Permission to feel bad

Cat sleeping face down on a blanket on the sofa. Her front paws are stretched out but folded in, touching her legs, also folded in, as if forming a triangle.
She’s here, okay. What more do you want?!

I used to try to look for the silver lining a lot – or worse, I used to try to get other people to find the silver lining. Now, in and of itself, attempting to find something positive in a bad situation is not a bad thing, nor is it wrong. It can often be helpful as we try to gain perspective, or try to motivate ourselves to keep going when things get tough.

But there are times when it’s hurtful.

There are times when we use the silver lining to ignore the warning signs. To convince ourselves to keep going in unhealthy situations instead of honestly evaluating whether it makes sense to continue on that path (e.g., stay in that job, stay in that relationship, accept being treated poorly) when we have a choice about it. Sometimes staying positive is about survival (particularly when maybe we don’t have a choice, or when the other options are worse). But there are times when it can be a form of giving up.

And it’s also a different thing to choose for yourself than for someone else.

When people are grieving, we want to take away their pain. But sometimes the best thing we can do is to give them permission to feel it. To grieve. To miss that person (or place, or life they imagined, or whatever they have lost). To hurt.

There is so much talk about empathy vs. sympathy and a fraughtness about how we should feel when we haven’t had that experience or cannot ever know what it’s like to be in the other person’s situation, can never understand its full depth. It’s easy to get carried away in one’s own head about the correctly shaped response, and how one could possibly contort oneself into that correct shape. It’s also easy to believe we can approximate someone else’s experience because something (we believe to be) similar happened to us. To fail to recognize how bad a situation truly is for someone, because we (believe we have) survived the same. Or fail to recognize structural and systemic differences. Which can be dismissive, or worse, lead to us potentially gaslighting the other person. I’ve done all of these, and I’m sure I’ll continue before catching myself—though I’m working on it.

Platitudes are about us, about easing our discomfort at not being able to do anything about this terrible situation that the other person is in. But to be a better friend would be to sit with that discomfort if it gives the other person space to grieve. To give them permission to feel bad, to be messy. To free them from feeling guilt about making you uncomfortable on top of whatever they were already feeling awful about.

Someone I respect a lot used to open meetings with a check-in and often led the way herself in what it means to be open and vulnerable, to answer the question of “how are you” honestly even when she was having a really, really tough time. What a gift.

What I’m working on these days is to get better at replying, “that’s really awful” or “that sucks” or in some way recognizing the situation and how someone is feeling. To acknowledge their reality. I’m working at making space for people to feel as they feel. To answer “how are you” as honestly as they wish to. Even when they feel bad. And also, to get better at sharing with the people in my life when I’m having a hard time.

If you or someone you know is in crisis, or struggling, then please reach out to your local lifelines. If you’re in the US, you can call or text 988, or find more resources at 988lifeline.org. If you’re in Japan, you can contact the TELL lifeline via phone at 03-5774-0992 or chat.