Common wisdom has it that we should be always endeavouring to remove negative thoughts and feelings from our lives. Look at any inspirational memes, websites, etc. It’s all about gratitude and banishing negativity. Talk to friends or family about your daily complaints and you’re likely to hear how either a) their life is worse so you should be grateful, b) someone else’s life is worse so you should be grateful, c) you have all these great things going for you, so be grateful and focus on those things instead. And then there’s the even tougher love “suck it up, buttercup, nobody said life was fair” kind of stuff.
Hate your job? You’re lucky to have a job.
Tired all the time? Well somebody else has cancer so be grateful you’re just tired.
Spouse getting on your nerves? At least you have somebody in your life.
Kids driving you nuts? Be grateful, some people aren’t able to have kids.
You get the picture. Negativity is to be banished, and we must focus on the positive instead. Although I’m not sure exactly what you say to the person who has cancer, can’t conceive, is going through a horrible divorce or just lost their job — but I guarantee you that people going through those things have been told to look for the silver lining or the universal lesson in their awful experience.
Gratitude is amazing and I’m all for practicing it. Striving to stay positive in the face of adversity is a great strategy.
And I think that you should probably also get right in there and wallow around in your misery. Because denying your feelings and trying to cover them up with gratitude might just be a little bit bad for your health.
I’m currently reading Women, Food and God by Geneen Roth. For me, one of the big takeaways from this book is that feelings only want to be accepted and embraced. And that the story that we’re telling ourselves in our heads is always worse than just embracing the actual feelings.
We want to push these so-called bad feelings away for a variety of reasons, ranging from social conditioning that we should always be positive to fear that if we actual go into these feelings, they will break us, and we will never get out.
The thing is though, that we’re not especially good at just ignoring these feelings. Being grateful that you have a job doesn’t automatically turn your hatred for that job into love. So what do you do with this dichotomy? You should be grateful to have a job, and yet you still hate it (which is okay, by the way — you can be grateful for something and wish it were different at the same time). Generally, what humans do is seek out ways to numb or stuff down the bad feeling, and amplify good feelings. That inevitably leads to things like compulsive eating, boozing it up, drugs, spending money we don’t have — name your poison. And that leads to guilt and shame and embarrassment, which are more feelings we don’t want to feel, so more eating, booze and stuff to cover them up. It’s a ride that’s tough to get off once you’re on it.
So, if it’s true that feelings just want to be accepted and embraced, what would happen if we just did that. If we just sat back and said “welcome, sadness (anger, outrage, grief, shame, exhaustion, pain)”. Would we fall into a pit of despair and not be able to get out?
Maybe not, I think. I’ve been experimenting with this lately. Normally, my response to negative feelings (in myself anyway) is the tough love, “suck it up” attitude. Your life is fine, I tell myself. Just get over it, and get on with it. It turns out that for me, in order to suck it up, I have to, literally, suck stuff up, so I typically eat ALL THE THINGS. Feel a little twinge of a bad feeling coming on? Eat the stale cookies in the cabinet, even though you don’t like those cookies when they’re fresh. I’ve been afraid to let myself feel the bad stuff, for a variety of reasons, chief amongst them lately the fear that I will be stuck in the pit of despair for an extended period of time.
But, I decided I would try the embrace the bad stuff approach. And weirdly, it was fine. Good even. In fact, I think that I felt better more quickly than I do when I try to cover up the bad stuff with gratitude and just get on with it mottos (and food). I was actually able to get back to being truly grateful quicker.
So I urge you to try wallowing in the bad stuff. (By the way, if you look up the definition of “wallow”, you will find definitions like “to spend time experiencing or enjoying something without making any effort to change your situation, feelings, etc.” Enjoying sadness. How awesome is that?). If you’re concerned about falling into the endless pit, like I was, you might find the following helpful:
- Set a time limit. But be realistic — don’t give yourself an hour to wallow in something big, or a week to wallow in something inconsequential. And be flexible with your time limit. If you need more time, take it. My experience — when I truly let myself wallow, I didn’t need the entire time I had given myself for it.
- Don’t judge the feelings or try to change them. Be curious and open. Observe. Geneen has some guidelines for a practice of inquiry in Women, Food and God that can help with this.
- Write it down. Sometimes writing things out really makes them concrete, and creates a physical exit for those feelings. They leave your body through your fingers as you write.
- Speaking of your body, connect with it. Where in your body do you feel the feelings? What do they feel like in your body? Be specific.
- Enlist help (the right kind of help). Tell a supportive friend or family member what you intend to do, and how they can help (for example, by checking in with you when your wallowing time is up, by being your guide during the inquiry process, by just listening to your feelings without judgement or advice). Or work with a coach or therapist to guide you. Sometimes a third party can ask just the right questions to facilitate the process.
If you’re an experienced wallower, or you decide to try this out, I’d love to know how it works for you.
Photo credit: Ryan McGuire