny of positivity.
I thought that mental health and happiness could be forced; that if I focused upon them with stubborn persistence that eventually I would simply wear them into my neural pathways. Needless to say, it didn't work. Life happened, as life does, and my manufactured happiness fell apart at the seams. Sure, I had managed to construct a lifeboat that kept me clinging to safety (most days), but the anchor of my own obsession with perfection was still weighing me down. I stopped writing in my blog, convinced that I was a charlatan who knew nothing about personal growth, mental health or happiness. I talked myself out of projects, art making, and most of the things that were making me happiest. I didn't feel like I deserved them.
A year later, I feel pulled back to the keyboard and compelled to write to you. Because I have to wonder if there aren't others out there who share those misguided ideas too. Certainly, if you've been following along at home, you might have gotten those ideas from this very blog. This is the beginning of my efforts to address that. I will be editing old posts and writing updates to old topics as well as creating new ones with the wisdom I have gained in my journey.
Lesson One: Happiness is not denial.
Prior to this journey, I imagined that happiness (and success) were a life lived like an endless montage of vision boards where everyone is smiling and there is never anything but love and light. I thought I could summon happiness like a D&D spell, that if I focused on gratitude and positivity that I would be happy and my life would magically change. But I wasn't and it didn't. Sure, I was grateful for the first half an hour to two hours of my morning, but eventually, I had to leave my room. And all of my habitual unhappiness would return, just like stepping out of the shower into a mud pit. But because I was so busy focusing on being "positive" that I didn't realize I was standing in the mud of unprocessed emotions.
In order for me to have a positive focus, I had to name and categorize all of my emotions according to my perception of their usefulness. For there to be positive, there also had to be negative. Like many of us, I assigned certain emotions a negative value (anger, depression, guilt, sorrow, shame, grief, etc.) and structured my emotional "diet" around the avoidance of negative emotions and the repression of them with positive ones. I thought I could achieve a superhuman state of perpetual positivity where no negative emotions ever occurred. Of course, it didn't really work. The trouble with emotions is that although you can repress or suppress them, they only go away once they are acknowledged. You can't get over, go around, or avoid emotions. You can only go through them.
Lesson two: There are no negative emotions.
There are no negative emotions, only ones we don't know how to process or deal with. All emotions serve a purpose. They function as barometers and compasses; providing valuable feedback about our inner world and thoughts. For example, consider fear. Fear of true danger (fires, heights, predators) can keep us safe by warning us away from situations or providing adrenaline to help us react quickly. Fear of imagined danger can be a valuable clue to situations that challenge our ego by forcing us out of our comfort zone and into growth. Every emotion has a lesson for us if we are willing to learn it.
When I let go of my positivity and tuned into my real emotions, I discovered I was profoundly depressed. And that felt like failure because I was assigning a negative value to my depression. It was something I needed to fight and do battle with. It was only when I stopped fighting and sat with my depression and listened to it that I understood I didn't know what happiness was. My depression was sadness, a sorrow at being unable to live up to my own impossible expectations and never being allowed to actually feel what I felt. I had been judging my own experience and gaslighting myself for so long that it felt like I was trapped in an abusive relationship I could never escape. Depression was a mask I was placing over ten thousand other feelings I had been stuffing down for so long I didn't know what to call them. I found anger, sorrow, bitterness, frustration, and so many others. But in sitting with each of them, I also found peace and hope.
The first day that I allowed myself to leave my morning exercise feeling angry instead of "positive" was a happy one. I had been living in low-key misery with a thin plaster of positivity on top for so long that feeling a genuine emotion was a relief. I was angry, and it was OK. When whatever emotion I was feeling was greeted with equanimity, the sense of suffering that had previously accompanied them was lifted. And as a result, every day since then has been happier too. Even when I have experienced loss and grief, the beauty of allowing myself to experience that has been profound.
When we face our emotions and greet them as teachers and friends, the discomfort of them fades and is quickly replaced with wisdom. When we run from our feelings and treat them as enemies, we miss powerful opportunities to redirect our lives.
Don't be perfect. Be real.
What is your experience of emotions? Do you allow and appreciate all of them, or do you label and limit them? Comment and let me know, I'd love to hear your story! And be sure to tune in next week when we will be discussing the practice of accepting and allowing our emotions and some steps we can take to do so.
*If you would like to follow along, I recommend picking up a copy of Be Happy: release the power of happiness in you by Robert Holden, PhD.