"Pain demands to be felt." John Green
It's easier to love ourselves when life is going well. But when we're feeling less than okay, it can be difficult to summon the inner fortitude required to quiet our inner critic and treat ourselves with loving kindness. There's also a lot of pressure to feel happy all of the time. We're told to "suck it up and just move on" or "keep your chin up and push through." This attitude can make us feel as if there's something wrong with how we feel. And it encourages us to ignore whatever it is that's making us sad. Nothing gets fixed by being ignored, so I'm going to talk about how we can love ourselves even when things are hard and how to move through sadness without forcing ourselves to the other side.
Like so many things in life, the battle lies in recognizing what's really going on and being honest with ourselves about it. But try not to think of it as an obstacle to overcome. You're not a problem to be fixed. You're a gorgeous, living, breathing human being with as many sides as a faceted gemstone. Sometimes you'll sparkle and glisten, while other times you'll be draped in shadows.
And that's really the essence of self-love. It isn't the green juice, meditation, or any other act of self-care. It isn't about being a glossy, incessantly upbeat person. It's about accepting yourself, of all of yourself, unconditionally.
There's a lot of pressure to make happiness our normal state of being and it's true that through self-love, I've become a happier person. Yet there are lessons to be learned from the darkness and if we don't allow ourselves to acknowledge our feelings, even when they're uncomfortable, we'll never be able to learn them.
Even more dangerously: what we resist persists. And if we don't allow ourselves to feel our feelings, they can't flow through us and resolve. These emotions end of trapped in our bodies and in extreme cases, can result in symptoms of trauma. So by pushing down uncomfortable emotions and pretending they aren't there, we're really just leaving them to fester below the surface and bubble up at the most inopportune times.
The difficult balance comes from navigating between allowing ourselves to be sad and not wallowing in it. The key for me is to focus on what I'm thinking. Am I (as lovingly as possible) telling myself that it's okay to be sad and that things will get better, or am I giving up all hope and insisting that I'm doomed to a life of grief? I totally get stuck in the latter from time to time and it can feel impossible and suffocating. But by shifting my thoughts from hopeless to hopeful, I give myself space to feel the pain I'm experiencing while making room for happiness to re-enter my life.
“There is no point treating a depressed person as though she were just feeling sad, saying, 'There now, hang on, you'll get over it.' Sadness is more or less like a head cold- with patience, it passes. Depression is like cancer.”― Barbara Kingsolver, The Bean Trees
Sometimes, we can't seem to help but feel hopeless. I was recently asked by a friend what I see as the difference between sadness and depression. Even as someone who has struggled with regular bouts of clinical depression since early adolescence, I had a difficult time formulating an answer to her question. For me, it comes down to this: sadness is caused by external circumstances (we're having a bad day, our heart is broken, we hate our job, etc.) Even when I seem to be sad for no reason, I usually find that there's a problem I've been ignoring or all of the little things that have been piling up have resulted in a kind of malaise. Depression is deeper because it comes from within, likely as a result of our thought patterns and an imbalance of chemicals in our brains.
And there's also something more serious about depression. It's like sadness that becomes an epidemic. It inhibits our ability to fully live our lives or to see anything beyond the misery that has taken up house in our minds. Often when we're depressed we become so numb that nothing seems important or even real. This can lead to suicidal thoughts and self-harm. Even getting out of bed in the morning can feel like an impossible task.
On multiple occasions when I've entered a period of depression, I've required the assistance of medication to get out of it. Each time this was a difficult decision to make because even though I was, I didn't want to think of myself as out of control. I wanted to "fix" things all on my own. But I had to acknowledge that I had reached a crisis point and make decisions that would get me out of it. I saw medication as a short-term measure that would create the mental conditions necessary to help myself.
The tool that had the most long-term benefits for finding my way out of depression was cognitive behavioural therapy. This is an empowering form of counselling that generally takes place over a fixed number of weeks to help you change your thought patterns and provide the tools for taking control of your mental health. If you think you might be suffering from depression, please talk to your doctor or a qualified mental health worker right away. Getting help is so important and, ultimately, empowering.
