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It's Okay if You're Not Okay: How do we hold space for negative emotion?

Updated: Jun 17, 2020

(written April 28, 2020)


Under the immense focus on positivity in today's culture, it can be difficult to properly navigate our natural, negative emotions. In my field it's even more pronounced, as we know the incredibly important role emotion and energy play in our personal vibrations, and thus the things we draw to us. It is vital that we work to maintain ourselves in love and grace and compassion, with a belief that the Universe is on our side, and not slip into doubt and fear.


So what happens when we just can't manage that?


Everywhere you look, there are signs and posts saying, "We'll get through this together", or "{random city name} Strong!" or "Love is the Answer". All of these are surely true, and necessary to create community. But they are not the totality of the situation.


People are dying. There is inept leadership and no comfort offered from the top. The economy is in a terrifying limbo. Businesses are going under. Homes are being lost. Meals are skipped to save money. Medicine is being rationed. Mental illness is being fed the superfood of isolation.


Everyone's life is affected in some manner, and we feel like we're at a precipice as a nation. So please hear this...


IT'S OKAY IF YOU'RE NOT OKAY


It doesn't mean you're broken, or that you're 'doing it wrong'. In the face of this insane time in human history, I would venture to say if you aren't feeling anything negative at all, you may be in denial. It is ubiquitous. Which brings me to my next point...


It's okay to SAY you're not okay.


I've noticed a strange pattern over the last few months. When I would speak to friends personally, they would tell me what they were struggling with and fearing. And we would commiserate and come out feeling, well, at least not alone, if not necessarily better about our individual situations.


But then I'd jump on social media and see all these happy posts and uplifting messages from the same people. In a sense, that's wonderful, because they could be giving the perfect positive message someone else needs to see.


On the flip side, however, by focusing solely on those things and removing the visibility of our own pain, we take away others' permission to and comfort in expressing theirs. If everyone around you is happy and positive and hyper-focused on only the good things happening right now, you may not feel like you have the right to say how miserable you are. You may even start thinking you're wrong for even feeling that way.


And therein lies the danger.


Please understand, I'm not suggesting we start filling our social media or friendly phone calls with abject misery and fear. But we must hold space for these things in our lives and realize they are valid. When we try to stuff them down and pretend we're doing great, the anger and doubt eat us alive. And it doesn't do our loved ones any favors, either.


Be honest with yourself. Be honest with those around you. If you are feeling positive about something - fantastic! Share that everywhere you can. But if you are unsettled by how you're feeling, reach out to someone you trust. Sit with those emotions...be in them...find out what you can learn from them. All emotions are lessons. If we throw the book under the bed and ignore it, we'll never gain the knowledge within.


Allow yourself the grace you would give someone you love. Allow these things to rise and communicate them. I guarantee someone else out there is feeling exactly the way you are, and you have an opportunity to make them feel less alone. That is beautiful. We don't have to be lost in the fear. We can get it out of us and share our burdens. They are easier carried with more hands, after all.


We must do this for each other, my friends. We must share our whole selves - not just the parts we want others to see. In doing so, we give license to others to be authentic and open, and create an incredible community of giving, authentic souls.


In that spirit, I want to share my own experience so far, in the hopes it can help someone else. And even if not, it's helping me process, and that's a good thing.


I suffer with depression and anxiety, with the bonus of panic attacks. I have a spinal cord injury from 2011 that left me with chronic, systemic nerve pain, limited feeling from the mid-chest down, balance issues, and occasional proprioception problems. I also have Hashimoto's Thyroiditis, which is a fun condition where your body attacks your thyroid constantly - you know, that cool gland that controls everything? I have two teenagers with their own issues - one who is on the spectrum - a big house to maintain, and eight animals to care for. I have a wife that is working her butt off to keep us afloat, but who is terrified she will end up furloughed.


None of this is unique. None of this is any better or worse than anyone else. It's simply different, and my own personal collection of issues. Most of this had fallen to background noise, because it's been part of my life for so long.


However, when this quarantine situation hit, everything came rushing in. I was incredibly unkind to myself. There were days I couldn't get out of bed in any meaningful way. I didn't feel like making dinner. I didn't want to clean the house. I didn't want to talk to my children or my friends, or even my wife. I tried to clean up the yard, but my body gave out in a few hours. Calls went unreturned. Texts got ignored. Weeks went by without checking email or facebook.


When I went outside my shell at all and checked in online, everyone seemed to be doing great, focusing on the positive and refusing to let it all get them down. New workout routines. Sourdough bread...my lord, the amount of sourdough bread. And here I just wanted to curl up in my little hole and numb out with television and junk food.


I got so angry, and reverted to the old tapes in my head I thought I'd erased.


Why are you so lazy? Get up and quit feeling sorry for yourself - get out there and do something! Your legs work, your arms work, your brain works...what's your problem? You're in a comfortable house with people you love...others have it so much worse, for pete's sake. Look at all these people getting on with their lives, out in their gardens, and older than you! Quit your whining and get on with it!


I severely dislike these tapes. I've worked for decades to silence them. All it took was one pandemic and some unrealistic personal expectations and they came roaring back with a vengeance. It didn't matter that I have physical and mental health issues that affect the way I operate day to day. It didn't matter how much work I had put in to love myself as I am. When fear comes in, logic goes out. And my biggest fear was somehow 'messing up' in my organic pandemic response.


I was able to make some small strides - a phone call here, a text there. Clearing my email, checking in online. Not on the same day of course, but over a week or two. But I felt the pressure so intensely to be positive, and to 'maintain my brand', so to speak. It felt awful, and dishonest, which just fed into the fear. Why can't I be positive like everyone else? Why am I having such a hard time? What's wrong with me?


What I slowly noticed was the people I talked to were feeling the same weirdness. The same limbo of uncertainty, of not knowing what was really important right now. Everyone was afraid and unsure...it's just that no one was talking about it. So I decided I would.


This is the first time I have written since the virus sent us into lockdown. This morning was the first time I really got my cards out and did my normal, pre-virus morning routine. I consider these to be triumphs.


My goal at this point is extremely simple:

Take every day as it comes, and do the best I can with it.


That includes being gentle with myself on days when I can't muster the motivation to put on pants. And to be proud of myself for the little things, like this writing.


And most importantly, to be honest about my journey, so that others may feel they can be, too.


One of the biggest weapons we have against negativity is gratitude. Sometimes it's hard to find things to be grateful for in frightening situations, but of course that's when it's most important. And we don't have to make them huge things.


Maybe you took the trash out today. Maybe you answered an email. Maybe you took the dog for a walk or got your masks sewn or wrote a blog. Whatever it is, find that something to be grateful for, and hang on to it.


Inspired by a dear friend of mine, I'm going to start recording one thing every night that I'm grateful for, even if it's just that I showered that day. I encourage all of you to try this out as well, and see if it changes how you begin to view things.


It's okay if you're not okay, guys. No one really is, right now. If you're drowning, seek help. Please. Don't be afraid of outside judgment. There is power in community and communal feeling, and we truly are all in this together.


All love, fellow travelers. All my love.


JA

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