When Feelings Aren’t the Answer

I suck at feelings. Anyone who knows me well knows I suck at feelings. Aside from a vague sense of “good feeling” and “bad feeling”, any attempt I’ve made at dissecting my feelings, “feeling deeper”, or “letting myself feel everything – the highest highs, the lowest lows”, or even “talking about it” has led me to some incredibly dark spaces.

Not all of us are made for the emotional roller coaster lifestyle! For some people, or so I hear, being able to feel so intensely has been a blessing, an incredible way to perceive the world. For me, especially as someone who has struggled with depression and anxiety, the advice to “feel deeper!” has only led to few, sparse, moments of utterly thrilling joys, and many more winding spirals of deep, dark depression and a sense of utter emptiness in my life.

That advice nearly killed me: when you’re told to feel deeper, and to record and talk about those feelings, and all you’re feeling is, well, utter shit, or nothingness enough to see no point to life, feelings are no longer the answer, no longer the key to solving the riddle of the happiness of life. It also left me feeling desperate for some sense of happiness. What if I could *never* be truly happy? What if my happiest moments had already passed? What if this was all there was? Eventually, this desperation turned into a sense of stark hopelessness which again would start a depressive spiral. All my thoughts, all my feelings were centered, focused on this incredible unhappiness with no way out. I am incredibly wary, therefore, of the insinuation that life is “all about these magical highs and lows” – while I’ve felt those highs and lows in the past, they do not feel magical to me, only ultimately incredibly burdensome.

I value stability, solidity, the boringness of a life that is planned, that has meaning because I imagine it to have meaning, because I am building, from scratch, meaning and simple joys into it – – meaning that comes from inside me and radiates out. This, far more than anything else, has been the most powerful, most empowering weapon that I have in my fight against depression. Working to build a life of meaning has been much more satisfying to me than building a life that has meaning only because I rely on happiness.  And I’m not the only one who thinks this way – Emily Esfahani Smith writes, in her article “Meaning is Healthier Than Happiness” that  “Being happy is about feeling good. Meaning is derived from contributing to others or to society in a bigger way.”

Barbara Frederickson, a researcher that studying happiness and meaning, said “Empty positive emotions” — like the kind people experience during manic episodes or artificially induced euphoria from alcohol and drugs — ”are about as good for you for as adversity,”

Smith, in her article “There’s More to Life Than Being Happy” writes about Viktor Frankl, a Jewish health professional who survived the Nazi camps: ” In his bestselling 1946 book, Man’s Search for Meaning, which he wrote in nine days about his experiences in the camps, Frankl concluded that the difference between those who had lived and those who had died came down to one thing: Meaning, an insight he came to early in life. […] Everything can be taken from a man but one thing,” Frankl wrote in Man’s Search for Meaning, “the last of the human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”

In my own battle with depression, I know this to be true – depression is ultimately to be without meaning in one’s life. I’ve written here before about my experiences with depression and how exiting the endless haze is such a difficult task.

I’m at a point in my life now where I openly say “fuck you” to my feelings – more playfully than resentfully, more exasperatedly, than angrily. My feelings have never been an accurate marker of *literally anything* in my life, and have usually just been incredible distortions  – that goes for good and happy feelings (like feeling intensely in love), as well as the unhappy feelings (like feeling utterly and spectacularly worthless). These incredible highs and lows just left me feeling unable to parse reality – a reality external to me – in any kind of meaningful way.

This isn’t to say there isn’t some internal truth to these feelings: of course there is,  because that’s kind of what feelings are – a weird internal landscape that is very real in that internal space. And I know I’ve written about love *endlessly* and loss *endlessly*.  But there is no tangible reason to think that every feeling I happen to feel is somehow bound to some tangible reality external to me – and that includes my perceptions about myself. I have to believe this you see, because if I don’t, then this intense prioritization of feelings, and the notion that what we feel is the sum total of our existence does a great injustice to those of us dealing with mental health issues. My feelings cannot, and likely never will be, the sum total of my existence – if they were, my existence could be easily chalked up to being, well, bleak, and quite pointless. Instead, I’ve had to confront my feelings, have chats with them, ponder loneliness – the forever kind, ponder desolation, be vulnerable with myself, hold my demons quite gently and recognize, ultimately,  that I do not have to give weight or importance to every single feeling that comes my way. 

That includes intense joys, which I no longer seek. And it includes intense lows, which…for a long time were an every-day part of my life. Instead, now, I respectfully acknowledge my feelings, accept them, make room in myself for them to exist, and wave goodbye as they leave. I do not run away from my feelings, but neither do I pretend that they have to have any kind of grip on me that will only be resolved by “talking about it”. No amount of affirmation in my life has amounted to the kind of peace I’ve found in being able to hold my own demons, and have a damn adult conversation with myself. Chalking this up to ‘fear of being vulnerable with people’ is a misunderstanding of what is actually happening:  I just am at a place in my life where I do much of the work much more internally. I am not perfect at it – anxiety and its mind numbing loops of fear around specific issues is still something I experience, even if I know the feeling is, at its core, utter bullshit. But because I know it’s bullshit, I’m not going to run to every person or connection I feel anxious about. Ultimately, my anxiety is my shit to deal with.

