In high school, I wrote a 40-page research paper about how positive thinking is bullshit. This paper centered around the book, Bright-Sided, written by Barbara Ehrenreich.
Ehrenreich began noticing this trend of overly-positive thinking when she was diagnosed with breast cancer. Ehrenreich saw a common trend of pushing a positive narrative and being referred to as a “fighter,” “survivor,” and someone whose “life will change after beating this.” She felt guilt for wanting to feel like shit and be angry, something that everyone seemed to be pushing down.
This led to a deep dive into researching the self-help industry and criticizing mainstream ideas, like The Secret, a book on the law of attraction. A key issue Ehrenreich took with the positive mindset movement was that we are pushing the narrative that if we are not happy then we are broken.
Now, I might just be a pessimist, but I have noticed that there is an influx of “manifestation coaches,” claiming that you can create your dream life just by positive thinking and scripting. I also just want to say that I do believe in manifestation; HOWEVER, I do not believe in spiritual bypassing and I believe that we do a huge disservice to the possibilities of re-mything our narrative by saying that the key is to see ourselves happy and we will attract.
The Evolution of the American Dream
Happiness is one of the main six basic emotions of human psychology, something that is fleeting. However, as a society, especially in America, we push this narrative that happiness can be a constant state to be achieved and this idea has been preyed upon by the self-help gurus and the wellness industry.
This is not something new and I don’t believe it only resides in the wellness industries. My theory is that it stems from the byproduct of marketing tactics over the years; most notably, the American Dream.
The American Dream was repurposed over the years, beginning as a representation of the nation’s dream of equality, justice and democracy. This idea eventually transitioned into the American Dream many of us know today. This dream became skewed into this desire for individual wealth and success.
Businesses used this phrase throughout the 1950s as a consumerist ideal to push products to those seeking out this individual wealth and success.
Though this is just a personal theory, I think that as we began to globalize, this phrase turned from the American Dream into the general, “happiness.” Where businesses were advertising products that pushed the American dream narrative, they soon started pushing products to help you create a better version of yourself and “achieve happiness.” If you buy this product or service, you will find love or success and ultimately happiness.
These marketing tactics inadvertently attributed to happiness becoming synonymous with success. Modern consumerism does not function if we all have high self-worth. In order to get you to buy into a brand, the business needs to make you feel like you are missing out if you do not do what they are saying. That you are not worthy until you have that product or achieve that societal milestone.
I don’t think this is fully the result of consumerism; I just believe we should look into trends that have impacted the narrative we are telling ourselves. Ultimately, I think this American Dream and goal of happiness has influenced us to avoid the more uncomfortable emotions.
Happiness or Bust
The more we grew the self-help industry, the more we gravitated towards the idea that happiness was a goal to be achieved and negative emotions were the enemy. With this shift in society, I believe most people began hiding away these emotions in order to feel like they had obtained the American Dream. We as human beings are always looking forward. If I become a lawyer, I will be happy. If I get to the house, I will be happy. If I get married, I will finally be happy.
This created dissonance with many, feeling that if they expressed these negative emotions, then they would not attract those things in life. This became even more prominent with the social media boom and with more and more “gurus” coming out and saying that we are capable of attracting things through positive thought.
We all identify what we believe to be that key point of “happiness,” yet no one really knows what true happiness is. If you look in the dictionary, the definition leaves you even more unsure, stating “happiness is the state of being happy,” and happily stated as “showing pleasure.” Not the most useful definition out there.
We seek out the easiest path. We are lazy creatures by design, so when someone comes to us, saying that we can have our dreams without going through those uncomfortable emotions, we desperately want to believe them. But, there is a reason that the majority of the basic emotions are “negative.” We would not be here today if we did not go through those negative emotions as a species in order to survive.
We hold onto fear and grief more easily than we do joy because we needed to in order to remember where and what we needed to avoid. We would remember certain areas that we knew a tiger was because we were attacked there, or we knew not to eat a certain leaf because we would remember a reaction. Bad emotions create a deeper knowing in ourselves and our environment. The only way to thrive is to fully lean into those emotions and to release them in a healthy and nurturing way.
The Way Out is Through
When we try to avoid uncomfortable emotions, we turn to vices that numb us. Whether we turn to alcohol, media, sex, drugs, we all have coping mechanisms in order to shut down certain emotions. We are taught to suppress and deflect.
This causes us to shut off our emotional channels, which causes stress on the body and discomfort in our energy. Through this avoidance, when emotions finally do come up, our body and energy go into a state of shock, causing us to turn to numb even more.
