Alright, I know already by the title some of you might be shaking your head and worried this will be a down in the dumps kind of post but it’s not, so please just hear me out.
There is a lot of focus in our society on positivity. It’s been a popular trend, prompted I think by more discussions about mental health, particularly depression, anxiety, and general wellness, which is a good thing. I am very glad that we are starting to talk more openly about the importance of mental health and well-being and therefore reducing some of the stigma surrounding these topics. But I think what’s unfortunate is that positivity or having a positive attitude has sort of been sold to us as the solution to all of life’s problems and to attaining mental wellness.
Practicing positivity and gratitude, or finding a more positive perspective can be helpful. It is true that the more we practice gratitude and positivity the more our brains become wired to see the world that way. The more you practice a habit the more it comes naturally. And positivity is a great coping mechanism to deal with many of life’s daily stresses and stumbles. It can help us to shake off a bad day and see our life in a more balanced way.
We are told things like, find the silver lining, practice gratitude daily, count your blessings, and choose happiness or joy. And yes, sure do all of those things, BUT there is more to mental health and well-being than just always being positive. Especially when it comes to grief.
When you are grieving a loss, any kind of loss including but not limited to death, it’s not enough to just be positive. Because no matter how much positivity you try to throw at that loss and your feelings of pain, it won’t erase the pain, and it won’t even lessen it.
In my experience, you can’t lessen the pain of grief. There isn’t a solution to it or anything that really gets rid of it. It seems to be the kind of thing that you just have to move through, you have to let it out and let it happen. You have to feel it in its full form and power. It doesn’t really go away either, it shifts, changes, and becomes less intense, but usually doesn’t go away completely.
I feel like part of our society’s obsession with positivity is a general discomfort with other more difficult emotions. No one likes to feel sad or pain, it’s unpleasant. On top of that, because we can’t just easily remove other people’s pain and sadness, when we are confronted with another’s pain it can make us feel like we are powerless to help them. And when we feel powerless, we feel uncomfortable. On top of it being unpleasant and unsolvable grief is often complex, whereas happiness is fairly simple, easy to summarize and identify.
In addition to a profound discomfort, I think our society is afraid of emotions like sadness and grief because they can be unproductive. It is easier to keep people productive if they are feeling positive and happy, these feelings usually lead to increased motivation and willingness to work, whereas sadness is more likely to make you want to lay in bed all day. (Check out my article on productivity)
So in response to those discomforts, and fears around productivity, we are told not to feel those negative emotions and instead to try to feel positive in the face of pain. This creates a more comfortable dynamic for others, but a very problematic situation for those experiencing the pain. Especially when it comes to true deep profound sadness of which there is a lot in life. And if you don’t know what I mean yet count yourself lucky, and someday you probably will. That’s not a negative statement, just a fact of life.
What I really want to emphasize is that you are allowed to be sad, to wallow, to sob, feel blue, to fall apart. You are allowed to just feel negative, in fact it is normal to feel negative when you are dealing with grief and the big struggles in life. You don’t need to be positive all the time. You can be a puddle (one of my favourite descriptions of experiencing grief).
Grieving is often thought of as ugly in that it doesn’t have the simple, bright, palatable appeal of happiness. It isn’t fun or simple. It can unpredictable. But it is incredibly important to allow it in order to fully accept the hardships that life inevitably includes. We can’t just wash away life’s struggles with simple positive catchphrases or gratitude practices. We have to face it head on, let it wash over us, and feel the pain. Pain is human, it’s normal, and it’s okay.
Once we have allowed ourselves to fall apart, positivity can help us to rebuild but it cannot be where we start or how we only respond to pain.
There is also a beauty and a depth to grief that I think often gets dismissed. There is something profoundly alive about feeling pain, loss, and grief. Often some of our most life changing experiences revolve around grief and these usually lead to more meaningful growth, and experiences of life. It is often in our loss that we more deeply understand what matters to us and how much we care for one another. It can lead to our most inspired creations and thoughts. I challenge you to not shy away from your grief and pain, don’t bury it in positive affirmations, but instead to experience it, to explore it.
Lastly, you can take comfort knowing that nothing stays the same and no feeling lasts forever. We may always have pieces of pain and grief in parts of our hearts, but it won’t always feel so entirely consuming. We don’t have to force it out or try to replace it with happiness because it will leave on it’s own, or it will change. So let it come, be with it, don’t be afraid, know your pain, and then let it go. Your happiness will bloom again in time.
Disclaimer: I am not a medical professional or psychotherapist. If you think you are experiencing depression, anxiety, or prolonged grief that is seriously disrupting your life please seek professional assistance. While these experiences are normal, seeking professional support can be important to working through it and feeling better.