A sentiment we often hear in regards to upsetting feelings is: stay positive, be grateful, focus on the good. We read it in posts on social media, we see it demonstrated by motivational speakers, we hear it in sayings like “look on the bright side”, we feel it in the fabric of our culture. Take the song “Smile” made popular by Nate King Cole, “Light up your face with gladness. Hide every trace of sadness. Although a tear may be ever so near that's the time you must keep on trying. Smile, what's the use of crying? You'll find that life is still worth while if you just smile.” The lyrics seem to give us a simple formula for getting through tough times and tough feelings; smile.
While I wish dealing with sadness were that simple, it’s not. This mentality of simply staying positive is not only deceptive it’s actually deeply destructive. I have seen this first hand in the people I treat, my loved ones, and myself. When we choose not to acknowledge the pain we are feeling it doesn’t just go away, it goes underground and then comes out sideways. What I mean by that is the emotional pain we bury manifests in unhealthy ways of coping if we don’t allow ourselves to grieve. We have seen it in the all too familiar story of the addict who had a traumatic childhood and used drugs to distract, temporarily forget, or numb out. While most of us aren’t addicted to substances, we all have our go to drug. Maybe your drug is pretending to be happy with a smile when you’re sad like the song suggests, maybe it’s shopping, maybe it’s not caring so you don’t let anything disappoint you, maybe it’s helping others so you can ignore your pain, maybe it’s abusive relationships. Fill in the blank with your drug or drugs of choice ___________________. Most of us will need a bigger blank.
Now I’m not saying that having a practice of gratitude, being positive, etc. is bad. I could certainly give you some of those techniques in this article like I sometimes do with clients. Those techniques are helpful because sometimes we don’t have time to express our feelings. Life demands that we sometimes put our feelings aside to go to work, care for our children, and otherwise take care of business. However, those techniques aren’t the cure. What I’m asserting is if positivity is the only way we deal with emotional pain then it’s like taking painkillers for a ruptured appendix. Whereas letting yourself feel and deal with the pain is like getting the necessary surgery. Yes, the surgery is painful and for a time you aren’t as strong, productive, or happy as you would like to be. But in the long run it saves your life. Learning to be sad may just save your life. It certainly has mine.
In short, my answer to the lyric, “smile, what’s the use of crying?” Is that crying is the very thing that enables us to smile. And not a fake smile, but a genuine smile. When we learn to grieve the pain instead of cover it up with a smile we unlock strength, compassion, gratitude, resilience, and true joy even in pain. Let’s become a people who know how to grieve well, supporting each other in the process. A people who accept the sharp pain of sorrow, loss, and disappointment that this pandemic brings because we know that facing the pain is the only way to live a full and abundant life.
If you are experiencing pain because of this pandemic (who’s not) whether it’s depression, sadness, hopelessness, anxiety, or anger I encourage you to consider talking about it with someone supportive like a friend, family member, pastor, priest, spiritual director or consider finding a therapist to be a guide through your pain during this time.