Disconnection from our emotions and our body also can affect our environment. Everything is the matter, right? So we are all vibrating and different frequencies, and when we shut down our emotional channel, we are either causing our frequency to lower or we are pushing those emotions through to someone whose channel is actually open (hello empaths). We have the power to affect those around us, so in an ideal world, we all would show up for ourselves through our emotions, learn from them, and then grow together. Instead, we have large groups of people blocking off those difficult feelings and causing those that are emotionally sensitive to feel the emotions tenfold.
So we know all this, but how the hell do we fix it?
Connecting to Your Emotions
If you have been numbing or avoiding emotions, then I have listed a few tips for connecting to your body and emotions. I am not a licensed therapist, these are just experiences from my own healing journey as someone that prided themselves on never crying in the past.
Journals Save Lives
Firstly, I just want to say how important it is to get a journal. I started journaling almost every day five years ago, and I credit writing as one of the main sources for my emotional development. When we journal, we free our minds from looping and allow ourselves to dump everything onto paper, decluttering the mind and offering new insight into our emotions.
I have been through multiple rock bottoms in my life. I have experienced situations in my life where I felt I could not get out of, could not find motivation and felt completely lost. One of these rock bottoms involved a traumatic experience that was coupled with grief from my mother being diagnosed with two types of cancer. Instead of acknowledging my emotions and seeking help, I shut down and sought out coping mechanisms to numb myself.
I had adopted an OCD tendency of picking my skin in order to cope and “turn off” to my environment. When I did seek out help, my therapist offered me a technique to start identifying my blocks and what I was hiding from. I do not recommend this if your coping mechanism is harmful to you or others.
I call it observational indulgence. Instead of shaming myself for the ways I chose to cope, I would allow myself to indulge in the coping mechanism. I would allow myself to feel the desire and would just observe as it was happening. In my journal, I would date and time when I would pick my skin, write anything that occurred before that may have triggered that desire, any feeling that may have happened during, and how I felt after.
If you are pushing down emotions for so long, there is a chance that you have created numbing acts as well, which can be from anything. I encourage you to start observing your own behaviors and triggers to start opening up channels to emotions that may have been hidden from you.
After logging my behaviors, I began journaling the basic emotions. I would write out ways in which each emotion presents in my body. This included any sensation that would come up for me, any trigger in which I found I experienced that emotion, and any memory that may be linked to that emotion.
Taking time to connect with my actions and sensations really began opening my emotional channel and allowed me a deeper insight into where I wanted to begin healing from and understanding.
Shadow Work Meditation
If you feel called to more spiritual practices, this meditation technique really helped me connect to my body.
I adapted this from a spirit hack from Shaman Durek.
Using this meditation music, I lay down somewhere that I can have complete calmness. I begin the music and take deep breaths (4 counts in, hold the breath for 4 seconds, 6 counts out) for 10 minutes to get into a relaxed state.
When I am ready, silently to myself, I ask “Spirit, show me where I am holding emotion.” This is based on the theory that our bodies hold onto emotions and many pains that we feel are trapped emotions and memories.
I will feel a sensation somewhere in my body and then say silently to myself, “thank you, I felt that. Spirit, show me why I am holding onto this emotion.” Then I let my mind wander as I keep a focus on my breath. The more I did this meditation, the more memories and emotions would come up. I would cry, sometimes I would feel the need to yell or hit something.
When I felt I was finished feeling the emotion fully, I would silently say, “I am ready to release this emotion.”
Once I came back up from the meditation, I would journal about any memory or emotion that I felt called to address.
Schedule in Sadness
When I was really sad or was holding a lot of grief, I would schedule in time to fully feel those emotions and wallow. I think we feel we constantly have to be busy, which makes it harder to fully acknowledge and experience our emotions.
I would give myself maybe one or two days to fully express my emotion, loud sobbing, and all. One of the mistakes we tend to make with emotions is when we start tearing up, we instantly try to hold it back, and then we never address it. Scheduling in sadness might feel strange at first, but an emotion cannot be released until we fully embrace it and let it move through us.
After I fully felt those emotions, I would write down what I was ready to release on tiny strips of paper and then burn them (safely).
Once we begin opening the flood gates of emotions, it can become easy to get trapped in wallowing. It’s important to step back into a high self-worth once we are ready to release the emotions we have been working through.
When I am ready to get out of those states and have gained the insights I have needed from those emotions, I begin writing out a chart.
On one side I write down things that light me up and on the other, I write down things that drain me.
For the next week, I focus on as many things as I can from the “light” side and try to remove as many things from the “drain.” This helps solidify the release and reminds me of the power I hold.