I think most of us know people who seem to be eternally happy, loving life, are exuberant, always seeking ways to have fun. Sounds kind of ideal, doesn’t it? And yet it turns out that any of us who want to live lives where we strive to only feel happy, joyful and upbeat actually are going against the balance that is needed to be emotionally healthy. We need to allow ourselves to experience some of the opposite kinds of feelings; sadness, loss, grief, despair and other feelings often seen as negative.
It turns out those kinds of feelings and accompanying behaviors are essential for us to fully feel and be able to express our true and complete selves. “Feeling bad has a purpose,” say authors John W James and Russell Friedman in the book When Children Grieve: for Adults to Help Children Deal with Death, Divorce, Pet Loss, Moving, and Other Losses.”
The authors go on to say, “If you believe in the magnificent design of humans, then you must accept the fact that in order to have the capacity to feel happiness or joy, you must also be able to experience sadness or pain…Any attempt to bypass sad, painful, or negative emotions can and will have disastrous consequences. One tragic byproduct of the legacy of the simple phrase, ‘Don’t feel bad,’ is that it often leads to a much worse cliché, ‘don’t feel.’ This can all eventually lead to moving from ‘don’t feel bad’ to ‘don’t feel at all.’”
Please note that while this book’s focus is on children and their grief, the principles and messages many of us received in childhood may continue to haunt us, including this message about not feeling badly when we grieve and to advise others to not feel badly. The toxicity of these messages has a very wide reach.
Messages that parents sometimes transmit: “If you’re going to cry, go to your room.” An even stronger message: “Knockoff that crying or I’ll give you a reason to cry.” The authors say that, “You can understand what this might do to children’s sense of trust: to be told, when they’re having a normal and natural emotional reaction to a life event, that it is not okay to have that feeling. Don’t feel bad, and if you insist on having that feeling, by gosh, we don’t want to see it so go to your room and grieve alone.”
Authors Jean Illsley Clarke and Connie Dawson in their outstanding parenting book Growing Up Again provide very specific messages that children need to receive based on the age and stage they are in. From birth to six months one message they need to hear (meaning how they experience how the adults in their lives treat them) is, “You can feel all of your feelings.” Children who are from six months to 18 months need to hear, “You can know what you know.” Children from 18 months to three years need to learn several messages about thinking and feeling such as, “You can think and feel at the same time.” Implicit in all these messages is the bigger message that all feelings need to be felt, accepted and embraced. The authors also include in each section “Clues to a Need for Adults to Grow up Again,” meaning if as a young child you did not receive the healthy messages about feeling all your feelings, there are indicators that you are still wounded by the unhealthy messages you received as a child that can prevent you from accepting all of your feelings and the feelings of your children, including sadness and grief.
If we grew up learning that sad feelings are bad, how do we respond to our children or other family members or friends who express sadness, hurt, grief, despair or other such feelings? We need to show, not only in our words but also in our affect, and our willingness to love and accept them, just the way they are in that moment. We need to avoid messages that communicate we are uncomfortable with their sadness, that they should express those feelings in private or that we need them to move on and stop grieving. We need to show compassion and a willingness to remain with them with no judgment or criticism. As I have shared in other blogs, learning the gift of Active Listening is a wonderful skill that allows us to genuinely hear what someone is experiencing and to acknowledge and accept it without judgment or attempts to solve whatever difficulties they are facing.
I think this excerpt from Winnie the Pooh that someone posted on Facebook captures this message:
“Today was a Difficult Day,” said Pooh.
There was a pause.
“Do you want to talk about it?” asked Piglet.
“No,” said Pooh after a bit. “No, I don’t think I do.”
“That’s okay,” said Piglet, and he came and sat beside his friend.
“What are you doing?” asked Pooh.
“Nothing, really,” said Piglet. “Only, I know what Difficult Days are like. I quite often don’t feel like talking about it on my Difficult Days either.
“But goodness,” continued Piglet, “Difficult Days are so much easier when you know you’ve got someone there for you. And I’ll always be here for you, Pooh.”
And as Pooh sat there, working through in his head his Difficult Day, while the solid, reliable Piglet sat next to him quietly, swinging his little legs…he thought that his best friend had never been more right.”
Note that the Bible is clear about how we need to have both joy and grief: Ecclesiastes 3:1-8, King James Version
3 To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven:
4 A time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance
Invitation for Reflection
- What messages did you receive about sadness you experienced when you were a child? To what extent did you learn that your happy feelings were accepted and that you needed to hide your sad ones?
- How do you react when someone you care about experiences sadness and grief? Can you feel yourself being pulled to try to change how they are feeling?
- What beliefs and messages do you need to work on to improve the ways to respond to sadness and grief for yourself and others?