The Courage to Feel Bad

When my mother died a few months ago a friend came up to me as I was holding myself and crying and told me I had a lot of courage to let myself feel so bad.Ê At the time I thought her words were weird to say the least.Ê My mother had just passed away from lung cancer.Ê I had spent the last year and a half seesawing from complete despair and devastation to optimism and hope.Ê Of course I felt bad, I felt terrible.Ê My world had just caved in. All the plans I had made with my mother would never be realized.Ê The life she planned for herself after losing my father two years before would never happen.Ê And I now had no parents and felt basically alone in the world.

It wasn’t until I returned to California that I understood the words my friend said to me.Ê I read for the second time Judy Tatelbaums’ wonderful book “The Courage to Grieve” and realized that not only does grief take courage but feeling bad about any situation took courage in this society of positive thinkers, especially in California.

We are bombarded by so many messages to not show our feelings unless they are positive, of course. I once attended a meeting where the keynote speaker received a standing ovation for stating he would give a large sum of money to anyone who caught him responding to the question “How Are You” with any answer butÊ “FANTASTIC”.Ê For weeks afterward I heard people replying Fantastic whenever anyone else inquired how they were, even though I knew some of them were scared or depressed.

There has also been the profound belief here that you cause everything that happens to you.Ê Several years ago I was in a car accident where I was a passenger and the driver of the other car ran a red light.Ê I hurt my back, and had to miss several weeks of work.Ê Upon telling my doctor I was feeling sad and a little depressed, she responded by informing me that I needed to look over my life and ask myself what I had done to bring this upon myself.Ê As far as I knew I had just been a passenger in a car on the way to get groceries.Ê I didn’t know I had so much power to cause an accident from the passenger side. All I wanted was for my doctor to give me some empathy.

When one of my friends lost his home in the earthquake, he was told that he was not meant to have material things, and should appreciate the freedom.

Another slogan people throw around as a way of inhibiting the feeling process is

“This is a learning process”, or “What did you learn from this experience.”Ê We learn from all of our experiences no matter how awful they are.Ê We have to if living is to have a meaning and purpose, but everything does not happen in order to teach us a lesson.Ê Before we can learn from the sad or bad experiences we must first go through them, and feel the pain or we will never really be able to look at them fully later on.Ê Some things take longer to go through than others, and denying our feelings will only take us longer to recover. Nicole Schapiro, a well-known speaker and consultant who lost her home, business in a fire and her research and notes of five years for her book said “people for the most part were really wonderful, but I was surprised that a few people practically ran away when they saw me, or quickly switched the subject when I talked about how bad I felt. They were clearly very uncomfortable with the pain and sadness.Ê One person asked me what positive things I was getting from the process. In order for me to get through this and get on with my life, I need to grieve. I lost more than just material things. I lost memories, all the research for my book, pictures of my family who were killed in the holocaust, and years of work.

People said since I lost it all before I should know how to handle it, and that means I shouldnât feel bad.Ê People mean well, they just hate the mirror of pain or bad feelings they havenât handled in their own life.”

When Mary Leverettes’ daughter was in a car accident, and was in serious condition, she was told that god doesnât give you more than you can handle.

My question is ” who besides you knows what you can handle?”Ê If someone loses their job, home and economic support, and then goes beserk and kills twenty people, does that mean that god decided those twenty people can handle it?

Upon hearing that my mother had cancer, a friend called me and told me my mother should find out the meaning of her cancer, change her life and regard the cancer as a gift. Another friend who overheard that said “some gift, can I return it?”

Another common response to tragedy or disappointments is “that was meant to happen to teach you………….Ê ” When a large electronics company laid off over 500 employees recently, a manager with four children who had worked for the company over 15 years was told by a colleague that he was meant to leave that job and pursue his lifeâs goals.Ê The manager said he had been under the impression he was pursuing those goals all along, and asked his colleague why he felt it was necessary for him to have lost the job.Ê The colleague replied, “Donât question the universe”.Ê If in fact the manager was “meant to lose that job to find his lifeâs work”, what about the 499 other employees?Ê Were they also meant to find their lifeâs work too, or was the universe aiming specifically at the manager and the other firings were simply casualties of the universes plan for the manager, or possibly it was the universe practicing time managementÊ so all 500 employees could find their life goals at once.Ê The point is that everything that happens is not necessarily directed at us personally.

