It’s OK to feel sad (or angry)

“Don’t cry, it’ll be OK”, “calm down, there’s no need to be upset”, “chill out/get over it”. Did you hear these and similar sentiments growing up? As parents, we discourage our children from tantrums, sadness and anger. I can’t tell you how much time my daughter spent in the naughty corner (thanks to the powerful influence of the Super Nanny). Did she stay on it? No. Was it frustrating for both of us? Yes.

As we move through school and we are developing a sense of how and where we fit in society, expressions of negativity are discouraged and often punished (time out, the naughty corner, detention). When we get to the work force we are expected to be professional, positive and friendly at all times. Fair enough – happy people are easy to be around. But what about the legitimacy of experiencing all emotions?

Naturalist Charles Darwin believed that emotions are adaptations that allow humans and animals to survive and reproduce. An emotion is a strong feeling deriving from a person’s given circumstances, mood, or relationships with others and so can certainly be a handy tool for ensuring survival. For example, when we are angry, we are more charged up to confront the source of our irritation. When we experience fear, we are more likely to flee the threat. When we feel love, we might seek out a mate and reproduce. Emotions serve an adaptive role in our lives by motivating us to act quickly and take actions that will maximize our chances of survival and success. All of them are necessary.

So, what happens when we don’t allow ourselves to express all of our emotions? For some, they will experience deeper emotional impact, which for others it may end up expressing physiologically.

We know there is a place for sadness, anger, regret, frustration, jealousy, irritability, but there is often an unwillingness to open up and be vulnerable amongst a sea of Instagram stars who never have an off day and Facebook friends who are constantly having life-changing adventures. I believe it’s time to explore what is appropriate and safe so that we can share our true emotions without the fear of rejection or disapproval. If you are unable to express your true feelings, you may, over time, feel a deeper expression of those emotions. Sadness may, if left unattended, turn to feelings of rejection, not being loved, isolation, fear, anxiety. Anger, left unquestioned, may become hatred, rage and end up expressing physiologically as an illness.

To be willing to explore your true emotions is not so much a sign of weakness, but rather one of emotional intelligence, in which you are able to understand and move through the feelings. Emotional Intelligence refers to people’s ability to monitor their own and other people’s emotional states and to use this information to act wisely in relationships. There are five parts to Emotional Intelligence:

  1. Self-awareness: recognizing internal feelings
  2. Managing emotions: finding ways to handle emotions that are appropriate to the situation
  3. Motivation: using self-control to channel emotions toward a goal
  4. Empathy: understanding the emotional perspective of other people
  5. Handling relationships: using personal information and information about others to handle social relationships and to develop interpersonal skills (1)
Matthew Cooksey is a coach and mentor who specialises in elevating gay leaders to inspire and lead others. Currently writing his first book, “You’re Not As Emotionally Intelligent As You Think You Are”, he says “emotional intelligence is best measured by the degree to which you welcome painful emotional states, just like you embrace burning thighs at the gym! Ever embraced anger or grief or sadness like that?”
What do you think? Have you ever embraced the so-called negative emotions? Have you found comfort in sitting inside sadness and simply noticing it? Have you tried to see yourself in a situation where you notice irritability and felt compassion for yourself in that moment?
Psychology Today explains that when experiencing these deeper emotions, “an integral component of being able to cope with emotions is the practice of self-compasson, which is simply treating and responding to yourself the way you would a loved one who was sad or struggling. You deserve to extend to yourself the same kindness that you would to others that you love. Beating yourself up for feeling sad, anxious, or scared often serves to make you feel even worse. Instead, work to say kind and gentle things to yourself and engage in compassionate acts of self-care.”
Further, they explain that “Experiencing your emotions and being vulnerable with the people that you trust is a sign of true strength, not a weakness. Ultimately, the way to heal and move through painful experiences is to let yourself feel. You can do this by writing in a journal, through artwork, talking to a friend, or seeking help from a therapist—there are so many healthy ways to process your emotions.”
Could it be true that all emotions are actually equal and it’s only our human story that gives them their ‘goodness’ or ‘badness’? What if frustration is in fact as beneficial as joy. Perhaps frustration drives you to make change, brings about a sense of awareness in yourself, helps you understand what your true values are (because of what ‘triggers’ you). Perhaps frustration is the catalyst for change and progress.
I invite you, the next time you notice an undercurrent of a negative emotion (or a ‘socially unacceptable’ emotion) to simply notice it. Notice how it feels in your body, pay attention to what your innate response is, and then move towards that model of compassion or investigation. If you are not in a conducive environment, perhaps revisit the emotion/feeling when you’re in the right place.

Feel all emotions – that is a part of the human experience.

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