In recent months and years, I haven’t always been ok. Sometimes I’ve been very not-ok. With the combination of peri-menopausal hormones, chronic pain, and the climate emergency all driving depression and thoughts of suicide, I’ve often found myself in a very lonely place. And then people glibly ask, how are you?
Most of the time people don’t want to hear that you’re not ok. For one, it would require a much longer conversation than they had in mind. It’s a greeting for which a real answer is not generally expected or desired. I’m trying to turn it back into the ‘hello’ greeting it really is by simply saying, ‘Morning’ or ‘Hi’. Or if I’m actually open to a bigger conversation I’ll say ‘What’s happening?’, knowing that I might hear in reply: I’m really down / angry / frustrated / numb.
People not wanting to talk about non-happy feelings is such a big issue that we even have a day in Australia to try and make it ok to not be ok (RUOK day) but too often it can take on the quality of a game to say it to as many people as possible on that one day only and without being prepared to listen to a truthful answer.
So we struggle on, at home and at work or school and in our community, answering that we’re fine, we’re good, we’re excellent. But you can’t talk yourself out of your feelings and you can’t ignore them away. They’re still there, even if you deny them to yourself or to others. You can challenge the accuracy of thoughts and feelings, yes, but you can’t do that if you won’t acknowledge them first. If you won’t recognise that they exist, they’ll still be driving your actions and thoughts into the future. Feelings are an inescapable part of our biology and they’re necessary to alert us to areas in our lives that need attention.
One problem I’ve had is that when I haven’t felt depressed I’ve felt angry instead. I’ve found that anger is even less welcome than sadness! It tends to be louder, more volatile, and more commonly vented on other people than sadness is so it generally doesn’t endear you to others! But should we supress it, especially at work? Will we lose our jobs if we disagree with each other or have a difference of opinion? According to a 2014 article in The Conversation by Peter Jordan, then Head of Department (Acting), Griffith Business School, Griffith University, workplaces are missing an opportunity if they don’t allow anger to be expressed:
‘Anger has traditionally been considered an emotion to be avoided at work as it is often linked to a lack of personal control. Anger at work is often seen as unprofessional; an uncontrolled response linked to tantrums and illogical behaviour. As a result, organisational norms have tended to support the elimination of anger at work.
With changing views on the importance of understanding emotions at work, expecting workers to minimise their anger at work may be a missed opportunity to understand what is happening in workplaces. It is human nature to avoid unpleasant situations and seek pleasant ones; managers are just as prone to… this tendency as the rest of us. But in doing so, they are often missing opportunities to understand what is happening within their organisations.’
So if we were serious about organisational improvement and staff wellbeing, we wouldn’t be supressing people’s emotional range at work, we’d be encouraging them to express themselves and importantly, we’d be hearing them.
Likewise in our personal lives, if we’re serious about having rich relationships with our family, friends, and networks, we’ll welcome both the good stuff in each other’s lives and the challenges. We’ll talk and we’ll listen. If we have a part in a problem, we’ll accept responsibility and we’ll challenge our own world-view, because the thoughts we have aren’t always true, so the feelings they generate aren’t always reasonable.
Too often these conversations are shut down because people think that it’s negative and that negative is bad. For some people it seems to be an old-school idea of putting on your ‘happy face’ no matter what, like the mother character did in Strictly Ballroom – a refusal to see the undesired things. For others, it seems to be a misinterpretation of positive psychology, which isn’t about putting on your rose coloured glasses at all.
Positive psychology, and gratitude practice in particular, is actually about balancing your view of the world so that you notice not only the things that are troublesome to you but also the things that are going well. It’s about ‘hunting the good stuff’ to recognise that your life is not all terrible or all perfect (or very rarely so anyway), and that in reality it’s a spectrum of experience. This awareness can help us feel less out of control and build our resilience to the inevitable challenges life will throw at us.
A 2015 review of the animated film Inside Out cites research that suggests ‘emotion diversity’ is actually key to health:
‘As the theory goes, positive states arise out of situations where there is no pressing demand or threat. As such, positive emotions often promote savouring and relaxation, or curiosity-driven exploration and building of psychological resources.
Negative states, on the other hand, alert us to things that need attention and remediation. Notice a threatening predator? Fear promotes fight-or-flight. Smell something rotten? Disgust prevents ingestion.
Like other systems, the affective system runs most efficiently when things are in relative balance. That is, if any one emotion “over-fires” it’s likely to have negative consequences for adaptive functioning. This is clearly the case with negative emotions, and indeed, excess anxiety, anger, sadness and fear contribute to many mental illnesses and social ills…
Recent evidence suggests that it’s “emodiversity” that underscores psychological well-being. That is: experiencing a variety of states, both positive and negative, is correlated with mental and physical health.‘
This is great news for me, because wow, am I experiencing a range of emotions on the roller coaster of perimenopause and the climate emergency! And the great news for all of us is that we’re not alone. Everyone has so-called ‘negative’ feelings. We all feel anxious, fearful, sad, and angry at one time or another. It’s normal.
So the next time someone says they’re not good, embrace it, don’t run from it. You don’t have to fix their problem, you don’t even have to listen to them talk about it for an hour. Even a simple response like, ‘that sucks’, might make them feel heard and that their feelings are valid and reasonable. It might even prevent them from spiralling further into their emotional quagmire. This isn’t always going the case of course, but we don’t have to ‘fix’ each other, we just need to accept that other people aren’t always going to be ok, and neither are we, and that’s normal. This recognition in itself opens up possibilities that shutting down ‘negative’ emotions simply won’t.
If we want to connect with each other – and humans are wired to thrive through connection with each other – we need to accept the ups and the downs. Humanity is not a one-man band. We’re in this together and we can make a symphony or a ruckus – it’s up to us. A little empathy goes a long way.
© Palitja Moore, text and sunflower with bees image, 2020