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It Feels Good to Feel Bad, and Your Friends Need to Understand Why
It's healthier to express dark emotions.
We rate each other’s sob stories.
Have you noticed?
I remember trying to tell my closest friends about my paranoid schizophrenic mom in college. When you hear all those horror stories about vampires and demons, they’re probably talking about violent schizophrenics. That’s what I was dealing with. I was living through a horror movie. I was 19. I’d been dealing with her mental illness for years, but it was getting worse.
I took that advice about being vulnerable.
Here’s what my friends said:
“Do you want your mom to read you bedtime stories or something?”
“You don’t have to talk about your problems.”
“Well, that was a lot.”
On top of that, my boyfriend dumped me. My boss threatened to fire me. The president of the outdoor club called me a whiny bitch. One of my teachers called me out in the middle of class for not paying attention. “I don’t know what’s going on with you, and I don’t want to know.”
“Just get yourself together.”
Here’s the funny part:
None of them had the first clue what was going on. They had no idea that I was living with a paranoid schizophrenic, caring for them, trying to get them to take their pills, and getting physically attacked. They didn’t know that I was having to call the police on her, watch them drag her out of the house screaming in handcuffs. They didn’t know I was spending all night in the ER, watching my brother while my dad argued with doctors or chain-smoked in the parking lot. A teenager doesn’t have the vocabulary to explain things like parentification.
My friends never got that far into the story. They stopped listening after, “I’m having problems with my mom. I need to talk about it.”
They couldn’t say, “What kind of problems?”
They gave up.
You might already know everything I’m about to say, but your family doesn’t. Your friends don’t. Your coworkers don’t. That’s the whole problem, isn’t it? Maybe you’ve struggled to explain it, and they didn’t listen.
That’s why I’m writing this.
As a society, people do a terrible job of being there for each other. They go around telling each other to smile. They ask everyone how they’re doing, and they don’t even slow down for the answer. They encourage trauma survivors to open up, but they don’t listen to them when they do. A lot of them just want to rate your sob story. They’re waiting to tell you they had it worse.
Years later, I found out my best friend from high school also had a schizophrenic mom. We never talked about it.
We were too scared.
Another one of my friends wound up losing his wife to schizophrenia. We met up and talked a few times over coffee. He had no idea that I had a schizophrenic mom. He thanked me. “You’ve been the perfect person to come to.”
I didn’t even really have to try.
I didn’t have to say much. Turns out, most of what I was doing was just listening and giving off the right facial expressions and body language. I didn’t have to say anything profound or especially comforting.
I just had to understand.
A lot of people don’t seem to get that. They focus on word performances. They try to emulate the actions of someone who cares, without caring. That doesn’t help. The real work happens on the inside. You just have to practice compassion. You have to actually imagine what someone’s telling you. You have to play it in your head, like a little movie. You can even pretend it happened to you, just for a few minutes, and think about how you’d feel. Once you do that, the words come easy. You see how insufficient the platitudes are. You understand how something as simple as “that must’ve been awful” goes a long way.
You don’t even have to think about the body language.
Turns out, that’s a lot to ask of the average person.
They don’t want to do it.
It’s too painful.
There’s a great SNL skit about this. It’s a fake commercial for a drink called “Five-Hour Empathy.” All you have to do is down a few ounces, and you’ll automatically understand what someone else is going through.
Nobody will touch it.
As Sheldon Cooper says, “It’s funny because it’s true.”
Americans have a pathological fear of feeling bad. It’s the result of conditioning over generations, going back at least a hundred years. It includes a long list of bestselling self-help books. It’s buried into maxims like FDR’s famous line, “There’s nothing to fear but fear itself.”
Well, he’s wrong.
Fear is a very rational, useful emotion. Nobody should be afraid of fear. They should understand how it works, so they can use it effectively. Look at Americans. They’re scared of everything they don’t understand. They never interrogate these fears, either. They just fake this macho confidence.
The rest of the world sees right through it.
It’s our greatest weakness.
They do the same thing with every other dark emotion, from sadness to grief. The last thing the average American wants to do is sit in a room alone with their real feelings. They call it pouting. They call it brooding.
