Dr. Lisa Oefinger
You Don't Need to Be Positive
External pressures to feel happy, better, positive, or just different are everywhere. “Be grateful for what you have.” “Keep calm and carry on.” “Find the silver lining.” These messages seem especially prevalent as we muddle through pandemic life. Although, if I’m being honest, these messages bombarded us even when “corona” was primarily associated with a lime.
Attempts to avoid negative emotions make a lot of sense. Nobody wants to feel sad, scared, or angry for too long. Wouldn’t it be nice to just forget about those pesky negative feelings and “look on the bright side”? Or “stop dwelling on the negative”? The problem is that our emotions regularly refuse to cooperate with this plan. And, as human beings, we tend to get into trouble when we try to split off or ignore difficult emotions rather than experience them. When we do this, our feelings tend to bubble up in unexpected ways. Maybe this looks like irritability? Maybe this looks like difficulties sleeping? Maybe this looks like withdrawal? And maybe it looks like something else completely.
Splitting off painful emotions does not make them go away, but it can make connecting with others harder. While we may worry that others will reject us for expressing our negative feelings, in fact, quite the opposite is true. Meaningful relationships develop from authentic expressions of self – and not just the happy bits of self, but also our “rougher” (human) reactions. When we express vulnerabilities, we allow others to know the real us. It is in this space that true connection can happen.
Psychological health does not look like unadulterated joy. Instead, it looks like emotional integration. This means a willingness to recognize and experience the full range of human emotions (happiness, sadness, fear, anger, surprise, and disgust), even the hard ones. Today, like all days, there is a lot to feel angry, sad, worried, or overwhelmed about. So, when you come across one of those unpleasant emotions…
Notice it. Allow it to be present (“sadness is here”). Trust yourself to be feeling exactly the way you’re supposed to be feeling. There isn’t another, better way that you should be feeling.
Feel the sensations. Where is your body holding the energy? Is your chest tightening up? Is your stomach flipping? Is your jaw tight? Is it something else? What are these sensations telling you?
Breathe into the sensations. Allow yourself to feel the feelings (not just think about the feelings). Let your body metabolize the emotional energy.
Reach out for help when you need it. Life can be really painful. If feeling the hard feelings becomes too hard, get support. Call a friend. Talk to your family. Find a therapist. Do what you need to do to care for yourself as you work through it. As wisely stated by Robert Frost, “the best way out is always through.”