Happy or Sad?

“Stop talking about the things that are bothering you so much.”

― Esther Hicks

“Don’t avoid sadness; rest in it, experience it.” — a friend

There is a tension between the two types of advice that gurus, psychologists and friends give you. Have you noticed? On the one hand, people will tell you not to avoid sadness and anger, but to stay in those feelings even when they are very uncomfortable. On the other hand, your are advised to think positive, to focus on raising your vibration, to be happy so that good things will come to you.

How do you reconcile those seemingly conflicting approaches to emotions?

Let’s talk about how they are both right, both can be overdone, and what a balance might look like.

If you suppress negative feelings and don’t process the causes of those feelings, they can burst out in terrible ways. The classic example is passively accepting abuse from you boss and then going home and kicking your dog. Don’t do that.

But if you dwell forever in sadness, it can feed on itself and cloud your view of reality. Other people’s happiness can offend you; you start to think that everyone is in denial. Sadness becomes like a drug. Don’t wallow. That’s just, well, sad.

If you spend time every day focusing on gratitude and expecting good things to come, you will generally have a happier experience in life. But what happens when something makes you sad? Should you ignore it? Should you let yourself be sad for a set amount of time?

That’s a trick question, because nothing makes you sad. You can naturally become sad in response to something, but that something isn’t in control of your emotions, you are. That doesn’t mean that the feeling aren’t real or important. Sadness is there to teach us something. Sadness is there to ask us to pause and reflect in order to grow in life. I ascribe to the theory of Nonviolent Communication (NVC). NVC proposes that we have feelings because needs are either being met or not being met. Therefore, the feelings are valuable in that they help us to recognize what we need. Here’s an example:

You come home from visiting your parents and the house is a mess. Your housemate had a party and didn’t clean up. And look, your favorite plant was knocked over and the dirt spilled out. You feel angry and sad. Your housemate didn’t make you have these feelings — if you didn’t care about messes or plants you wouldn’t feel negative emotions even though the actions of your housemate were exactly the same. No, you feel angry and sad because a couple of your needs aren’t being met. Instead of surrendering to those feelings and acting out, or lashing out, you can use them as teachers. They can help you learn something about your needs.

Ask yourself why you are feeling the emotions. Don’t short-circuit the discovery by answering, “because my roommate’s an asshole.” That’s not it. You may have a need to live in a peaceful sanctuary, away from chaos. If that’s the case, the answer may be, “I feel angry because my need for safety isn’t being met.” And as for your your plant, “I feel sad because my need to keep this being I love alive and safe isn’t being met.” Maybe that’s not it exactly, but you get the idea. The emotions are there to focus you in on what needs aren’t being met. When you’re clear about that, you can address the problem constructively. You can confront your housemate without forcing them into a defensive posture. Instead of saying, “You’re an uncaring slob!” You can say something to the effect of, “I feel angry when I come home and see this mess because my need for order and safety isn’t being met. And I feel sad when I find my houseplant knocked over because my need to care for the plant isn’t being met. Would you please clean up the common areas the same night as your parties and please fix my plant if you see it’s knocked over?”

That language may sound stilted, but it addresses the root of a problem that your emotions drew your attention to. Now they no longer serve any purpose. Now you can release them. You didn’t ignore or suppress them; you welcomed them as teachers. If they are hanging around when they are no longer useful, you can use simple tools to realign yourself with positive emotions. One tool is to make a quick inventory of things you are grateful for, including your negative emotions for helping you to understand your needs.

Yes, there is tension between the advise to allow yourself to feel sad and the advice to always be happy in order to bring more happiness. To be truly happy, rather than deny negative feelings, step back and figure out what they are telling you, use that wisdom, and move on with life’s adventure.

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Essays, stories & poetry about OCD, culture and society, by Eric

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Essays, stories & poetry about OCD, culture and society, by Eric

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