I was in a yoga class the other day, and the teacher said, “You can choose how you feel.”
As I stood there in my Warrior 2 with my gaze locked over my right hand, I thought, YES, TODAY I could choose how to feel. I was in a good mood, and I could flip my weekend to-do-list anxiety into an opportunity to be grateful to have enough money to go buy our groceries, to have a working washing machine and dryer, to have a body strong enough to carry the laundry basket, and to have a husband who was willing and able to cook our family dinner that night.
I could choose to flip any stresses into gratitude.
YES, TODAY was a typical day for me with a positive mindset, and I could choose not to get too frustrated with my kids for not putting their dishes in the dishwasher or for any other relatively small inconvenience to my day. I could choose to make things “teachable moments.”
Or, I could get triggered and feel disproportionately anxious and frustrated. However, I would NOT be choosing this feeling.
Herein lies my issue with well-intentioned sentiments such as “Choose Joy!” and “Choose Happy!”
While one of the “Choose. . .” clichés circulating social media could inspire one person to stop and smell the roses or make a positive mental shift, it can cause someone else battling with PTSD, depression, grief and/or anxiety, to feel downright guilty that they aren’t currently feeling joyful, happy or outwardly grateful.
I typically make efforts to be positive, grateful and joyful for all my many blessings. However, after being slapped with PTSD and feeling out of myself and sad and irritable and unsocial, every time I saw one of those clichés during this period I felt absolutely. . . worse. I wanted to be happy and joyful and grateful. I did NOT want to feel any of these emotions that typically were not in me, but I could. Not. CHOOSE. Anything. Else.
The reality of it is that science has shown us that if you do have PTSD, depression or any other mental health challenge that your brain and body physically change. It’s not just in your head. The book The Body Keeps The Score by Bessel van der Kolk, M.D. helped me understand exactly what happens to the brain and body due to trauma. Hormone levels change. Blood pressure changes. The incidence of illness and disease increases. The changes are so widespread and on such a micro-level that a sticky note on the mirror with “Choose Joy!” is unlikely going to be able to flip it. In fact, Dr. van der Kolk makes a strong argument why talk therapy should be only one part of your healing.
Healing also requires physical movement, nature, meditation, and probably professional help.
So, when you see someone who seems negative, sad, grouchy, distant, anxious, or tearful, do know that they may not be CHOOSING those expressions. Give them grace. They may be dealing with something that is so deep, elusive, ubiquitous and painful that a well-meaning “Just Be Happy” or “Choose Gratitude” could be throwing salt on a hidden wound. It is unlikely that they are choosing to feel those emotions and feel guilty for not being able to engage with those around them in anything but pure joy. They will hopefully get back to joy and gratitude, but right now they need patience and space.
All emotions need their space – not just the feel good ones.
I’m a helper and have always tried to “help and heal” myself and others by attempting to shed light on any positives in difficult situations. However, the character Sadness in the movie Inside Out taught me how it is okay to be sad and the healing power of just sitting beside someone (in this case Bing Bong) as s/he lets out emotion. Just being present and giving space is healing. We don’t always have to help as the Inside Out character Joy did by attempting to turn everyone’s frown upside down. Along those same lines, we also shouldn’t hold any pressure of needing to immediately flip our emotions for ourselves or for anyone else.
Let it all out, my friends. Unapologetically. And don’t put any energy or judgment around the way that you feel.
Life is not always joyful. Please do not feel guilty if you or a loved one cannot feel anything but sad, angry, anxious or depressed.
However, do know that you and your loved ones DESERVE to get support through this chapter.
You do not have to self-medicate, distract yourself on the phone, compulsively shop, over-eat, under-eat, fastidiously clean, over-schedule your children, or have sleepless nights anymore.
If the Texas sunset no longer takes your breath away, the sand doesn’t feel the same under your toes, your child’s giggles are too loud or your partner’s loving touch makes you jump, make this the week that you choose to get professional help for you and/or your loved ones. Here are some resources from the Hi, How Are You? Campaign.