We live in a society where depression and anxiety are on the rise, yet so is the movement for “positive thinking.” Indeed, pop psychology, social media, and slogan merchandise tells us that all we need to do is stop worrying, think positive thoughts, and paste on a smile. On the surface, it seems harmless enough. Of course, we all know people who think the world is out to get them and tend to give up before they get started, thinking things won’t work out. Always assuming the worst and dwelling on the negative is just as harmful. But, to grow, you have to stop denying yourself and others the right to sometimes feel negative emotions.
I am sure I speak for many when I say that there’s nothing worse, when facing a truly difficult situation in life, to have someone tell you that you just need to cheer up. We’re told by society that we owe the world a smile, to show anything else means that we’re failing somehow. Sometimes we need a listening ear, not to have our feelings dismissed.
In college, my psychology professor commented during a lecture that melancholy has all but disappeared from our modern world. Artists and writers of the past often channeled that emotion as a lens for their creativity. Embracing the bittersweetness of life gave them perspective and helped them revere the beauty around them. In positivity culture, there’s no room for that mild sadness without a direct and solvable cause. Shake it off, paste on a smile, post a selfie. Don’t sit with it, ponder over the cause, or find its beauty.
The idea of labeling our emotions as good or bad is a mistake in the first place. We experience a range of emotions in our lives and each one is valuable. Of course, some may be more pleasurable than others, but they all can teach us something. What brings us real, genuine contentment? What makes us feel guilty, uncomfortable, depressed? Tuning in to those emotional responses can help us become more in touch with ourselves. If your job makes you feel exhausted, stressed, and ethically compromised, don’t paper over it with a slogan tee-shirt and a smile. Explore why it makes you feel that way and consider taking action to make a change.
You may feel guilty that you aren’t happier about your life. You can recognize that others are struggling in ways that you aren’t, which may make you feel compelled to hide any so-called negative emotions. Maybe you have a dream job and everyone expects you to feel amazing every day because of it. So you want to downplay the pressure you feel from it so as not to be seen as ungrateful. Parents of new babies can often feel exhausted and overwhelmed but may feel fear about expressing those emotions, worrying that people may see that as a lack of love for their child or their unfitness as parents.
Instead of pretending everything is great and allowing your stress and resentment to build up, what if we all got real for a moment now and then? Complaining constantly and only looking at the negative won’t help either, but finding a balance between being honest about the less than amazing things in our lives while still being grateful for what we have can help you and others. Saying something like, “You know, I’m really grateful for this job/baby/opportunity, but I am finding it challenging to cope with…” is a really healthy exercise. And expressing it to others in a similar situation can open a floodgate of support. Likely, others feel the same way, but may also be cowed into pretending everything is perfect.
An outpouring of encouragement can come when people are honest about the way they’re feeling. Not everyone will be willing to take part in this exercise in honesty, so choose your audience wisely. If you listen without trying to solve or diminish the problems of others, they will be more likely to listen to you without judgment as well. Seeing that others also struggle to keep up an Instagram-perfect facade will make you feel less alone. It can also deepen your friendships, making them less about competing to look the happiest and more about supporting each other and sharing.
Forcing yourself to hide and suppress your emotions is a disaster waiting to happen. It prevents you from fully experiencing your life, learning from your emotional responses, and allowing yourself a deeper form of connection with others. Life is a bumpy road that inevitably has some low points. Being honest with yourself and finding friends you can share with during difficulties will help make the journey a little more rich and enjoyable.