The second rule of my happiness journey was, "Don't be Positive. Be Honest."* Somewhere along the line, many of us seem to have become trapped in the tyranny of positivity. Some of us feel that we have to put a positive face on for the world, for our children, our families, or our place of employment. Some of us interpreted the benefits of positive thinking taught by self-help gurus and the Law of Attraction alike to mean that we must always be positive to have the life we want to live. Others have different reasons. Whatever our rationale for being positive is, the habit is harmful to our mental health. The trouble with repressing emotions is, it's not a selective process. You cannot practice avoiding unpleasant emotions and expect to feel the pleasant ones.
By denying ourselves sorrow, we also deny ourselves joy.
Imagine if you were in a relationship with someone who constantly gaslit you and refused to acknowledge your feelings as ever being valid or real. Imagine that this person always insisted that you put a brave face on and never allowed you to cry or feel sad. Imagine that whenever you did feel sad, lonely, hurt, or any other emotion that this person didn't approve of, that they would tell you that your feelings were stupid. Imagine you had to spend your entire life with this person, that there was no escaping them, that they would be with you until the day that you died. How miserable would you be? Now realize that person I just described is you.
No matter what, we will spend the rest of our lives in the most important relationship of our life, the one we have with ourselves.
Knowing this, the best thing we can do for our happiness is to improve our relationship with ourselves. If we are treating ourselves in a way we would not want to be treated by another, how can we be anything but miserable? Only when we can be our own best friends and allies can we find the peace and happiness we've been searching for. A true best friend would love and accept us no matter how we were feeling. They would comfort us when sad, help us find an outlet when angry, and truly celebrate our joys with us. If we are to be our own best friends, we must do the same.
Be honest about your feelings.
The first step in making peace with yourself is to be honest about your feelings. Take a moment to stop and tune into yourself. Place your hand over your heart and listen to your own breathing. Ask yourself, "what am I feeling right now?" Whatever the answer is, accept it. Acknowledge the feeling as valid. As I said in last week's post, there are no negative emotions, only those we don't know how to be friends with. Each emotion serves a purpose and each deserves to be felt.
Treat all of your emotions with kindness and respect. Imagine that each of your feelings was a separate entity, much like in the movie Inside Out. Imagine that each emotion is a visitor, a friend who comes to spend time with you. Some may be quiet, and others are loud, but each has come to spend time with you. Ask yourself how you would want to be treated, and treat your emotions in the same way.
As strange as this practice may sound, the benefit of this is that it helps you accept each feeling without judging yourself and it also allows you to reframe the experience of feeling those emotions. Instead of identifying with them, you are being visited by them. You are not sadness, you are with sadness. Or as Tyler Durden might have said, "You are not your f@cking khakis."
And it's true. You are not your emotions. Say it with me. No matter how long you have felt anything for or identified with it, it is still an emotion and not who you are as a person. And no matter how eternal any emotion may seem, none of them lasts forever. Or as Eric Draven would say, "It can't rain all the time." Most of our upset about our emotions is related to our need to regulate them without allowing ourselves to experience them. We spend so much time trying to control our feelings that we often belittle and abuse ourselves for being human. What if you took the radical step of allowing yourself to feel whatever it is you feel?
Feelings want to be felt.
Each of us has a motivation in this world, a purpose behind the things that we do. Emotions have a purpose for visiting us too. Simply put, emotions wish to be felt. Feeling is a healing practice, it is the means by which our mental and emotional systems process our experiences. Unprocessed emotions don't ever really go away when we repress them. They stay with us beneath the surface resulting in a myriad of challenges such as trauma, depression, anxiety, and even health issues.
Emotions are like mail. They will show up, fairly regularly, sometimes unpredictably, and even without your involvement. Being upset about them arriving doesn't stop their arrival, nor does it do anything about the mail. You can ignore the mail if you like. You can leave it in the box, but it will pile up and cause a jam at the very least. You can bring it inside and leave it in piles, but then you'll just move houses with three boxes labelled paperwork (trust me, I've tried that). The truth is, ignoring things never really makes them go away. You might not see them anymore, certainly, you can overlook those three boxes until it's time to move again, but they'll still be there waiting for you. Only by unpacking and processing do we get to unload the mountain of baggage we've been carrying around for so long.
What if, instead of denying your emotions, you began the practice of welcoming them in as friends, acknowledging them, and then asking them what it is they are trying to tell you? What if you asked what message, lesson or gift this emotion has brought you? Perhaps then you would find yourself ready to say goodbye and to finally let the emotion go.
Each emotion that you feel has a gift behind it. Grief over the passing of a loved one and moments lost can teach us the power of being present and enjoying life more than we ever did before. Fear can give us the adrenaline boost we need to overcome obstacles or push past adversity. Anger can show us where we need to set boundaries, or even show us where we are scared. And once the emotions are felt they're not nearly as scary as they once seemed.
As familiar and comfortable as our self-imposed misery may seem, if we are to heal our unhappiness, we need to feel safe in feeling all of our feelings. In my personal life, I have found the power of this simple process has dramatically changed the way I feel about my life. Before, when unpleasant emotions began to arise, I would belittle and blame myself for feeling less than love. I would wonder what was wrong with me, and fight the feeling with a barrage of exercises designed to alter my feelings to a more rose-coloured perspective. It never quite worked. I was always left feeling bereft and depressed; like my life was a trap I would never escape. In allowing myself to experience the broad spectrum of emotions, I have found freedom.
So to recap, the steps to freedom are:
- Be honest about your feelings
- Treat every feeling like an old friend
- Ask what you can learn
- Let it go
This is part two of a continuing examination of happiness. If you missed part one, you can find it here. Tune in next week when we will be discussing the practice of acceptance.
Don't be Positive. Be Honest.
What is your experience of sitting with your emotions and being honest? What are your reasons for not being honest?
*If you'd like to follow along, I recommend picking up a copy of Be Happy: release the power of happiness in YOU by Robert Holden, PhD. Also, look into the works of Matt Kahn. Most of my happiness realizations have come from a synthesis of the teachings of these two brilliantly insightful gentlemen.