Permission to be sad, Captain?

I am sick and tired of positive thinking culture.


I said it.

I am sick and tired of a world that demands you explain yourself for being unhappy, that you repress and suppress all the unhappy feelings that you have, that you crush it all down into a little ball and let yourself express only brightness and joy. This is a world that implies that, somehow, if you are sad, you have failed. It is never the world that has failed you. It is never that people might have hurt you, or let you down; it is never that all the hideous unnecessary suffering and bigotry and cruelty in the world just kind of bothers you; it is never that there might actually be a chemical imbalance in your brain that requires some treatment.

It is never acknowledged that sadness is a perfectly sane and appropriate – and freaking healthy! – response to so many things.

No, no, it’s your attitude that is the problem.

This isn’t really a radical or original idea. Even Pixar/Disney, purveyors of brightness and joy, have made a point of saying that it is important to allow yourself to feel a full range of emotions and understand your own sadness. In the land of happy endings, that’s a big deal. It’s not a revolutionary idea to say that, if you don’t understand your own sadness, you can’t even have a happy ending.

If you’ve read my social media rant, you’ll know that I pay close attention to the Facebook feeds of my friends. I live miles away from most of them, so it’s how I best stay in touch.

Here’s something that I see a lot:

A friend posts something about how they are so sick of struggling and fighting, so sick of someone’s behaviour (usually not named or detailed, because my friends are sensible and thoughtful people), and they feel overwhelmed and tired and anxious and miserable.

Sympathy wells up in me. I know them feels! I go to comment on the post to share sympathy, or to say “Hey, you can call if you need to,” or whatever is appropriate for the level of closeness that I have with that person.

“This post does not exist.” Or has been deleted. At this moment I can’t recall Facebook’s wording for that particular phenomenon.

“Oh,” I think. “They must have thought better of sharing their private emotions on Facebook. That’s fair.” And some people do. I rarely share the depth of my sadness or rage or worry or fear in public; even deep down joy is something I tend to keep to myself. For me, deeply felt emotions are a private thing. There’s a story there, a very long story, and it’s why this post makes me feel naked and sick, but I leave it up because I think some stories are important and need to be told and I keep reminding myself that there is nothing shameful in it, and it’s more important that other people in that situation don’t feel alone with it, than for me to enjoy my safe privacy on that issue. And one day I may write about why I am so very private with my emotions, but, as Aragorn once said, this is not that day.

I consider whether I should message this friend privately. Depending on who it is, and how close we are, or how private I know they are, I may or may not do so.

A few seconds later, something like this appears in my feed, from the same person:

“Sometimes life is hard, but you’ve just got to stay positive! I am so thankful for all the good things in my life! Onward and upward!”

And I feel… ugh. It’s hard to describe what I feel. A strange mix of horror and resignation and anger – not towards the person in question, but towards a damaging belief system that makes them feel like they have to be happy for an audience.

Before anyone gets outraged, I’m going to tell one more story, and this is a personal one with actual personal emotions, but it’s very short. Here we go.

A few years ago, my step-mother, Joy, died of terminal lung cancer. When she was diagnosed, she was given six months to live. I believe she eked out an extra week or so. It was rough on everyone – her family, my father, me. The ripples of anger and shock and grief spread out everywhere.

There’s a public myth about cancer, and about how people who experience cancer – or any terminal illness – should present themselves. They should be brave. They should be positive. They should be determined and fearless and somehow at peace. It’s an awful, awful trope, because it puts all the pressure on the person who is really fucking sick and suffering to be strong for all the people around them, and it doesn’t allow for the realities of the situation, which is basically that people with terminal illnesses tend to die, and they don’t tend to die in a comfortable way (if there is such a thing). Those of us left behind find that incredibly difficult to face, so we try to bear with a kind of denial, and we expect the sick person to support us in this.

Where they are supposed to get the emotional energy to support us while they’re probably thinking, “Holy fucking shit, I’m going to die, this is horrible, I’m not finished, how do I deal with this shit?” is a complete mystery to me.

Joy was put on anti-depressants. She was surprised by this, as she was generally a very positive and up-beat sort of person. Her warmth and acceptance and kindness made her very easy to be around even at the worst of times, and she had a genuine gift for making the best of a bad situation, so she had trouble accepting that she was sad, even though she had every reason to be incredibly sad and upset.

She knew I had experience with depression (I’m not shy about it), so she spoke to me and told me how she was determined to stay positive and upbeat and strong and cheerful.

“No,” I said. “I mean, yes, it’s good that you’re doing that, and keep that up as long as you actually want to. But that’s exhausting. It is emotionally and physically exhausting. I just want you to know that it is okay, some days, to let the depression win. It is okay to give yourself a day just to be sad. To rest. To gather up emotional energy to get back to the fight the next day.”

No-one had ever said that to her. Everyone had been telling her to keep a positive attitude, to stay upbeat, to focus only on the good things.

No-one had ever said, “It’s okay to be sad.”

I was furious.

I am still furious.

People give this advice with the absolute best of intentions, don’t get me wrong. I absolutely understand that. And there is a grain of truth in it, which I will get to in a moment, but the key point here, the really crucial point, is that you don’t owe anyone your happiness. What people forget is that when you need all your energy to get out of bed and walk around, you don’t have anything left for smiles and laughter.

There are times when you will want to be private about your feelings. For me, that’s most of the time. It’s obvious when I am sad and when I am perky, but the depths or heights of those feelings are kept in whenever I can do so. I feel that I owe it to co-workers and colleagues to be – well – mellow. I owe it to them to be approachable, and civil, and relatively easy to be around, and professional. I do not owe it to anyone to be happy, or pretend to be happy, if I am not. I’ve had bad days. It doesn’t always work. You just do your best.

But you are allowed to be sad. You are allowed to be angry. You will usually have good reasons for those feelings.

Here’s the other problem I have with this positive thinking idea: there is that grain of truth I mentioned previously. It comes with basic cognitive training, a technique that is very useful for people with mood disorders. You teach yourself to pull out of the “everything is shit” spiral. It is very, very hard psychological work, and it takes a long time to learn it. It’s not as simple as it sounds. It involves a lot of self-awareness, and a lot of self-discipline. What’s more is that all it does is take the edge off. It makes it a bit easier to function and get by and be happy on occasion. It’s good, but it doesn’t always work.

Learning to appreciate that you do have some things to be happy about is fair, but it’s not a cure-all. Looking on the bright side is a useful skill, but that’s not what is usually being promoted with “stay positive”. The way people often apply it – and I’m not saying this is deliberate – is not so much “focus on the fact that not everything is awful,” so much as “completely ignore that anything is awful at all.” It’s the “how dare you be unhappy when you have food” argument all over again. It’s great that you have food. So many people don’t. But the fact that other people don’t have food, and you yourself will never go hungry, does not mean that your pain is invalid. Getting perspective is helpful, and useful, but again, it’s not a cure-all.

Essentially, “stay positive” should mean “acknowledge that this is difficult, understand why it is difficult, accept it, and try to move on while carrying that knowledge by looking at things in your life that give you a lift,” but that’s not how we use it.

We usually use it to try and discredit sadness.

And that is an awful and dangerous thing.

So here I am, declaring that if you think you need permission to be sad or angry or open about those feelings, then fine. I give you permission. I, Kate, have decreed that you are allowed to experience the full range of human emotion and the sensible responses to your life. I have decreed that you shouldn’t feel like a failure, or a loser, because you have a full range of emotions, or because life gets you down sometimes. There is no embarrassment. There is no shame.

You’re just sad. And that’s okay.


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