When I was a teenager, and of pretty low emotional intelligence, I had a habit of doing blatantly anti-social things. For example, if I were walking home from school with my friends, and I felt like they didn’t value my presence there (read: they didn’t pay enough attention to me), I would slow down my walking speed, and silently depart from the group. I did this because I got myself to believe that they didn’t want me there. Nothing they said or did was actually to imply this, but I believed it nonetheless. In retrospect, what was happening was that I was sad. Simple as. But then what happened was that I failed to understand my own sadness, and in turn fed it. Without conscious intention, I fueled own sadness by extrapolating my own, incorrect, perceptions of how my friends felt about me. This caused me to lose a lot of friends.
To quote this one line from the TV show, Fairly Odd Parents, that’s forever stuck in my head, “It’s okay to feel sad sometimes.” Everyone experiences sadness. It’s just a part of the human condition. An inevitability. The problem a lot of people face, though, is that we’re not really taught how to truly handle sadness. Like, we may, or may not, be taught that crying is okay. Some of us are taught that yelling and hitting are okay. And others are taught that drinking or drugs are the best way to deal with it. As I reach my late twenties, what I’m seeing is that it’s around this time people are learning about the concept of “feeling your feelings”.
A key detail about feeling your feelings is accepting, knowing, and internalizing the idea that you are not your emotions. Sadness comes, and sadness goes. Anger comes, and anger goes. When you’re feeling down, that’s okay! You’re allowed to feel down. It’s okay to be sad sometimes. What’s important is knowing that this feeling will go away, and you’ll feel better again eventually. This too shall pass.
Focusing on Sadness
A concept that I’m not against per se, though it reaches into the darker waters, is the idea of focusing on the sadness. I believe that, to a point, introspecting on why you’re sad can be a good thing. Maybe bad things keep happening to you, and you don’t know why. Introspection could possibly lead you to a better understanding of your situation. It could reveal what’s causing things to go wrong, or a new idea on how to better handle things in the future. To spend some time analyzing the sadness can, in theory, be a good things.
Making Yourself Sad
Herein lies the problem, and herein lies my problem. You can notice and accept a feeling. You can introspect, and try to learn more about the feeling. But if you ruminate on a feeling for too long, it’s an incredibly slippery slope to making yourself sad. Once this problem begins, it can be an insurmountable task to stop it.
Consider my story at the beginning. My friends weren’t being mean. They weren’t telling me they didn’t like me. In fact, I now know that they really did like me. They really did miss me when I would disappear. In the moment though, I was making myself sad. I couldn’t accept the emotions I felt, and try as I might, I couldn’t analyze my way out of them. As I dug deeper and deeper into why I felt this way, I began to tell myself stories. Stories that would explain why I felt so sad. And these stories were complete works of fiction. I created the story that my friends walked faster than me because they didn’t want me up front talking with them. I created the story that if I were to just disappear, no one would notice. They did notice.
To this day, even as I write this, I still tell myself stories. I understand the process now, and I can better identify when it’s happening, but that doesn’t stop my brain from doing it. And once the story has been created, it’s of little help to acknowledge that it’s just a story. Often times, once the story is created, the brain has already accepted it as reality. The work then becomes to convince and to prove to yourself, to myself, that the story you believe is false. Without any conscious intent, I’ve created a lie that, not only do I believe, but is also actively making my life worse.
Telling A Better Story
There’s an idea in philosophy, that I can’t place right now which school of thought, that our life is a story that we tell ourselves. The “problem” in life then becomes telling ourselves a good story. How we tell the story is both affected by, and affects, how we feel our feelings. When I feel sad, I could tell myself the story of “I may be sad now, but it’s okay. What’s causing this is temporary, and I will overcome this. Things will be better soon.” This would be telling myself a good story. On the other hand, I could feel that sadness, and tell myself, “They did this to you on purpose. They wanted you to hurt. You deserved this. Why else would they do this?”
Telling yourself a better story shouldn’t come at the price of naivety and willful ignorance, but can be an incredible tool for improving the quality of your own life. Mind you, I’m not delusional. Telling yourself a better story won’t make you rich. It won’t suddenly fix all your problems. What it can do, though, is give you better perspective on life, and that in turn may help your material conditions. The struggle, though, is that it’s something you have to do. Something I need to do.