In my last post, I spoke about stories, and how we all have sets of stories that form our sense of identity. The social researcher and best-selling author, Brené Brown, also likes to talk about stories. She reckons it takes courage to own your story.
It takes more courage to be vulnerable and own your story, than it does to hide away in shame. It involves standing in your truth, examining your story, making necessary changes, and sometimes it involves sitting with discomfort and pain.
Last night, I watched the Disney Pixar movie ‘Inside Out’ for the first time. It was an awesome film! It highlighted the importance of validating your own (and others’) feelings, no matter how uncomfortable, sad, painful or awkward they may be. All of our feelings serve a purpose. We can’t always be “joyful”, and that’s ok! Forcing yourself to be positive and happy in response to events or situations that incite feelings of sadness is likely to result in more sadness, anger, frustration and ultimately, denial of your emotions.
In dialectical behaviour therapy, when we talk about regulating emotions, we firstly educate clients on getting to know their primary emotions. People who have difficulty regulating their emotions have usually experienced some form of invalidation in their life. That is, someone important in the person’s life has potentially criticised them, disapproved of them, invalidated their feelings, invalidated their story, or invalidated how they see the world. In the film, there are five primary emotions – joy, sadness, fear, disgust and anger. Sometimes people add in a sixth: surprise. Primary emotions are the first emotion a person feels consequent to an event. These primary emotions are often then masked by secondary emotions. The interesting thing about secondary emotions is that they are emotions we have in response to a primary emotion not being recognised or expressed. So, when we, or others, invalidate our primary feelings by denying them, judging them, criticising them or shaming them, we then move on to secondary emotions. Secondary emotions are longer lasting and profoundly more intense. For example, say you were a child and you felt sad and your primary caregiver consistently got angry with you for being sad, you may have then started to judge yourself for being sad. A story was created. The story isn’t necessarily true or valid, but the story continues on into adulthood. The story tells you that it’s not okay to be sad. So you mask the sadness, and you also try anything to escape the intensity and discomfort of the secondary feeling. Perhaps you start drinking, gambling, self-harming… it’s a bullshit story, but it sticks.
Oftentimes, people deny that sadness serves a purpose. You see people’s social media feeds these days, and it’s like a highlights reel of their life. “Be positive!” “Smile!” “Be happy!” people say in response to someone who is slouching their shoulders or looking glum. The result is a culture where we are taught that it’s not ok to be angry, sad or disgusted. “Stop being so negative!” people say, or “Cheer up!” When we respond to sadness with joy, we create a culture of invalidation, and it’s so unhealthy!
Of course, that’s not to say that being clinically depressed is ok or normal, and that we should just validate this profound feeling of sadness and move on. No, that’s not what it’s about. But why can’t we sit with them alongside their sadness for a little while? Why can’t we feel their feelings, and in turn allow them to feel their feelings too? Yes, it’s uncomfortable and sometimes even painful… but it’s also an appropriate and healthy human response.
What’s to say we can’t accept them for where they are right now, and still strive to work toward change and improvement? What’s to say that we can’t validate a person’s sadness, but also help them to move on to a place of joy? It’s not a contradiction; it’s the middle ground. And doesn’t have to be black and white. Why should it be? Life isn’t black or white; it’s all shades of grey.
So, how about instead of conforming to a culture of invalidation and shame we embrace all of our feelings? ‘Cos they all serve a purpose.