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2020 hit me hard—as it did so many people.
By December, I was at a cracking point and ready to shift out of anxiety and depression related to a number of compounding stressors.
Many of us may spend our lives seeking pleasure and happiness, which I’m going to argue is our natural state. This article is not about avoiding or suppressing painful emotions. It is not about toxic positivity, which that pushes “good vibes only” or “just think positive”—no ma’am!
As a clinical mental health therapist, my focus is centered around how to fully experience painful emotions and cope with them effectively. Because when we avoid painful emotions, we also inadvertently start avoiding positive ones. If we want to be able to fully experience joy and love, we have to learn how to experience pain.
There are no “bad” emotions. I repeat, there are no “bad” emotions.
We are hardwired to feel them all (around ten core emotions) and they’re programmed into our nervous system for a reason. Yes, even anger, guilt, shame, sadness, envy, and jealousy. They each give us important signals—if they fit the facts of a situation and aren’t triggered by assumptions, interpretations or judgments—but I digress.
We need anger to set our limits, defend, and protect ourselves. We need sadness to turn us inward to tend to something or reach out for support. We need envy to fuel us towards things we want to have in our lives, and shame to fit in with groups who align with our core values. We may want to double check whether shame is justified in a specific situation because often times it isn’t. We need guilt to prompt us to repair when we’ve crossed our values, and jealousy to keep and protect what is ours if it’s threatened.
I’ve probably opened a Pandora’s box of questions—which we’re not going to get into in this article. I want to highlight that my focus on joy is not to negate other important and valid emotions, which all have their time and place. Hopefully, you’ll want to come back and learn more over time about handling uncomfortable and difficult emotions effectively.
But in this article, the theme is joy.
All the heaviness I experienced in 2020, had me breaking open to this small thought (after months of fear, anger, deep grief, and sadness)—I just want to feel happy.
Joy is our birthright.
Buddhism teaches us that joy is our natural state. How can we experience joy though, in a world that is full of pain?
I’ve been a hopeful and optimistic person my whole life, and I’ve been labeled naive and foolish for those traits. Being blonde doesn’t help with that stereotype either, and honestly there’s times where I’ve felt self-conscious when expressing hope and joy, due to the way many people react to it. As I’ve gained wisdom, I now understand how holding joy, in spite of what others may think or the state of the world, is critical.
In many ways, it can be an act of rebellion—and I love rebels.
During my launch of Modern Mindfulness, I shared my upbringing in a conservative religious family. I often reflect on how people wish their life away—for the next moment or the next life—when they can finally be happy. It’s easy to slip into cynicism about the world and get an escapist mindset, which religion and a relentless pursuit of “enlightenment” can often offer. This can happen when we don’t know how to cope effectively with painful emotions.
This makes me feel sad because we are living now. We are not meant to suffer through this life and keep joy always over the next horizon.
I can’t discuss experiencing joy without addressing the topic of empathy.
Our brains have neurons called ‘mirror neurons’ which scientists believe play a role in empathy. When we see others hurting or happy, these neurons fire and create a mirror experience within us.
This also translates to the experience of Vicarious Traumatization which happens when we witness other people’s pain or trauma. It causes a ripple effect of trauma. When people are overexposed to painful emotions and trauma, they can harden resulting in a lack of empathy. This can also be due to lacking the skillset for managing painful emotions. This is why I’m so passionate about helping people manage their emotions during this critical point in history—we must not harden and lose our empathy.
I get it, sometimes it would be great to flip the switch off. For my fellow empaths who feel this in a more heightened state, the struggle is real (full blown empath here). Ever since I was a kid, I could feel the pain of animals and humans alike—viscerally. When I first learned about animal abuse, I screamed bloody murder in the car, and almost made my dad and brother go deaf! Thankfully, my graduate degree taught me a skillset to reduce the absorption of other’s pain and emotions, and now I can be more helpful.
So, how do we maintain joy, in spite of the pain we experience and witness in life?
My answer is simply this: radically embrace joy—despite all odds—by refusing to ignore the beauty of life, refusing to brush aside the progress, and the love that pervades in the world.
Here are 7 practical tips for bringing more joy into your life:
1. Reduce your news consumption (or at least balance it with equally positive news). I realize it’s important to stay informed on current events, and play an active role in bettering the world (I will always be a social worker at heart), however a lot of broadcasted news can be negative news. It is presented in a sensationalist way to evoke attention and emotional response. This is why it’s important to consume news/media mindfully.
2. Get outside more. Research shows that time in nature benefits mental health. It lowers blood pressure, and is soothing and grounding.
3. Practice gratitude. This one goes around a lot, and that’s because there’s science behind it. Shifting our focus on the things that are going well, the things we do have, and what we feel joyful for, can ease our experience of stress, depression, and anxiety. Keep a list of things you’re thankful for, add them up, and review them often.
4. Practice mindfulness. A big part of mindfulness is about getting into your five senses: we’re getting out of the thinking mind and into the being mind. When you’re eating a meal, savor it fully. Do one thing at a time so you can place all your attention on savoring that thing. Smell the roses—no really, smell the roses. Joy cannot be present without a healthy dose of surrender as well. We can mindfully practice this by letting go of attachment to outcomes.
5. Practice dialectical thinking. In short, this practice means acknowledging that opposite things can both be true at the same time. Life isn’t “all happy” and it’s also not “all sad.” Acknowledging the positives does not negate acknowledging painful things that need to be solved. We can experience both, and one does not subtract from the other.
6. Give yourself permission to experience joy. For the empaths, tagging on to dialectics, your joy does not negate the suffering of others. Remember those mirror neurons. Your joy adds a ripple effect into the world that can benefit others. You don’t have to feel everyone’s pain at the same time.
7. Live life according to your values. One key tip I will mention here is to ensure your values are yours and not someone else’s that were taught to you. There are many different values and each person is entitled to their own. When we live in alignment with our values it brings a feeling of satisfaction. If you value learning new things, make time for that. If you value travel, do more of it. If you value friendships, nurture them. If you value giving back, volunteer.
We need to practice these tips. Just “knowing” something without following through with action, doesn’t help. We have to throw ourselves in—all the way.
One of the pivotal (and literal) jumps I took to wrap up 2020, in order to reclaim some happiness and joy in the face of fear, anger, loss, and sadness was, I went skydiving! It was on my bucket list for a long time. I needed to send a big F-You to 2020 while fully embracing surrender, and releasing fear.
And while this isn’t a recommendation to take a big risk, it is an invitation to join the rebellion and claim joy in your life—in spite of it all.