They call it unhealthy.
When you put down those positivity books and deal with real people, you learn something. Most of them don’t want platitudes, proverbs, or maxims. They don’t want someone telling them to smile. They don’t want a lecture on the downsides of complaining. They don’t want to do superhero poses in their bedroom. They don’t want to chant affirmations into a mirror. They don’t want advice. They don’t want a gratitude jar. They don’t even want money.
They want someone to listen to them.
They want emotional validation.
Back in college, I finally did find someone who could just listen. It was the last person I ever expected. It was a pastor at a campus church I’d gone to once or twice, just because someone had invited me.
He listened. He confirmed that I was going through a lot.
He didn’t bring up Jesus, not even once.
I told him I was worried. I’d been writing for hours a day, filling up entire notebooks. I thought I was going crazy like my mom. Some of my friends even treated me like I was. One of them asked me to stop hanging out at their favorite coffee shop so much. It made them uncomfortable to see me there, even if I was just sitting alone with a cup of black coffee, scribbling down my thoughts or staring out the window. I didn’t have to say a word. My sadness could fill up a room.
“No,” he said. “That’s a good thing. You have a lot to say. Keep writing. Who knows? You might even publish some of it.”
He was right.
There’s not a lot of popular literature out there on validating negative emotions. I’ve only found two books that cover this subject. There’s Susan Cain’s Bittersweet and Whitney Goodman’s Toxic Positivity.
I love them both.
They talk about the cumulative effects of our American cultural insistence on hiding all of our pain and trauma behind smiles. They talk about the actual studies that knock down the last century of guru speak about toughing your way through depression and anxiety. Turns out, you should absolutely be exploring your negative emotions. You should be giving yourself a little time to vent and a little time to cry, even if it’s just by yourself.
You should listen to sad, angry music if you want.
You shouldn’t just keep a gratitude journal.
You should keep a diary of your negative feelings, too. Or just a list. You should scribble them down and investigate them. It’s hard, but it pays off. Study after study shows that it makes you healthier. It lowers your blood pressure. It improves your relationships. It improves your focus. It makes you more productive, not just at work, but at whatever you want to do with your life.
Time and again, psychologists have found that forcing yourself to smile or suppressing your emotions under a layer of fake positivity isn’t good for you. It might give you a very temporary mood boost.
In the long run, it destroys you.
When you suppress your emotions and repress painful memories, they always come back with a vengeance. They leak out. They burst through, sometimes when you least expect them. Maybe you’ve noticed.
I’ll tell you what I see:
People who practice superficial positivity are more likely to get upset when things don’t go their way. They’re more likely to lash out. They’re more likely to have meltdowns in the checkout line. They’re more likely to form addictions, whether it’s alcohol or video games. They say hurtful things more often. They’re more likely to bully someone, and less likely to help someone in pain. Many of them seem to think they can apologize their way out of their mistakes without any consequences, as long as they punctuate it with a smile.
Basically, they have no tools for dealing with real life.
You can probably detect a little animosity here.
I have to admit, I find these people highly irritating. They don’t listen to us when we offer an alternative method for handling negative emotions. They judge us when we try to say what we’re actually feeling. They usually respond with a palpable level of condescension. In the end, though, I want them to get help. I don’t want them to keep running around in loops of toxic positivity. It’s not good for them. It’s not good for their loved ones, either.
We need to get better at dealing with our own dark feelings. We also need to get better at being there for other people.
Of course, there’s limits.
We can’t be there for every person we’ve ever met. We’ve all scrolled past someone who was broadcasting their pain online. Maybe we were too tired after dealing with our own lives, or we’d just helped someone else. I don’t think anyone expects you to help every person you see in distress.
You simply can’t.
You can just be there for the one or two people in your life who need it. If we all did that, there’d be a lot fewer souls crying out for help on social media. Besides, most of them will tell you why they’re doing it. They asked their friends and family for help, and their friends and family turned on them. Either that, or someone told them to touch grass. It made them feel even worse.
If we stopped doing that, it would make a huge difference.