And even though they're very different, cultivating self-love has been the most powerful thing I've done for changing my relationship with sadness and depression. Learning to love myself has meant that more of my days are happy ones, but also that when things are hard, I don't make them harder by being cruel to myself. I've become my own advocate and learned to navigate each day as lovingly as I can, no matter how I'm feeling.
“You cannot protect yourself from sadness without protecting yourself from happiness.” ― Jonathan Safran Foer
Sadness is inevitable. We can live in such a way that it becomes a less frequent visitor, but there are always going to be bad days. And that's okay. In fact, as I've learned to get in the flow of my cycles, I've learned to recognize the darker days as important teachers. They reveal the emotional wounds that we have yet to heal. They teach us about the parts of ourselves we try to keep hidden. They connect us to one another in times of grief. And they help us to better appreciate our happy days.
Here are some suggestions for navigating sadness with self-love and for cultivating a happier life:
- Speak up. Tell a trusted friend that you're not feeling so great and you're not sure why, or confide in them that something truly terrible has happened in your life and things seem utterly tragic. Your nearest and dearest will be able to see that you're not quite yourself. Letting them in can feel like a relief. Covering everything up with a smile is utterly exhausting, so it's usually best to open up about how you're really feeling.
- But if there are things that you're feeling that you're not ready to talk about or that you need to work through within the solitude of your own mind, journalling is my favourite outlet. Paulo Coelho said “Tears are words that need to be written" and I think that's a beautiful sentiment. Set aside at least 30 minutes and just write without trying to control what comes out. It's incredible how much insight I gain in to what is actually making me sad, as well as new perspectives that help me see the situation differently.
- Set a deadline. More than once I've seen ReeRee Rockette tweet that something sad has happened in her life and that she's giving herself 24 hours to be sad before she moves on. I'm not sure I believe it's that easy to decide when to get over something, but I do like the idea of setting a deadline on wallowing. Give yourself a certain amount of time to be absolutely miserable. Spend the whole day in bed. Listen to depressing music. Eat all of your favourite comfort foods. Watch movies that make your cry. It's okay for you to still feel sad when the time is up, but resolve that you'll start taking actions that help yourself move through the feelings.
- Immerse yourself in an activity that completely occupies your mind. Go for a run. Fix your car. Work in the garden. Sometimes we just need a bit of distraction to have a shift in perspective.
- Start a daily practice. I'm stealing this one from James Altucher. Build into your routine simple activities that take care of you on a physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual level. Your daily practice might look a lot like this or it could be completely different, but by taking yourself in these ways everyday, you'll increase your happiness and also be better prepared for handling the bad days when they do arise.
- Accomplish something. Being sad makes us feel so useless. Even crossing one tiny thing of your to-do list can make a rotten, no good, horrible, bad day seem a little bit worthwhile.
- Honour how you're feeling. Write a poem. Take an artsy self-portrait. Perform a ritual. Creative expression is incredibly cathartic and by giving voice to your emotions, you help to shift them.
- Be of service. It can be as simple as helping a friend move or you could find somewhere to start volunteering. Helping other people makes us feel good and it's a wonderful place to put our energy when we're feeling a bit lost.
No matter what, treat yourself with kindness - as much as you can muster. If you start beating yourself up for feeling unhappy, recognize that you're doing so and focus on shifting your thoughts by reframing them, thinking of something you're grateful for, or focusing on something else entirely - like a great book you read recently or a fun trip you're planning. I often find it helps to think about what I'd say to my best friend if she was in a similar situation and tell myself those things instead.
I'm so over glossy self-help that wants us to use positive affirmations to cover up our feelings and tells us that we're doing something wrong if life isn't all glitter and rainbows all the time. Avoiding our feelings is exhausting and dangerous! Feeling sad is natural and it's safe to allow yourself to feel whatever you're feeling. Even if all you can do is remind yourself of that the next time you're feeling blue, that's a powerful, radical act of kindness to yourself.
The Gifts of Imperfection by Brene Brown
Mind Over Mood by Dennis Greenberger
Second two photos via Death to Stock.