What does it mean to be healthy? Physically healthy? Emotionally healthy? I heard a statement recently in a group I facilitated that the goal is “happiness of course”. This is not an uncommon belief. In fact, there is a lot of research out there about happiness and how to increase it, produce it, or capture it. This article in the New York Times sums it up quite nicely.
For many, happiness is the ultimate goal of mental health. But this is a frustrating goal at best. Happiness is elusive for many and seemingly impossible for others. What if our expectations are all wrong?
Disney Pixar’s movie Inside Out illustrates a wonderful point. The movie captures the role of 5 primary emotions felt by a child—joy, sadness, anger, fear, and disgust. The child in the movie, Riley, is experiencing grief. She recently moved, leaving behind her home, her friends, and her beloved hockey team. The character “Joy” feels that her job is to keep Riley happy all the time. But Sadness keeps creeping in, messing things up. In an effort to banish Sadness, Joy accidentally banishes herself. This sets up the plot of the movie as Joy and Sadness both try to get back to “Headquarters”. Eventually, Riley, unable to feel Joy or Sadness, goes numb. In the finale we see that to get back to Joy, Riley must experience Sadness.
I love this movie because it beautifully illustrates 3 concepts:
- You don’t get to numb the bad and keep the good. We are human. We were created to feel. When we attempt to numb bad feelings we inadvertently numb good feelings too. If you are hurting this might seem worth it. It is tempting when good feelings seem completely out of reach anyway. This brings me to the next point.
- No feeling lasts forever. Feelings by nature are temporary. No feeling, no matter how devastating will last forever. This is incredibly hard to see sometimes. When we are stuck in survival mode we lose our sense of time and we are unable to see the light at the end of the tunnel. It’s neuroscience-our amygdala responds based on our here and now experience—our since of safety in the moment. This results in a search for immediate gratification—something to make the bad go away so we can survive the next excruciating seconds. But if we can just hold on we find that:
- Feeling the bad can actually be good for you. Feeling bad feelings helps you learn to tolerate the uncomfortable-which is essential to growth and resilience. When we constantly numb or avoid, we lose our tolerance and begin checking out or becoming overwhelmed to smaller and smaller stimuli—meaning it doesn’t take as much to push us past our limit. Feeling bad also allows you to process your experience and begin to move the experience from your survival brain to your emotional brain and finally to your cognitive brain where you can begin to make sense of your experience. We often get stuck when we avoid feeling bad and this “stuck” energy is stored in the nervous system—creeping out as anxiety, anger, eating or sleeping disturbances, or uncomfortable somatic experiences like headaches and stomachaches.
So what does this all mean? What if the goal is not happiness but the ability to feel all feelings as appropriate? What if we can learn to tolerate feelings long enough for them to change? Because they WILL change. When it comes to things like grief, feelings must be felt and experienced in order to shift. Trauma, on the other hand, sometimes requires extra attention as our feelings are more likely to get “stuck” in the nervous system and are not accessible or processed until we feel safe. But even in the midst of trauma and grief the goal is not to “get over it”. The goal is to eventually reach a point where in the midst of the bad we also have moments of good. Where the good days begin to outnumber the bad. Where we recognize that life may never be the same but it can still be good. Where we learn that being human and being fully alive means we have the capacity to feel all emotions and sensations with honesty and courage.