We’re Not Supposed to Always Be OKJul 27, 2023
One of the greatest unarticulated lies we’re told is that we are supposed to always feel good. I say unarticulated because no one comes out and says it. The message is delivered nuanced in advertising, social media, and casual exchanges.
If we are feeling down, we can consider antidepressants or simply blow off steam at the bar with friends. As of 2020, the United States and New Zealand were the only countries in which direct-to-consumer pharmaceutical advertising, or DTCPA, was legal. In 2021, the U.S. spent $6.88 billion on DTCPA. The extent to which we’ve normalized alcohol as a way to address stress, sadness, and other tough emotions is staggering and fodder for another post.
Log onto TikTok or Instagram, and you’ll see laughter, fancy travel, sunshine, and designer accessories. It makes sense that we are drawn to and inspired by the positive and uplifting, but omitting what’s behind the scenes, which is often imperfect, subconsciously convinces us that this is how we are meant to be — perpetually grinning, well-off, without a care in the world.
The social media studies Meta got spanked in 2021 for overlooking suggest that girls who spend time on Facebook and Instagram were more likely to be dissatisfied with their bodies and more likely to diet, with allegations that these effects are responsible for anxiety, depression, and suicidal thoughts.
Finally, when was the last time you bumped into an old friend while out, were asked how you were doing, and unleashed about the chaotic morning you had just had with the kids, how the project at work was going sideways, and your latest offer to buy your forever home was nixed?
Maybe some of us get real in these exchanges, but we have been culturally conditioned to simply answer, “Great!” Or, “Fine! How about you?” Maybe in the grand scheme of things we truly are fine, but even this simple exchange conveys that at any given time, we really should be just dandy, and anything less is abnormal.
Because everyone else is doing just fine, so should we.
We are consistently told that feeling down, being upset, or going through a hard period is a problem we need to fix by the sheer nature of all the solutions available to us. And because everyone else is doing just fine, so should we.
The reality is we’re conditioned to think not feeling amazing all the time is a problem. That it means we are doing something wrong, that we are flawed, that we need to change. When our metrics for happiness and success are based on glistening veneers shielding something we know nothing about, it’s easy to feel like we’ve misstepped.
Also, feeling crappy is just, well, crappy. Anxiety isn’t enjoyable. Neither is anger or jealousy. Of course, there are scenarios where a medication or other conventional methods to address a certain disposition may be the right answer. But there is an intermediate step that I know I overlooked for many years: facing, questioning, and honoring the crappy feeling in the first place.
Extrapolating From an Ancient Modality
It wasn’t until I started my spiritual journey and was sitting in a plant ceremony¹ that I was told to “lean into the discomfort, lean into the pain,” because this is how growth happens. Probably my most profound takeaway to date with this type of work, I brought this thinking to my “regular” life, starting to question what was so bad about feeling bad.
As a Jungian coach, I was trained to accompany clients down the rabbit hole of asking, “What’s the worst that can happen?” This question is one of the ego’s worst enemies because while our ego works feverishly to protect us, challenging that there’s something to protect lessens the importance of the ego’s job.
The dance with clients goes a bit like this:
“What’s so bad about that?”
“And what’s so bad about THAT?”
“So what happens to someone who (ends up alone / becomes homeless / doesn’t become CEO)?”
The point is to isolate the worst-case scenario we have attached to a certain string of events and face our fears about it. In every case, the outcome is something we’ve constructed as definitive if we were to follow a certain path. In every case, we are attaching our reality today to an imagined future. We fear an outcome that is generally so far removed from reality that we ruin our present.
I want to draw the analogy between what I was told in a ceremony that I continue to believe and how it’s translated for me in daily life.
Example 1: Plant ceremony
The inner narrative goes a little like this:
“Sh*t. Why did I decide to do this?”
“I don’t like feeling like I’m going to throw up and want to curl up into the fetal position.”
“I am never doing this again.”
- Get into a fetal position to lessen the nausea and discomfort
- Get into a physical position that heightens the discomfort
Example 2: Regular bad mood
The inner narrative goes a little like this:
“I don’t want to see or talk to anyone. I’m just unhappy right now and don’t want to deal.”
