We often feel guilty for our feelings of sadness or depression.
It seems that we should be happy because we have everything we need: food, clean water, shelter and security. But feelings don’t work like that. Sadness cannot always be resolved by thinking how lucky we are, any more than a broken leg can.
Feeling guilty adds to the burden of our sadness rather than doing anything to solve it.
We feel that if only we tried harder to be happy, the despondence would go away.
We feel that if only we were more of a “positive person” we wouldn’t have these negative emotions.
We feel inadequate for failing to be upbeat all the time.
And when our attempts at blasting away sadness with positive thoughts and affirmations fail, we can feel even worse than before.
The alternative is to accept our negative moods, embrace them, see what they have to teach us and work through them until we come out of the other side, perhaps with more empathy and genuine peace and joy. When we accept that we have these emotions, we create an opportunity to heal and to learn vital lessons.
Negative feelings can help us gain valuable perspective on life.
When my husband suffered a life-threatening brain haemorrhage, the grief and fear I felt was immense. My negative feelings at this time were natural given the circumstances and, though I tried to stay positive, allowing myself to feel and express the pain was necessary.
My relationships with my family and friends became stronger because I was vulnerable with them.
I stopped pretending that everything was fine and allowed them to see my pain and to help me, physically and emotionally. I knew that I couldn’t do everything and that I needed others. And as I let them support me, I noticed that it helped them, too, giving them an opportunity to feel valuable and useful, despite the lack of control we all had over the situation.
Additionally, I gained a whole new perspective on what, and who, mattered to me.
I prayed alone in the woods for my husband to survive, and I would have given almost anything to have him home, safe and well. In these moments, I understood that so much of what I had previously worried about was inconsequential.
Of course, I am not always able to hold onto the lessons I learned now that my husband is well again. I often allow the trifling details of life to affect me more than I should. Nonetheless, I am, in a way, thankful for this negative experience because it taught me not to deny, repress or bury my feelings, but instead to feel, share and value them.
Negative feelings can teach us empathy.
If we deny our own negative feelings we tend to deny them in others, too.
Accepting our own feelings of sadness helps us to empathize with other’s pain. Without this empathy we can fail to understand another’s grief and be tempted to tell people we care about to be more positive, to cheer up or pull themselves together, rather than listening to their feelings and supporting them through difficult times.
Our negative emotions can also act as guidance, helping us work out what we want from life, who we want to be, what we care about and how to live. When we know what makes us feel bad, it becomes clearer what might make us feel good and we can begin to work towards incorporating more feel-good experiences into our lives.
Sadness and depression are painful, but when we understand that they can help us, and that things are rarely entirely negative, it can make them a little more bearable.
Having said that, negative feelings do not feel nice, so it is useful to find healthy ways to deal with them, accept them and move on. Often our negative emotions are not in proportion to the events that caused them and, though the emotions relating to tragic events may not and perhaps should not, be easily overcome, the fear and sadness we feel over smaller incidents can be acknowledged and worked through before they have a chance to bring us down for the whole day, week or more.
Overcoming negative feelings.
The first step to accepting negative emotions is to notice how they feel in your body.
Do they make you breathing shallow? Do they cause a knot in your stomach, hunched shoulders or a clenched jaw? You can help to release the physical symptoms of negativity by breathing deeply, taking a walk to burn off adrenaline caused by anxiety or fear, or massaging tension from your shoulders.
After the physical symptoms have been dealt with it becomes easier to work on the underlying emotions. Discussing them with a trusted friend or writing them down can help you work through them. Expressing your moods by creating a piece of art, dancing or working on a project that gives you joy can also be beneficial. Be gentle with yourself, listen to yourself, give the feelings a chance to be heard and speak to yourself kindly and without judgement.
This allows the emotions to be healed in a healthy way rather than denying them, burying them, or acting them out in negative ways.
When feeling the emotion, it is important not to let the mind get its teeth into the issue.
The mind can prolong upsetting feelings and add to the negativity by regurgitating past distressing emotions, catastrophizing about the future and seeing things as either good or bad rather than in more realistic, non-dualistic, shades of grey.
The mind loves to talk in absolutes such as “life is always” or “no one ever.” It also loves phrases such as ‘”t shouldn’t be this way’”or “he shouldn’t have behaved like that.”
These thoughts are not helpful as it is the mind that has decided that life “should” be a certain way—and however much we want it to, life won’t always pan out in the way our minds would like. Try to let go of these repetitive thoughts and replace them with a more balanced view about what is working and not working in your life.
Accepting our feelings of sadness is not a prescription for dwelling in misery or self pity.
It is worth examining our feelings—and the thoughts that have created them—to see if they are valid. We can then choose how to deal with these feelings, deciding whether to let them go or do something to change them.
Thinking positively and trying to cheer ourselves up by counting our blessings are undoubtedly good things to do and I’m not suggesting that we throw away the gratitude journal or any other tool that helps us to feel more joyous and content.
But I think it is okay, perhaps even vital, to think, talk or journal about what is giving us pain, too.
(Of course, feelings of sadness can be a symptom of serious depressive illnesses and anyone who finds their emotions overwhelming or out of control should consult a medical practitioner.)
Author: Kirstie Pursey
Editor: Renee Jahnke
Image: Mitya Ku-Flickr