Nobody should be telling you to spill your guts at the office birthday party, either. We can file that advice under “influencer porn.” There’s clearly times and places where society deems it especially inappropriate to bear your soul, even if you can’t help yourself. Instead, we should all be making more of an intentional effort to give each other space to feel sad. We should listen to them if they need it. Like I’ve already said, it’s not that hard. It actually doesn’t require that much of us. We just have to let go of the need to make them feel better.
Most of the time, when someone tries to make us feel better, they’re not doing it for us anyway. They’re doing it for themselves. Our dark emotions make them uncomfortable. They want them to go away.
It’s the same thing when someone checks in on us, with ulterior motives. They might say they’re trying to help, but they're not. They’re policing our mood, and they’re trying to be gentle. It’s their way of saying they noticed we’re displaying inappropriate emotions, and they want us to stop.
We can always tell.
Try to explain what’s actually going on, and watch how fast they try to change the subject or end the conversation.
By my early 30s, I’d become a master of social expectations. I learned to navigate all of these traps. I convinced everyone around me that I was a smart, attractive, neurotypical young woman with a bright future.
I convinced myself, too.
Then one night I started crying in front of my new spouse. I told him I felt a giant black hole inside me. I thought I was a sociopath because I couldn’t connect with anyone. I faked most of my interactions.
I wasn’t a sociopath.
I was just hiding oceans of trauma.
So I started writing again (more than just boring academic stuff). I made more space for my dark feelings. I reconnected with my past.
Now I’m doing better.
For the last hundred years, bestselling authors and influencers have been conditioning Americans to explain away everything from bad moods to failure and even our own mortality. (Susan Cain does a great job tracing that history.) They’ve become obsessed with eternal youth and financial success, to the point that tens of millions of Americans now believe that a god or a personified universe grants their wishes, like some genie. You know, it doesn’t.
When someone comes to them for help, that’s all they have to offer. They don’t have any idea what to do with real pain. Many of them have been taught to see it as a weakness to be expelled. Some of them even get jealous when someone else gets attention for showing their soul.
I guess it makes sense. It’s such a rare thing for someone to reveal their pain and something good actually come from it. I think I can understand why it would make someone feel horrible to watch society reward someone else for making themselves vulnerable. It doesn’t happen that often.
In fact, I’ve been there myself.
We have to let go of that.
Right now, billionaires and politicians are running our society. They champion the most toxic ideologies, including this brand of positivity. It worked well for them in terms of extracting wealth and building vast financial empires, but look at their personal lives. They’re divorced. They’re estranged from their children. Some of them even talk about how lonely they are.
They’re not happy.
That’s not really comforting to hear, either. They’re confessing to us. They spent their lives torturing their employees and destroying everything around them. In the end, they’re just as miserable as everyone else.
They just hide behind fancier smiles. They console themselves the same way their customer base does, buying things. They just do it on an epic scale. They build super yachts and rocket ships to amuse themselves.
They hire girlfriends.
It’s all they know.
This toxic positivity isn’t just irritating. It doesn’t just make us miserable as individuals. It has hampered us on every level. It blocks political progress. It sabotages public health. It nurtures wealth gaps and inequality. It has done nothing for us but create a class system full of sick, angry, broke and broken trolls who go around talking about what good listeners they are, while abusing their own families and scapegoating the homeless.
It’s a horrible way to live.
It’s a horrible way to run a society, and it’s all starting to fall apart. We can do better. With whatever time the human race has left, we can at least get better at dealing with dark emotions instead of running away from them.
We have to.
If you’re like me, you probably don’t have that many people you’re comfortable opening up with. That’s fine. You don’t have to make yourself vulnerable to a living breathing human being in front of you. You can just write down what you’re feeling. You can just sit in a dark room for a little while.
We need everyone else to understand that our negative emotions aren’t the problem. It’s what everyone else expects us to do with them. It’s being told to smile all the time. It’s the way we’re treated when we open up. It’s the fact that we can’t even look sad in public without soliciting advice or judgment.
It feels good to feel bad.
It’s good for you.
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