A Lesson From Paradise: Eat, Drink, and Feel Sadness!

Posted on July 19, 2011

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A few years ago, I accidentally stumbled upon a very specific process that helped me sort my shit out. It still does.

Currently, my friend Nadine is trying to sort her shit out. I can’t be certain my process will be of any use to her but it might be and, if not her, maybe, someone else will find it useful. Moreover, explaining how the process works and how I discovered it will only help my own understanding of it.

So, here we go.

When I was in the final months of finishing my PhD thesis, I was very lucky to end up living a short walk from Little Palm Beach on Waiheke Island in New Zealand. Because I had set myself the more or less impossible task of pretty much restarting my thesis from scratch, with the deadline six months away, I realized, in order to avoid imploding in a flurry of reading, writing, and editing, I would need to dedicate some part of each day to not working on the thesis or thinking about it.

Eventually, I decided — sensibly enough — that beach time would be a no-thesis-thinking-zone. Accordingly, while I basked in the sun and swam in the surf, I carefully policed my thoughts. If I caught myself thinking about any aspect of my thesis — however minor — I forced myself to think of something else.

Fortunately, a pristine, beautiful, and clothing-optional beach was a pretty good place to distract my brain from a thesis. Eventually, at some point, I’m not even sure when, after many months of my brain sneaking thesis-thinking into my stream of consciousness by any means necessary and me saying, “nein!”, it stopped trying. Unbeknownst to me, it had learned to do what I had been trying to teach it: there are better and worse times for certain lines of thought and beach time is not a good time for thesis-thinking. So, don’t even bother!

A month or two after I had accomplished the impossible — submitting my thesis on time (a few days early even) — I was lying on my couch and I discovered — to my surprise and dismay — that I was in a horrible and anxious mood. Realizing this, I thought: “How is this possible? I finished my thesis, I live near a beach, I have plenty of money to meet my basic needs, I have a great tan, by any measure my life is fantastic! There’s no reason to feel miserable. This is crazy.”

So, in effort to figure out why I was feeling so bad at that moment, I retraced my thoughts and, eventually, discovered that the bad mood had originated in my worrying about the only negative feature of my life at that time (a bureaucratic struggle at the university). Having retraced my mental steps, I also saw how that very specific worry had eventually transformed into a general and unspecified state of anxiety.

So, I reflected. OK, sure, I have good reason to be angry and frustrated about the situation but, at this present moment, I am totally powerless to change the situation. The institutional machinery will run its course and, when it does, I will be in a position to do something then and only then. Worrying about it now is pointless, futile, and counterproductive. Be angry or frustrated — whatever you’re feeling — and move on.

I took a moment to experience my anger and frustration — to really feel it — then, I told myself to stop thinking about it. And because my mind was now trained not to obsesses over certain trains of thought. I stopped thinking about it. The negative mood disappeared very quickly and I felt better.

I was so pleased with the outcome that I decided to keep at it and, eventually, the process became a habit. If I felt bad, I’d stop what I was doing and reflect. I’d trace my thoughts to the source of the negative thinking, identify it, assess whether or not there was anything I could do to improve the situation at that moment, and always be sure to take the time at some point to really feel the negative feelings.

Fortunately for me, I had already incorporated one important part of the the process into my life: the really feeling it bit.

A few years previously, by writing one ridiculously hateful letter that was never mailed, I realized that allowing myself to experience anger in its full fury — however irrational — is really helpful and, in fact, crucial. More importantly, the person, place, or thing, that caused the anger didn’t even need to experience my anger when I expressed it honestly to myself. Not too long after, I realized that this discovery also applied to other emotions like sadness or hurt. And from that point forward, I started letting myself experience negative emotions — especially those spurred by any memory however distant.

To summarize, this is how I think I came up with my process for dealing with my shitty moods:

First, almost by accident, I taught myself how to control my inner monologue out there on Little Palm Beach. Second, because I was living in paradise, I had no choice but to accept the fact that happiness should be my everyday state of being. Because of this, I was forced to look for the source of my seemingly irrational anxiety and sadness. Third, because I already knew I would eventually feel better if I allowed myself to experience a negative-but-natural-and-rational feeling like anger, hurt, or sadness, when I discovered the source of my bad mood, I was ready to feel it and, by feeling it, make myself feel better in the long wrong.

A couple of years after my time on Little Palm Beach, I watched my young nephew and his mother in action. He was happy one moment, went cranky, and then started wailing like it was the end of the world. Other than giving him a comforting place to cry it out, my sister-in-law said and did nothing else. After a few minutes of pathos, he was a perfectly happy kid again. More vibrant than before even! And I thought to myself, “That’s how it’s suppose to work.” Sometimes in life, we feel bad, we need to experience those emotions, then we feel better again.

Of course, as we grew older, we eventually learn — and I think rightly so — we can’t always cry it out whenever our feelings are hurt or our hormones are out of whack. The mistake many of us seem to make is to think that experiencing these feelings is itself a bad thing and we work very hard not to do it ever. I’m prepared to speculate that everyone needs to experience these kinds of feelings in the short term to be truly happy in the long term.

My suggestion for one and all is this: the next time you feel shitty, identify the source of the feelings, feel as much as you are ready to feel at that moment, and move on until the next time you need to feel it. Some extroverted folks may want a person to witness the feelings but I doubt it has to be the person, place, or thing that was the cause of the negative feelings.

In the early going, for some of you, it might seem like experiencing negative feelings only unearths more negative feelings to experience but, based on my own efforts, I can say you will feel better — even if only less worse — and eventually the hurt and sadness will fade and only happiness will remain — whether or not you are lucky enough to be living in paradise.

Posted in: Identity