Lisa Fraser offers a powerful self-help guide to dealing with the blues.
When an acquaintance passed away recently, I had to look for a condolence card. (Of the real paper type, I mean. Nothing else would do. I’m like that: old-fashioned.) After much effort, I concluded that I couldn’t find a single shop selling one within a reasonable walking distance, and I realised I would have to express my sympathy orally to the bereaved person.
Although it was more challenging, it was also more powerful, because I had to engage with the person’s feelings. It made me feel uncomfortable at first, but in the end, I also felt closer to this person.
This experience made me wonder whether anything other than positive feelings has become taboo in our modern Western society. In Eastern Orthodox society, it is not uncommon to wear black clothes for a period of forty days after a death. The same tradition persists in some rural communities in southern Italy.
But in today’s UK, we don’t really have coping mechanisms which allow people to express their grief. Is it a capitalism thing? Is there a subconscious fear that expressing anything that is not ‘fun’ will get people down and turn them away from the shops? Are we afraid feeling down will cost us our friends? Are we afraid of unhappy feelings?
The trends of store openings in London in recent years might give the beginning of an answer to these questions. American candy stores, targeting both children and adults, have taken over many historical retail flagships which collapsed during the pandemic. If you see a queue outside a brunch place over a weekend, you can guess that this place is instagrammable, with pink flowers, pink wallpapers, and pink furniture. Our Brave New World must be a sweet new world.
A fashionable Saturday night activity is to go to ball pools for adults, so they have cropped up all over the place.
I’m all for entertainment and joy. But I am puzzled to note that the market only explores one type of feeling in the whole range of human emotions: happiness. Cheer up! Or else!
I can see the importance of fun and frivolity after the tough times we’ve been through: several lockdowns, a global pandemic, and now, war in Europe. It’s a common reaction across human beings of whatever age, social status or cultural level: we are wired to minimise pain and to maximise safety, freedom and pleasure.
But throughout human history, cultures across the world have explored different ways of processing tough feelings. In antiquity, Greek tragedies pushed dark feelings to their most extreme expressions, to release tensions within the safe context of amphitheatres and maintain some form of peaceful coexistence outside of them.
The Romantic period valued nostalgia as a sign of intelligence: for instance, the cathartic virtues of Young Werther’s sad love stories helped generations of young people get over unrequited relationships. More recently, in the 1920s and 30s, horror films like Nosferatu and King Kong helped the audience expiate the fears that arose from the first World War and the financial crisis of 1929.
On the other hand, over the last few years, two theories have been trending on media and social platforms, encouraging people to focus solely on positive thoughts. The first theory, the ‘law of attraction’, was popularised by Australian TV writer and producer Rhonda Byrne in the mid-noughties. Put simply, it argues that if you really want to obtain something, you should ask the Universe to give it to you … and it will (if you ask with confidence!).
During the first lockdown, the practice of ‘manifestation’ also became trendy, saying that the best way to get what we desire is to formulate the desire ever more clearly.
These theories – to ask more and more explicitly – can be beneficial, as they help some people gain self-confidence, clarify their expectations, and take action to make their dreams come true. It is also scientifically proven that genuine optimism helps people live longer and happier lives.
To state the obvious: some negative feelings are harmful and should not be encouraged. For instance, no good comes out of excessive, endless worrying about what might happen (perhaps it won’t!), or from dwelling in sadness to the point of isolating oneself. The impact on physical and mental health of depression and a continuous state of anxiety is well documented.
Yet, complete avoidance of negative feelings, and injunctions to engage in positive thinking only, can also be damaging in the longer term. Therapists are the first to encourage patients to sit with their emotions – whether they’re joyful or not. One of the most useful lessons in life is to realise that feelings don’t just go away by ignoring them: they calm down when they’re faced.
It is not about giving more importance to pain and worries than they already have; it’s about being able to sit with ourselves. Feelings peak and go away when they’re acknowledged for what they are: a part of human nature – changeable, and (usually) manageable.
As scary as it is, ‘sitting down’ with fear or worry is a key to building self-confidence.
By allowing this process to happen, we learn we are more capable and braver than we thought. This type of inner strength can only be discovered by testing it, and using it. The more we practise, the more we build it.
Avoiding negative feelings prevents us from discovering our true self. In the short term, we avoid an unpleasant experience; but in the longer term, we miss the opportunity to discover our strength and to learn to trust in ourselves.
