Recently, I received a text from a friend who is in the process of trading her title of boss for one of employee. It’s a well-timed decision that will improve her quality of life, and she’d been happy and excited about it the last time we talked. But her message that day read, “I feel like such a failure.”
I was surprised. My friend is one of the most grounded and confident women I know. I didn’t realize the word failure was even in her vocabulary. I immediately sent her back a long text reminding her that she was not anything close to a failure. I used lots of capital letters and exclamation points. I didn’t think much of it when I didn’t hear back.
But a few weeks later, when my friend was talking about clearing out her desk in anticipation of her replacement moving in she said, “I still have a few twinges of feeling like I failed–” she turned towards me and added with an edge in her voice, “–even though I know that I’m not a failure.”
I was a little taken aback. I rechecked the text I’d sent–it seemed upbeat and supportive–I couldn’t understand where I’d misstepped.
Fortunately, around that time my friend Mary dropped by with some hand-me-downs for my daughters. Mary is a wise and insightful person with children a few years older than mine. As usual, our conversation turned to parenting. Mary commented on the delicate balance of managing adolescent highs and lows. “I don’t want to change what they are experiencing. I want them to have room to embrace their feeling.” She paused. “But I do want to teach them how to move through their emotions without taking it out on those they live with.”
We laughed, but after Mary left I kept thinking about what she said. Not the part about not being used as a scapegoat for your children’s angst, but the part about giving them room to move through what they are feeling without asking them to change. I have a shelfful of parenting books with advice about how to help my children maintain a harmonious even keel. Alongside those titles are self-help books that give guidance on how to buck up, get over it, and move on. Few mention giving room to our feelings. Yet Mary reminded me that sometimes children and adults alike need an opportunity to experience the wide spectrum of human emotions.
Years ago, I met a psychologist who took the idea of embracing emotions to the extreme degree. “I tell my clients, if you are feeling sad or depressed, let yourself be sad or depressed. If you are feeling bitchy, feel bitchy. Wallow in it. Dedicate the day to it. Celebrate it.” It sounded like a wacky and somewhat scary idea to me. If you fall head first into your emotion like she suggested, won’t you end up mired in that emotional state? Won’t you become that feeling and make a habit of it?
Despite my doubt, I tried it. The next time I was feeling particularly low, I just let myself be low. I moped. I sighed a lot and felt put upon by life. I ran a mental tape of complaints through my head without trying to replace them with happy thoughts. I planned to ride my low all day long and give it all the room it needed, but after about an hour, I noticed that I wasn’t low anymore. I was over it. On to the next emotion.
Because there is always going to be another emotional state lurking right around the corner, which is why Buddhist tradition instructs followers to deal with emotional upheaval by simply sitting and observing. Notice what you are feeling without letting that feeling define who you are. It is the difference between saying “I feel sad” rather than “I am sad.” By not attaching ourselves to an emotional state–either a high or low–and by not resisting our feelings, our emotions are free to move on instead of becoming who we think we are.
This is easier said than done. Strong emotions are uncomfortable at best, and it is even more agonizing to watch those you love struggle with their own emotional challenges. How much easier to sweep unpleasant feelings under the rug as quickly as possible. But that old adage is true: What you resists, persists. Suppressed emotions don’t go away. If anything, resistance makes them stronger and more engrained in our sense of self. They begin to define us, and in turn, become habitual. As hard as it is, perhaps it is wiser to give room to our emotions. To allow ourselves to feel grief, anger, or even failure.
Which is why if I had a do-over, I’d send my friend a different text in reply to her electronic wail regarding her career shift. Before listing her bright and shiny qualities, I’d first say, “It’s okay to feel like a failure. There’s room for that.”