If you’ve been in my circle at The Mindful Therapist for a while, you know that 2020 hit me hard – as it did so many people. By December, I was at a cracking point and so ready to shift out of significant anxiety and depression that were related to a number of compounding stressors.
Most of us spend our lives seeking pleasure and happiness, which I’m going to argue is our natural state, however I want to start this with a major disclaimer: This blog is NOT about avoiding or suppressing painful emotions. It is not going to be about toxic positivity that pushes ‘Good Vibes Only’ and ‘just think positive’ – no ma’am.
In fact, we will be spending a LOT of time in this space learning how to fully experience painful emotions and cope with them effectively. Because here’s the catch: When you avoid painful emotions, you also inadvertently start avoiding positive ones. So if we want to be able to fully experience joy & love we have to learn how to experience pain.
We are hard-wired to feel them all (around 10 core emotions) and they’re programmed into your nervous system for a reason. Yes, even anger, guilt, shame, sadness, envy and jealousy. They each give us very important signals (if they ‘fit the facts’ of a situation and aren’t being triggered by assumptions, interpretations or judgments… but I digress).
We NEED anger to set our limits, defend and protect. We NEED sadness, to turn us inwards to tend to something or reach out for support. We NEED envy, to fuel us towards things we want to have in our lives, Shame to fit in with *important groups who align with our core values* (you may want to double check whether shame is actually justified in a specific situation, because often times it really isn’t), Guilt to urge us to repair when we’ve crossed our values, Jealousy to keep and protect what is ours if it’s actually threatened.
I realize I’ve probably just opened a pandora’s box of questions – which we’re actually not going to get into in this post – but I really really want to highlight that my focus on joy this month is not to negate other incredibly important and valid emotions that ALL have their time and place. Hopefully that teaser will at least keep you around to learn more over time about handling those more uncomfortable and difficult emotions effectively (have you signed up for my Life Balance Wheel Workbook yet to get access to my newsletters?).
All the heaviness I experienced in 2020, had me breaking open to this small thought after months of fear, anger, deep grief and sadness, ‘I just want to feel happy.’
Joy is your birthright. Buddhism teaches that joy is our natural state. How can we experience joy though, in a world that is full of so much pain (I don’t even have to list all the ways that pain manifests cause I’m sure you’ve got a thorough understanding of that).
I’ve been a fairly hopeful and optimistic person my whole life, and I’ve been labeled ‘naive’ and ‘foolish’ for those traits. Being blonde doesn’t help with that stereotype either, and honestly there’s times where I’ve felt self-conscious expressing hope and joy due to the way many people react to it. As I’ve gained wisdom I know much more clearly however that holding joy IN SPITE of others (and the state of the world) is critical, and in many ways can be an ultimate act of rebellion – And I LOVE rebels.
During my launch of ‘Modern Mindfulness’ last month I shared my upbringing in a very conservative religious family, and I often reflect on how many people wish their life away for the ‘next moment’ or the ‘next life’ when they can finally REALLY be happy. It’s easy to slip into cynicism about the world and escapist mindset, which religion and even a desperate pursuit of ‘enlightenment’ can often offer. This happens when we don’t know how to cope effectively with painful emotions (stay tuned for more on this my friend!)
It makes me so sad, because we are living NOW. We are not meant to suffer through this life and keep joy always over the next horizon.
Our brains have these special neurons called ‘Mirror Neurons’ which scientists believe play a role in empathy. When we see others hurting or happy, these neurons fire and create a mirror experience within us.
This also translates to the experience of ‘Vicarious Traumatization’ which happens when we witness other people’s pain or trauma, it impacts us with a ripple effect of trauma. A lack of empathy develops as people harden to the world when over-exposed to painful emotions and trauma, in combination with the lack of a skillset for managing those painful emotions. This is why I’m so passionate about helping people manage their emotions during this critical point in history – we must not harden and lose our empathy!
I get it, sometimes it would be great to flip that switch off. For my fellow empaths, who feel this on an even more heightened state, the struggle is real! Full blown empath here, and since I was a kid I could FEEL the pain of animals and humans alike…like, viscerally. When I first learned about animal abuse I screamed bloody murder in the car and almost made my Dad and brother go deaf! HA! Thankfully my graduate degree taught me a skillset to reduce absorption of other’s pain and emotions so that I can be more helpful.
So how do we maintain joy, in spite of the pain we experience and witness in life? My answer is simply this: the radical embrace of Joy despite all odds. Refusing to ignore the beauty of this life, refusing to brush aside the progress that happens and love that pervades in the world. So let’s get into some practical tips for bringing more joy into your life.
1. Reduce your news consumption (or at least balance it with equally positive news). I realize it’s important to stay informed on current events and play an active role in bettering the world (I will always be a social worker at heart), however 90% of broadcasted news is negative news and it is presented in a sensationalist way (they use psychologists here folx) to evoke attention and emotional response. This is why it’s important to consume news/media Mindfully
2. Get outside more. Research shows that time in nature benefits mental health. It lowers blood pressure, is soothing and grounding.
3. Practice gratitude. Before you roll your eyes at this one, give this a chance. I know this one goes around a lot, and that’s because there’s science behind it. Shifting our focus to the things going well, the things we do have, and things to feel joyful for, can really ease our experience of stress, depression and anxiety. Keep a list of things you’re thankful for, add them up, review often.
4. Practice Mindfulness. A big part of mindfulness is about getting into your 5-senses. Get out of the ‘thinking mind’ and into the ‘being mind’. That means when you’re eating a meal, savor it fully. Do one thing at a time so you can place all your attention on savoring that thing. Smell the roses… no really, smell the roses. Joy cannot be present without a healthy dose of surrender as well… letting go of attachment to outcomes – all Mindfulness practices.
5. Practice Dialectical Thinking (also covered in depth in my Modern Mindfulness course). In short, this practice means acknowledging that opposite things can both be true at the same time. Life isn’t ‘all happy’ and it’s also not ‘all sad’. Acknowledging positives does not negate acknowledging painful things that need to be solved. We can experience both and one does not subtract from the other.
6. Give Yourself Permission to Experience Joy. For the empaths out there, tagging on to dialectics, your joy does not negate the suffering of others. In fact remember those mirror neurons, your joy adds a ripple effect into the world that can ONLY benefit others. You don’t have to feel everyone’s pain at the same time.
7. Live Your Life According To Your Values. (KEY TIP: Make sure your values are actually YOURS and not someone else’s that were taught to you). There are many different values and each person is entitled to their own values. When we live in alignment with our values it brings a feeling of satisfaction. So if you value learning new things, make time for that. If you value travel, do more of it. If you value friendships, nurture them. If you value giving back, volunteer. You get the gist.
Remember, all of these tips will do you no good if you don’t actually practice them. Just ‘knowing’ something without following through with action, doesn’t help. You’ve gotta throw yourself in, all the way. No reluctance.
Speaking of that, let me wrap up one of the pivotal (and literal) jumps I took wrapping up 2020 in order to reclaim some happiness and joy in the face of fear, anger, loss and sadness: I went skydiving! It had been on my bucket list for a long time, and I needed to send a big F-You to 2020 while also fully embracing surrender and releasing fear.
And while this isn’t a recommendation to go take a big risk, it IS an invitation to join the rebellion and claim joy in your life…. In spite of it all.