It’s OK to not be OK
I was puzzling how to articulate the value of experiencing a range of emotions when Disney handed me the answer. This answer came via the new animated feature Inside Out. My kids have been referring to it as “The Emotions Movie”. In a fun and playful way, this film tackles the task of explaining the confusing, complex, sticky wonder of our emotions. How memories are stored for short term, long term, or deleted when we no longer need them.
Not surprisingly, there is a great deal of sadness unpacked at The Nook. Sometimes clients come seeking relief from the sadness. They will say things like, “I’m just so sad, I can’t get over it”. Sometimes this is uttered mere weeks after a miscarriage, or months after a separation. My response? “Of course you’re sad, something very sad has happened in your life”. In the beginning, new clients are surprised that I’m not insistent on ‘looking on the bright side’ or rushing to nudge them out of their sadness. We sit with it. We discuss it. They have the space to feel their sadness and let it out. Full boxes of tissue are sometimes used up in a single session. Carrying around all that pain is hard work. It’s a relief to finally have somewhere to put it.
One of the major themes that Inside Out highlights is that it’s okay not to be okay. We need sadness just as much as we need joy. In the film each emotion is personified as a character, and each character is attributed a color. Joy is yellow, sadness is blue, anger is red etc. Rainbows are a theme throughout the movie and a great way to conceptualize our different emotions.
Just as a rainbow is composed of a variety of colors, so too is the landscape of our emotions. Where we get stuck is when we only experience one emotion. Or when we pressure ourselves to exclusively be happy. Some clients become Eeyore-like: stuck in sadness as a habit, an uncomfortable but familiar place to hunker down. Others become sad when they expect to only ever be happy and feel as though they’re repeatedly failing at that goal. We all tend to fail at unrealistic goals.
In the movie, eleven-year-old Riley has relocated with her family. Her parents focus so much on pointing out the great new opportunities and highlights of living in a new city, that they don’t allow Riley the space to be sad & miss her old life. She says to them, “You need me to be happy”. Often times as parents we want to ease our children’s suffering or the suffering of friends and family so we rush to point out the silver lining. Sometimes we even want to push away our own sadness. But sadness is a persistent emotion. It will stick. It will wait quietly (or not so quietly) to be honored.
In therapy, all kinds of fascinating process and insights occur. One of the most interesting is that a new, fresh loss has the power to resurrect previous, seemingly unrelated, unprocessed losses. At 19, Felix lost a close friend in a drinking and boating accident. The families didn’t discuss the loss. The kids who were at the lake together never discussed the tragedy. It was as if this boy had never existed. Over a decade later, when Felix saw a boating accident on the news, the surge of trauma and sadness was overwhelming for him. He had the wisdom and courage to seek help through therapy. With dedicated time and space, Felix was able to acknowledge the full range of anguish and loss. He articulated the sorrow he had been carrying around for many years, and, as a result, was able to let it go.
In the film, the sad character exhibits a thoughtful, simple approach. She says with a shrug, “He was sad, so I listened”. This is a great reminder that the best way to deal with sadness is just through listening with compassion and tenderness. To others and to ourselves. Nutritionists advise us to eat a rainbow of colors, its good for our health. As a therapist, I recommend experiencing a full rainbow of emotions; it’s good for our health.