Updated: Aug 13, 2020
Many times people want to know how to feel less sad or depressed than they do. Millions (billions?) are spent on various solutions to getting us there. If we do enough yoga. If we have the perfect meditation practice. If we add even more exercise (or just the right kind). If we eat even healthier foods (or the right method of eating). If we just think more positive or get ourselves to focus on the good things in life. If I find the right medication combination. If we just de-clutter our calendar more. If we just find more positive ways to cope. Maybe then we will finally find the secret recipe we've wanted to find to feel less depressed, sad, or overwhelmed.
To be transparent, I think all of those things are great and indeed healthy; I think they improve many people's lives. Yet, what I often see in my life and in the lives of those that I work with, is that we are trying incredibly hard just to not feel bad, or to feel ok. Let's just call it what it is though. The dirty truth many of us recognize in ourselves is that not feeling bad is not the same thing as feeling good. All of those things above are great and they will add to your quality of life, but their purpose is to enhance your life not sustain it. Generally, for most people, those things alone cannot do much more than fight off feeling totally awful when we're struggling emotionally (and sometimes not even that). So what what will truly help us feel good?
The secret to feeling good is to let yourself feel bad.
That's right. Now, read it again and ponder it for a second.
Now many people logically say in response, "well I've let myself feel bad before and all I did was feel awful before eventually continuing to fight just to feel ok again." Well, if I'm honest, anyone who said that would be correct! That's because the full sentence is actually: the secret to feeling good is to let yourself feel bad in the presence of internal empathy and validation (and external helps too!). That's just a lot harder an axiom to store in our minds than the spirit and impact of the distilled version.
How does this idea work you say? Well, many of us have felt strong negative emotion before and had the experience of someone who told us why we shouldn't feel so bad, what we should focus on instead, or generally tried to cheer us up. While well meaning, the underlying message of that behavior is: please stop feeling bad.
To take it a step further, a lot of times we don't even let ourselves go there because we repeat the responses we've received above and/or are genuinely afraid of what will happen or what we'll find. Will I ever stop feeling sad? Will the pain be too much? Will it even help? Will I become unstable? Will everyone leave if I'm that sad? I can tell you in having explored the fears of many folks that the bottom of that barrel is most often that we will end up being totally alone, totally unlovable, utterly hating our life, and/or wanting to die. Those are some scary thoughts. We know there's something deep and dark down there and we don't care to poke it or find out what it looks like. As a result, we are afraid of strong negative emotion and don't let ourselves feel it. Instead different parts of us wage wear against the part of us that is so sad to keep it from getting too sad or scary.
So while simple to understand, it's complex to let ourselves do it. To get to a place where you're ready to let yourself feel strong negative emotion while also feeling empathy and validation for what you had to go through. It is common to first need to try and deeply understand the fears that parts of us carry. Once that happens we are often more willing to let those strong negative emotions surface. Then comes the magic: letting yourself feel empathy for yourself and offer validating statements to yourself about the things you feel so sad, scared, or depressed about. Then just keep doing it until you feel better.
That last paragraph is especially hard for Americans. We pride ourselves on our hard work and toughness. This means to live up to our cultural ideal requires actually building the skill of ignoring how you feel to push through. That part of you that doesn't want to work that hard is the lazy, slovenly enemy worthy of biting criticism. If we make a mistake and can recall any moment when we relaxed and didn't produce something, we call ourselves lazy.
One tool to help find the bottom of your barrel is called Downward Arrow. Read this post to learn more about how to use when reflecting on the fears in to your efforts.
So there you go! If you can learn to let yourself feel bad with empathy and validation, you can start feeling good enough that all those other fantastic habits will enhance your life.