Often, facing negative feelings will make us question erroneous beliefs (such as “I am a failure, I’m not good enough”), and debunk exaggerated fears (“I can’t do this”). How true are these assumptions? They feel very true when they’re taken for granted – especially when they’re not checked. But they’re often untrue when we decide to assess them rationally.
A metaphor of this process is the Boggarts in the Harry Potter series: the fear of seeing a Boggart, who will take the form of our worst fear, is awful. But when the Boggart is faced, it turns out to be smoke and ether…
Although facing negative feelings is unpleasant, it can have a positive impact on our life journey by building essential skills for life – in our personal lives, work, or relationships.
I don’t want to sound trivial when saying this, but life is tough. We will fall ill; relationships break down; work contracts will end; these things happen. By focusing on fun and happiness only, modern society puts us at risk of feeling like a failure when things don’t go the way we want them to go. We need to accept that things go wrong, regardless of our inner strengths, self-confidence, and will-power. This posture of humility and acceptance will not attract bad luck, it will not piss off the Universe. It will only make it easier to deal with challenges when and as they arise.
Practising how to face distressing feelings related to small things in early life gradually helps build ‘distress tolerance’. Then, when hardships come, we’re better able to cope, react, and get back on our feet.
Furthermore, facing negative feelings can have a constructive impact by encouraging us to make decisions. Acknowledging challenges can help us understand better their origin: what is causing this feeling of distress which I so hate?
In some circumstances, understanding the root of the problem can prompt us to take action. For instance, we might invest in friendships that are fulfilling, and distance ourselves from relationships which bring us down.
Self-awareness can help us develop strategic thinking: by knowing what brings me down, I can think about choices which will guide me to happier places.
Ultimately, the aim of looking at our darkness is not to focus on our own limitations, but it can help us look forward and beyond this temporary place of sorrow. For instance, when I sit down with my anxiety, I might realise that my work environment is triggering excessive worries, and I might want to think about next steps, like applying for a new role.
Some will find it useful to meditate or pray in silence. Others will find it useful to sit down with a pen and a piece of paper, to let it all out in writing. The most important thing is our ability to discern what mechanisms are at play within us, as a first step to creating a distance between ourselves and these feelings.
Opening up to friends can also help. You’ve probably noticed how easy it is to ruminate over a problem when we’re left on our own – remember how lockdown conflated some worries which almost disappeared when finally we were allowed to hug our friends! Sharing often makes worries look smaller, and easier to face.
Avoiding tough emotions also makes us miss out on a fundamental aspect of social life: challenges often bring people together. Many friendships started in times of troubles – think about the friendship between former US President George Washington and General Henry Knox, who met during their war service.
Allowing ourselves to be vulnerable with other people also allows us to be loved for who we truly are. If we only meet our friends in fun, cool pop-stores, it’ll be harder to know if we are appreciated as an entertainer or as an individual.
True friendships should be comfortable across the whole range of human emotions.
Allowing a friend to bring their own feelings into our inner process can bring relief. They might be able to add compassion, when our inner voice is too critical or harsh. They might give us the comfort that we don’t allow ourselves to feel, if we’re a perfectionist, for instance.
Conversely, being allowed to support a friend can be deeply rewarding. Firstly, it feels good to know we’re a trusted friend. Also, holding someone’s hand as they walk through their inner storm can be a powerful lesson. We can build empathy, and learn how to connect better with other people. Schools don’t teach it; families are not always equipped to do it well; and there’s no public space where we can discuss it. Therefore, sharing feelings with friends can be a mutual gift, as we learn together to turn our darkness into light.
We’ve been created with a broad range of emotions, from sadness, fear, anger, to happiness, excitement, and many more. Embracing them, without dwelling excessively on one feeling only, is an essential part of being fully human.
At an individual level, recognising the legitimacy of the negative feelings that naturally emerge in us can help us find inner peace. It is only by facing them honestly that we can then take the next step of seeing how to channel them positively. Feelings of loss, dislike (of ourselves or others) or fear must first be acknowledged if we are to see how they can be creatively overcome or turned to the good.
Collectively, we should reclaim a space where we can express these feelings safely, and process them together – whether it’s through culture, or by participating in traditional public events. Religious feasts, like those to commemorate and pray for the dead, have served this purpose in many cultures.
We need to debunk modern myths: no, being honest with ourselves about our emotional struggles will not make the Universe angry at us or make us fail in life. It’s ok to feel sad, angry, or frustrated today … the moon will peak, and the sun will rise again. In its own time.
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