Living in a culture of “happily ever after” means I feel guilty when I’m sad. I just want to feel good all the time, and I deserve to feel good all the time — at least that’s what the media tells me. Unfortunately, life doesn’t work that way and feelings don’t just do what they’re told.
I’ve been reading a book called “The Happiness Trap” by Russ Harris that defines some myths people often believe about happiness. One myth is that “to create a better life, we must get rid of negative feelings.” Harris wrote that culture tells us we should eliminate negative feelings and put positive ones in their place. And if you’ve ever been told to count your blessings when you’re sad, you know what he means.
There’s nothing wrong with considering things you are thankful for during times of sadness, and the Bible reminds us to be thankful: “Enter his gates with thanksgiving and his courts with praise! Give thanks to him; bless his name” (Psalm 100:4). But trying to cram a positive emotion into our brains when we’re sad isn’t an effective strategy.
The Bible suggests thinking about good things — “Whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable” (Philippians 4:8) — but it does not say to punish ourselves for feeling sad.
Uncomfortable and sometimes downright horrible feelings are a part of life, and giving myself permission to feel what I feel is a complete relief. If I’m angry and want to yell at God, He can take it. If I’m sad and can’t cheer up, I’m still loved. Books of the Bible are filled with respected people experiencing horrible emotions and bringing them to God — for example, many of David’s psalms are laments, and Job cries to God about abandonment. If I’m feeling angry or sad, I don’t have to hide it from God, and He knows it anyway.
Another myth Harris wrote about is that “you should be able to control what you think and feel.” And that’s partly why it took me so long to give myself permission to feel negative emotions. I spent half my life trying to repress sadness, guilt and frustration. Tears were for the weak, and I wanted to be strong. Even a positive emotion, like romantic attraction, was never to be admitted when I was young because there was the risk of being rejected. Plus if I had a crush on a boy who didn’t return my feelings, the ridicule from classmates was too much to bear.
I want to be in control. I should be able to control my thoughts and feelings; they’re mine, after all. And bad feelings feel awful, so I want to stomp them down. I want to crush them out of existence.
“If you’re like most other humans on the planet,” Harris wrote, “you’ve already spent a lot of time and effort trying to have ‘good’ feelings instead of ‘bad’ ones, and you’ve probably found that as long as you’re not too distressed, you can, to some degree, pull it off. But you’ve probably also discovered that as your level of distress increases, your ability to control your feelings progressively lessens.”
Sound familiar? I’ve written about anxiety before, which is when I have the least control over my feelings. At first, suppression was my method of choice for dealing with it. But the harder I tried, the worse the anxiety got.
It took me a while to understand that thoughts and feelings aren’t necessarily an accurate portrayal of my reality. For example, I was anxious when I started seriously dating a wonderful guy. Things were going well, but I panicked. What if I wrecked things? What if it was too good to be true? What if I got hurt? What if I hurt him? I should just end the relationship now to avoid these awful things that might happen, plus, since I’m feeling so distressed now, that must mean something’s wrong with the relationship!
Harris also wrote, “Thoughts are merely sounds, words, stories, or bits of language. Thoughts may or may not be true; we don’t automatically believe them. … Thoughts may or may not be wise; we don’t automatically follow their advice.”
Thoughts and emotions are powerful, but I don’t have to act on them, especially when they are illogical and fleeting. Though I want to be happy all the time, that is not this reality. I have discovered it’s possible to experience peace and joy during sadness, and the first step is, while remembering God loves me, to accept my emotions and my feelings.