It’s OK to hang on to your negative emotions if you’re not ready to let them go

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So many times when we are depressed, or just having a bad day, people will tell us to “cheer up” or “look on the bright side”, as if repressing our negative emotions or pretending they don’t exist is going to make them go away. It can feel like we’re supposed to be happy and cheerful all the time, and if we’re already struggling with low mood – perhaps because we’re facing genuinely difficult challenges in our life at the moment – that extra pressure is the last thing we need.

When we’re facing a difficulty in our lives, what we need to do is work through that difficulty. If that difficulty is what’s causing our low mood, then once we’ve resolved the problem, the low mood should dissipate of its own accord. Trying to get rid of the low mood – or pretend it doesn’t exist – in order to get ourselves in the right frame of mind to focus on the problem is the wrong approach. We don’t always have to be happy to get things done. Jessica Gimeno has given a popular TED talk called “How to get stuff done when you are depressed”. If you’re struggling so much right now that getting anything done is a monumental effort, her talk is well worth watching.

But if you know your low mood is the result of a difficult problem or situation, your priority has to be addressing the problem rather than addressing your low mood. And you don’t need the added pressure of everyone telling you that your low mood is somehow “wrong” or “the problem”. And you don’t need to be putting that pressure on yourself either. It’s perfectly OK to hang on to the doubt or the fear or the insecurity or whatever negative emotion you have right now, as long as it doesn’t stop you taking action to solve your problem.

That idea was something of a revelation to me when I was struggling with depression. I’d lived with negativity – doubt, lack of motivation, a deep sense of unworthiness – for so long that I’d got comfortable with those emotions. Unpleasant though they were, they were familiar, and the idea of letting them go was scary. I didn’t know who I’d be if I wasn’t depressed. It was a huge relief when I realized that I could just go ahead and move forward with my life, start living, get things done, without having to worry about letting all those negative emotions go. It was as if one of the barriers to moving forward had suddenly been taken away. I could work on the problems that I knew how to tackle, and I could carry all my negativity along with me if it made me feel better. In a strange way, that was a really comforting thought.

I’m well on my way out of depression now, and I never really have tackled my negative emotions. Through mindfulness, I’ve learned to live with them. But I find that the more I accept my negative emotions as just being a part of who I am right now, and the more progress I make on bringing my life into line with where I want it to be, the more the negative emotions just seem to fade away. I’m not making them go; I’m not taking positive steps to get rid of them. Rather, the negative emotions are floating away all by themselves because they’re not needed any more.

Sometimes the solution doesn’t lie in trying ever harder to solve whichever problem you or someone else thinks is most important. If that approach hasn’t been working for you, perhaps work on a different problem for a while – and the original problem might just sort itself out along the way.

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