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Why can’t we let ourselves be sad?

Listening to the inner critic.

I had a conversation with a friend around New Year. We had both had periods during the festive season where we had been feeling sad in some way. Sad – what a lot that word contains. My friend used the words ‘sensitive’, ‘spiky’. My memory is of a mood of suppressed rage.

Two things occur to me now as I reflect on our brief chat. One is that I was really glad that she felt able to tell me. The second is that I felt relief that I wasn’t the only one that felt like this. You might think that, in my line of work, I would be well aware of the difficult feelings people experience over Christmas or holidays or family gatherings – and I am, more-or-less. Why were my social media posts, in the run-up to Christmas, so full of exhortations to self-compassion and the need to make space for yourself? Because I hope to remind and reinforce that belief in me, too, by reminding others! But although I am – these days – able to reflect on my responses and emotions at difficult times with more kindness, I am still learning……and I don’t always catch myself in the moment and give myself permission to feel whatever it is I’m feeling. Minute-to-minute kindness? Not quite.

However, one way that I realise I have changed is that my question, reflecting on my festive bad moods (Festive Bad Moods! I must remember that as a tagline to celebrate next year), has shifted from “Why did I feel sad?” to “Why can’t I let myself be sad?” and this is a really important difference for me. Lots of people come to therapy because they want to understand WHY they think / feel / behave as they do. I understand that, of course I do – I want to know those answers myself and just because I’m not asking that question today doesn’t mean that I won’t get frustrated by it tomorrow. But I also believe from my own experience that 1. You might never know and 2. Even if you do get the answer, it’s not necessarily The Answer. Even if you can pin down a cause, it doesn’t change how you feel……….only experiencing things differently, and lots and lots of practice, can do that. The answer to “Why did I feel sad?” in this case, was: I just did. And that’s OK; but I didn’t remember that at the time.

In my Transactional Analysis training, one of our core bits of theory was around “racket” and “authentic” feelings (English 1972). “Authentic” feelings are fear, anger, sadness and joy, each of which has a useful function in our lives (e.g. anger is what we use to tackle a barrier to where we want to go). “Racket” feelings are those which we have learned to use to ‘cover up’ the original feeling, so for example, if anger was considered an unacceptable emotion when you were little, and you got into trouble for being angry, you may have developed a coping mechanism whereby if you were angry, you would cry and get comforted for being sad. So over time you learn to overlay anger with sadness, such that as an adult, your response when someone treats you badly is to feel sad. You may never feel angry at all. (That’s not to say one feeling is more ‘real’ than the other, but words are imperfect and so we make do with what we have.)

I love this piece of theory and have spent hours trying to puzzle out exactly how it fits for me, and why, and trying to remember scenes from my childhood as ‘evidence’ for this…….and yet. And yet, although it helps me understand myself more, I still find myself in situations where I feel what I unconsciously label as ‘bad’ feelings, and try and suppress them, which often ends in me feeling worse. I get less of an emotional ‘hangover’ from this than I used to because I understand why I do it. But there is still something going on, around trying to change my feelings, which feels judgmental.

I truly believe that there is no such thing as a bad feeling…..but there’s a little part inside of me that’s not always convinced when I apply that to myself.

So now I’m trying a new tack which is more about acceptance. For me, this is enhanced by Focusing, which is a body-centred practice where I bring awareness to feelings and sensations that are going on in the background. The key with Focusing (which you can do alone or with a companion) is learning to ‘sit alongside’ uncomfortable feelings rather than trying to change them. This process in itself allows the feelings to shift and become less uncomfortable because they’re no longer vying for attention or feeling unworthy. This for me is also an important way of allowing the fears of my inner critic (which after all, is only looking out for me) to be voiced. Focusing is what works for me; I guess other people use mindfulness practice, or meditation, or spiritual practices of other sorts that work for them.

Mind you, it’s hard to break the habit of wanting to ‘figure out’ or fix; a lot of the time I am paying attention to that part of me that wants to figure out…… before I can pay attention to other stuff. But there is something really key about the experience of allowing uncomfortable feelings, that helps, that is part of self-compassion, self-care……….something about not trying to make yourself change, in order to allow yourself to change. Permission rather than pushy parent.

So I think, actually, the title of this blog should have been “May I let myself be sad?”

References or other sources of information: English, F. The substitution factor: rackets and real feelings. TAJ. 2:1 1972; https://psychologymuffins.wordpress.com/2014/03/26/racket-feelings-in-transactional-analysis/; Focusing – https://focusingresources.com/or http://www.focusing.org.uk/

Drop the resolutions

Lightening the load as 2019 arrives

Some months ago I watched an interview with Shawn Achor, a positive psychology specialist, during an online conference about building resilience. One of his tips was around New Year’s resolutions. Instead of setting yourself resolutions, he suggested, ask yourself “What are 3 positive things I achieved last year – even if they weren’t planned?” His proposal was that paying attention to the positives already achieved gives you a strong base for the next level, rather than focusing on what is missing.

I’ve never been a great one for resolutions, certainly in my adult life. In a way this seems strange, because I have a pretty strong inner critic and a part of me that worries about needing to work hard to get things right. New Year’s Resolutions, you’d think, would tap well into this, as it’s the perfect opportunity to set yourself unrealistic targets and then beat yourself up for failing. Perhaps there’s another part of me that’s been alert to this possibility and has resisted as a result. But I think it’s rather the case that I’m a doer; in the past I’ve been pretty skilled at distracting myself from how I feel by ‘getting on with things’, and so the moment something pops into my head as something I ‘should’ do, I’m likely to get stuck in. From that perspective, my year was already full of resolutions started and coming up with extra ones would require too much contemplation!

But I really like Achor’s idea of backwards resolutions. We can be so good at not noticing, or even ignoring, what has gone well – what we have done well. We are naturally inclined to reduce the value of skills that we are good at, in favour of those we find difficult, which is a great way of measuring ourselves against other people and coming out worst. How things are framed is so important and yet, when we reflect on ourselves and our lives, it can be really easy to slip into negative patterns of thinking and feeling about ourselves. 

How might it be, then, to notice what we had done well – and pause at that for a moment? Instead of saying “I made a new friend – well of course, that’s because I find talking to people easy, and anyway she already knew that other friend of mine so it wasn’t really down to me”, how would it be to say “I made a new friend, who I feel happy when I’m around.”

Or instead of “I started seeing a counsellor – well I had to because really things had reached rock bottom and I couldn’t sort myself out”, how about “I realised that I’m allowed to ask for help, and I started seeing a counsellor as an investment in my wellbeing and future happiness.”

I see either example as a hugely positive achievement. From the standpoint of having already succeeded, you’re in a good position where resolutions might not feel necessary – you’ve got foundations to start the year with.

So instead of adding to your burden of responsibility with more to-dos, how about spending some time reflecting on 3 positive achievements from 2018? This could be a great exercise to do with a friend – a trusted other, perhaps someone who you think has a slightly different perspective to you, as another viewpoint can be really helpful for reframing those things that you take for granted or even see as negatives. (That’s one of the advantages your therapist has – she / he can see your life from a different angle.)

And what nicer thing to do with someone than spend a little bit of time looking at each other’s positives? There may be more than you think, and that’s a good way to start a year.

References: Greater Good Resilience Summit and Shawn Achor