During the presidential election between Bush and Dukakis, it was rumored that Gov. Dukakis might have been depressed and gone to therapy when his brother was killed in a car crash. Of course Dukakis vehemently denied those allegations and insisted he had never been in therapy.Ê That is a great example of the taboo of feeling bad and getting help to get through it.Ê I suppose it would have been better if Gov. Dukakis had produced pictures of himself dancing the night after his brotherâs death to prove he hadnât been upset.Ê This would have shown the public he had what it takes to lead the country. (the inability to be affected by personal tragedy)

Our culture does not allow people to show our bad or sad feelings or to even cry.Ê This is the society or culture when a presidentÊ (Reagan) gets shot and then makes jokes. The prevailing sentiment was “What a great attitude he has”.Ê How can any of us feel bad about the tragedies of our own life after that?Ê Another part of this syndrome is the “How can you feel bad about losing your job when other people have it so much worse?” This can translate into why feel bad about losing one leg if Joe down the street has no legs, and Joe should feel better knowing that May down the street has lost not only two legs but an arm.Ê We can go to ridiculous lengths to run from the fact that something has happened that is a tragedy, and in order to really get past it without having a breakdown or getting severely ill, we need to experience those feelings.

In both Jewish and Arab cultures it is more acceptable to feel bad, to mourn and cry profusely, and not return to work immediately following a death. In these two cultures, the bereaved sit in the house for a week and people come visit, and bring food and comfort. It is difficult to be raised in a culture where it is not only okay to mourn, but considered a healthy way to deal with the loss, and then to have to work and live in an environment where you are only allowed three days off for bereavement, and expected to perform up to maximum potential right away, and told to lighten up.Ê I spoke to a colleague from India who recently lost her mother.Ê She talked about the problems she was having,Ê “In Indian culture we have certain rituals we have around mourning. Showing grief is not only accepted but expected. When I returned to this country after losing my mother my co-workers couldnât understand why I didnât feel like going out dancing with them after only a month.Ê They thought I should make myself feel better whether I wanted to or not.” In this society, it takes courage and the ability to tell yourself you will feel bad no matter what other people think.Ê You have to cope with other peoples’ judgements of you i.e. “Isnât she over that yet? Its been two months already”,Ê “Why does he still feel bad about that divorce, she never was right for him”, “She should accept that job loss and move on.”Ê “Leave the past behind” “It was meant to be.” “Feeling bad and crying is such a waste of time”

Of course there is an appropriate reaction to different events.Ê It would be unhealthy if I broke my favorite dish, and sat in the house crying for two weeks and told every one I spoke to about it.Ê If we lose our jobs we need to feel bad, and still find a new one, but itÊ is still all rightÊ to grieve the lostÊ job.Ê When I lost my mother I still needed to function after a certain time, butÊ I continue to carry the pain with me.Ê That does not mean I donât laugh or smile when I remember some of the things we did together.Ê I am grateful for the time I had with her. She lives on in my heart, but I still cry when I see women who remind me of her, and I got sad in a department store when I stood next to a man buying a beautiful outfit for his wife, and I thought of how my father loved buying things for my mother, how much they loved each other, and how I missed that relationship, and that I will never be able to be with either parent again.Ê And at the same time I can enjoy my friends and my life, and allow myself to integrate the loss with my new experiences.Ê

Sometimes when people run from friends who have had bad things happen to them it is because they themselves feel afraid and uncomfortable.Ê They fear we will get out of control.Ê We canât take care of those feelings for them.Ê If we are close to them we might tell them how we feel, that we need their support, and how they can support us. That is all we really can do.

Life happens, and tragedies and disappointments occur.Ê Whatever the reason, we feel bad.Ê When we repress our feelings they come out in other ways, anger, rage, overeating, anorexia, drugs, alcohol, smoking, depression. self-destruction. It takes more courage to feel bad and let people know how we feel, than to pretend everything is all right, because when we show our feelings, we have to deal with other peoples opinions and possible rejection of us.Ê I like to say in public that I feel so much better now that I have the courage to feel bad.

Kwambe Ohmdahda, a registered nurse who works with patients who have life threatening illnesses, and their families, and who also lost her father said, “A lot of people canât be around others who feel bad, they want you to feel better somehow. They donât want you to feel bad in front of them because they know they are powerless to do anything, or if you express any kind of emotion other than feeling good, they assume you will lose all control and they won’t be able to handle it.

My relationship with my father was one of deep love, and after losing him I know I can cry or laugh anytime. I’ll realize if I’m getting bizarre and I’ll take care of myself.”Ê She then goes on to say, “the shame or outward denial of feeling bad begins when we are children. When a child is angry or depressed we tell them to stop, that they don’t need to cry.Ê Children grow through their emotions and we need to support them and allow that growth.”

Whatever the occurrence we have a right to feel bad, and we need to give ourselves self-talk and say, “AÊ (sad, tragic, disappointing or whatever the appropriate word is) thing happened.Ê It is normal to feel bad, and express it.Ê I will be more emotionally healthy if I allow these feelings and will be able to let go easier and sooner if I feel rather than deny.

ItÊ is also a good idea to have a person you can use for support, and talk to when you have doubts aboutÊ the validity of your feelings.Ê This friend will listen and reassure you of your right to feel bad. Make sure the people you ask for support are able to give it.Ê There is an old saying “donât go to an orange tree looking for apples”.

How will we be able to recognize joy if we have never felt sadness? How can we know fulfillment if we have never known loss? And how can we be human if we never feel?

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