Many years ago, I navigated through a particularly rough time as a divorced mother of 2 young children. I juggled time for my kids, a full-time job, a social life, and a tough money situation. At some point, I felt so overwhelmed and miserable I decided to talk to a psychotherapist about my unbearable unhappiness.
“Of course you feel terribly unhappy,” she said. “You’re going through bad times. But it’s not unbearable. You’re bearing it.”
At first, I was glad she agreed I had a good reason to be unhappy. But then I begged her, “Please tell me what to do so I don’t feel this way.”
“You need to let yourself feel your unhappiness,” she said. “Sit with it. Breathe into it. Let it have its natural life.” (This is what mindfulness is about — noticing your mental, emotional and physical states and letting them be.)
That’s not what I wanted to hear. “But…” I began to protest.
“If you let yourself feel the unhappiness,” my therapist interrupted, “It will go away faster. Trying to run away from it makes it last longer.”
I was curious. The next time I felt so desperately unhappy I curled up into a ball in a corner of my kitchen floor and cried into my hands. (I made sure the kids weren’t home when I did this so I wouldn’t scare them.)
In under 5 minutes, the crying stopped. There’s just so much crying you can do if you’re putting your whole self into it. It gets boring. When people tell me they can cry for hours, I tell them to put a timer on. You have to work hard to make it last longer. Of course, if you keep running away from it, you’ll have connected crying bouts.
At the end of my brief crying episode in the kitchen, I stood up, wiped my tears, fixed my hair and makeup, and cleaned the dishes. My therapist was right. Letting myself feel my unhappiness was freeing. I moved through the rest of my day, a weight lifted. The next time I felt that way, I knew exactly what to do.
Don’t confuse common unhappiness with clinical depression, however. Depression is an emotional state characterized by a prolonged lack of energy and an inability to function in every day life. That type of hopelessness should be addressed with a mental health professional.
But clinical depression aside, it’s healthy, common, and okay to sometimes be overwhelmed, unhappy, and lonely. Life can be unpredictable and unfair. Honor yourself by letting you feel your feelings.
And don’t forget to let other people feel their unhappiness. The best you can do for them is to tell them you’re there with them and you’re listening.
Being unhappy when bad things happen reminds us we’re alive. How else would we know that life was glorious and thrilling unless we had something to contrast it with?
Yeah, I know. I’ll take happy over unhappy any time.