“I don’t like feeling like this and could use a good drink/smoke/argument.”
“Screw everything. Everyone can suck it.”
- Have the quick fix to numb the feeling
- Feel the yuckiness and try to learn from it
Choice 1 in both scenarios lessens the pain and discomfort by numbing. The ego likes this. Its job is to protect us. We whac-a-mole the yuckiness so we don’t have to deal. And it works, in the short run.
Choice 2 is far less enjoyable. Sitting in a physical disposition or unpleasant emotion downright sucks and also seems irrational since we can argue we do it by choice, either by getting there or staying there. (E.g., why did I choose to be in this space with otherwise perfect strangers where we will be physically purging trauma and other issues for the next 12 hours?!)
Choice 2 also takes grit and faith that you are not crazy. It requires that you trust your body and the inherent wisdom we’ve gotten so damn good at quieting throughout our lives.
Emotions, Like Our Physical State, Are Information
We can tolerate an unhealthy relationship, lessening the pain with escapism, medication, denial, and other tactics. But most of us are naturally wired to get a subconscious hint that the situation we’re in that we think is making us feel not great is not okay. What we do with that information is wildly personal.
We can escape a bad mood with distraction or numbing agents. But what if the bad mood is just telling us we are tired? Or maybe the current cocktail of blood pressure or anxiety medication isn’t the right one for our body. Or maybe we simply need to augment our social environment. The bad mood can be rich information for us to look a little deeper to identify what isn’t serving us at the moment.
Leaning into and choosing or even extending unpleasant feelings is not appetizing. But I have realized that this is where the growth and life happen. Mark Manson² says negative emotions are a call to action — that they point out to us there is a problem we must address. He also says a powerful determinant of the quality of our lives is not what good things we wish for but, rather, the struggles we choose and endure.
This may make perfect sense, but putting it into practice is a whole other sport.
I live a pretty damn easy and blessed life, and between that and my strict Christian upbringing, I often feel guilty when I feel sad or down. I’d mastered my particular choreography of whac-a-mole by way of materialism, achievement, status, and many other modalities. But even my privileged negative feelings deserve a second thought.
I’ve started to get over myself and honor that I have some inherent wisdom that is looking out for me. So rather than feel guilty for having a down day, I try to let the bad feelings in and experience them more deeply. They’re way less scary this way.
This is my practice:
- Take a few deep belly breaths to soothe my body.
- Thank my Shame for its service and ask it to take a seat.
- Discern whether my crappy mood is physical (exhaustion or I need alone time) or beyond (an unresolved situation with my partner).
What we do beyond no. 3 is personal. Sometimes we just need a nap or a babysitter. Other times it’s a job change or ending a relationship. Or, perhaps we need to accept something (someone’s behavior, a situation, a shift in our values).
Self-Compassion Doesn’t Mean Always Feeling Amazing
I created my coaching practice because most of us are too hard on ourselves. I include myself in this generalization. My work with clients is rooted in self-compassion, and this means honoring and listening when we aren’t at our best. This doesn’t make us broken. It makes us human. Getting through darker, more challenging times is how we grow. Without them, we stagnate.
At the beginning of this piece, I mentioned some driving cultural factors I believe contribute to our overwhelming need to always be “OK.” I am not optimistic any of these will change (at least during my time here). There is simply way too much money in Big Pharma. And in, for the foreseeable future, social media and the markets it supports. Evolving how we interact with each other regularly will require a fundamental cultural shift.
So, what do we do?
Show others compassion. Be a safe place when sh*t goes down. Teach your kids it’s okay to act like crap because they’re usually doing it for a reason. Don’t let them feel shame.
Most importantly, give yourself compassion. Look inward. Honor and love your humanity. Know you don’t get peaks without the valleys. The valleys can hurt, but boy are the peaks worth the pain.
- The plant medicine I refer to here is Ayahuasca.
- I highly recommend Mark Manson’s The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*uck. This book (along with his other writing) made a huge impression on this recovering perfectionist.