Bad feelings are a feature, not a bug


Why positive thinking isn't always helpful or necessary

Anyone else get annoyed when someone tells you to "cheer up" when you're feeling down, or going through a rough time? 

Stop me if you've heard these ones before (or said them, we're not judging here): 

  • "There's always a silver lining"
  • "Everything happens for a reason"
  • "It could always be worse"
  • "Snap out of it" 
  • "You'd feel better if you just exercised/meditated/did yoga/ate better/prayed/etc."

It can be frustrating to hear these things even if some of them may be kind of true, because it feels like the person saying them is minimizing whatever it is you're feeling. Whether that's grief, sadness, anxiety, illness, you name it. When the folks you love (or random people who talk to you at Target) tell you some version of "Think positively!" it can be hard not to roll your eyes or maybe cry a little because all you want is for someone to really get what you're going through, or at least give you the space you need to feel the f*ck out of your feelings. 

'Bad' feelings, like anger, sadness, anxiety, grief, etc. are all totally normal feelings, that serve an important purpose for human beings moving about in the world. One of the many important functions these feelings serve is as a contrast to what we think of as pleasant feelings like love, happiness, joy, and so on. You don't know how wonderful joy can be if you've never experienced sorrow. Negative feelings also allow us an important opportunity (should we choose to accept it) to really process what's going on in our heads and hearts, and work through some shit. Lord knows we all have some to work through. These feelings are a part of the human condition, not a hindrance to it. Stuffing those feelings down and pretending they don't exist, or someone asking you to do that, is not only unnecessary, but also unhelpful in the long run, and liable to backfire. 

So that's good news, but it's also a mixed bag (see me not putting a 100% positive spin on this?). It's a mixed bag because you can let yourself off the hook from basically just needing to pretend you're fine all the time (spoiler alert: you're not), but now what the heck are you supposed to do? You've been told since forever that to feel better, you needed to think positively, and eventually you'd be happier (magically, like you're a wizard). Sometimes it might have even worked. But if you know deep down it mostly doesn't work, and you're trying to be better about acknowledging and respecting your own feelings and working through them, now what are you supposed to do to feel better when you're having a tough time? 

Try gratitude and gentleness (with yourself). 

You know what's cool about being grateful? Gratitude doesn't require that you pretend everything is super great to be able to appreciate it. And no, you don't have to 'be grateful' for things like cancer (which should be a given but some people take even gratitude a bit too far), but you can choose small things to be grateful for, even on some pretty tough days. Sometimes it's just coffee. And sometimes it's that you have a roof over your head and a family who loves you. Sometimes it's how your dog always lets you snuggle with him and call him names other than his actual name. Could be anything. Start with just one thing, then see how many other things you can be grateful for. The nice thing about this approach is that there is no reason that bad feelings and gratitude can't co-exist! You can work through your not-so-great feels in your own time, while you give yourself the leeway to feel good about something. Something big, something small, doesn't matter. Gratitude helps to ground us when the bad seems to outweigh the good. While you're doing all that, be gentle with yourself, even when other people may not understand. Seek out those who are supportive of you and what you're going through.

And most importantly, don't let other people consciously or unconsciously bully you out of your feelings when they preach a 'positive thoughts only' approach. Negative feelings are part of the human experience as well (which is not always easy), and they're a feature, not a bug.