Here is my armor against the feelings – especially negative ones like hurt, shame,  that threaten to overwhelm me – and no it’s not a “just feel happy!” list. I’m depressed, remember?

1. I problem/solve, and look forward to always seek out ways to address the issues at hand that are causing the feeling to occur.
Rather than focusing on hurt feelings, I divert my attention to things I can do to make sure the issue will not arise again. What caused the misunderstanding to begin with? What are ways to have empathy for the other person? Is there a way to prevent the misunderstanding in future? Do I need to apologize for harm I did? What building blocks need to be in place to rebuild the relationship? Was I flaky? Should I reach out? What is the problem causing this feeling to be here?

But sometimes, feelings just happen, and it’s in these cases that it’s especially important to learn how to let go – and that’s what I do.

2. I practice letting go – without anger, resentment or anything other than a simple gratitude, an acknowledgement that this happened.
Not every feeling is profound. Sometimes, they’re just bullshit. In my case, they’re *mostly* bullshit. My depression is a hilarious joke my brain plays on me. I can’t exactly “let go” of depression, because it’s…. well simply put a big huge bubble of “bad feeling” that I kind of usually live in. At the same time, I now recognize the bubble.

And I recognize there is a world outside of it.

And some days, the bubble has holes in it and I get to see that world outside. It’s not momentous or thrilling or utterly satisfying, but it’s… quietly joyful. A cup of tea. A show I enjoy.

But this also works for stronger feelings tied to particular incidents. Last year, I fell in love. Yes, love love. The big L. The love-that-sweeps-you-off-your-feet,-and-2-months-later,-you-land-on-your-ass love. I let go of him, and it eventually, without resentment, with just gratitude and acknowledgement that ok, a lovely thing happened and then it ended. I have no desire to experience that kind of intense emotional roller coaster set of feelings. I have no desire to “explore” misery anymore than I have already done in my lifetime. You can only learn so much from depression – and from ecstatic, crazy-making love.

3. I strive to be happy for others when feeling envious or jealous of being replaced.
This has been one of my hardest lessons, but it’s tied to “letting go”. I’ve learned to let go, with sincerity and kindness, of connections that have grown apart with sincere respect and understanding that they may grow towards each other again. I’ve let go of not just my own feelings, but of dead and dying friendships (that may yet experience a renewal, who knows? I am not well practiced in hoping, but neither am I skeptical or cynical). I approach life, people, connections recognizing that the moment is all we have, that nothing is guaranteed, that I can find beauty and meaning in this too if I choose to.

4. I practise gratitude for what I have.
I would not be able to practice letting go in a healthy way if I did not also have a mindfulness practice around feeling gratitude for what I have – especially those things that allow me to materially live: my support networks, my good friends, my job, my budgeting system, and my accomplishments. But in addition to these things, I also deeply value the lessons I have learned in my life so far, my ability to give and love and constantly grow. There is the beauty of an internal peace that comes with this gratitude – and it is in no way “settling for what I have”. Practising gratitude, and sitting with myself, and learning to love myself in my moments of loneliness has let me finally stop my utterly futile, desperate chase for happiness and seeking other people to fill some perceived void in myself. Practising gratitude has, indeed, led me to a deeper sense of self-love, and peace with where I am at. Practising gratitude has taught me that small joys and meaning are there in every moment, with me, in the present. And if anything, this practice has taught me that I do not need to chase good feelings: I simply need to strive for a meaningful life in whatever way is accessible to me in the moment. Practising gratitude has also taught me that there is no reason for feelings to “just happen”  – after all, by practising gratitude, I am literally “feeling grateful”. I am having a direct impact on what I’m feeling. I am shaping my internal landscape of feelings, cultivating what feelings I feel are necessary, and deweeding the rest.

5. I invest in productive self care that has tangible, material meaning for my well being – and others’ well-being.
I am invested these days in myself – in a way I never have been before. I remember the love that I directed at my partner a year ago, and recognized that I have this capacity to feel that strongly for someone, so why not myself? The process of actually enacting that kind of self-love practice took, of course, over a year! But these days, I love myself. I am not afraid of my solitude. I am not afraid of being alone, because being with myself is not a punishment and because my happiness is not necessarily derived from just being around other people. I invest in things that matter to my material well being by budgeting money, but also by budgeting energy, time, emotions in the connections I have. I invest in coconut oil for my hair! I offer support to friends in ways that benefit their lives – be it direct monetary support, when I can or emotional support (listening, offering resources/suggestions, holding space for feelings and affirming)

6.  I focus on my ambition, my goals, my dreams, and what I want to do with my life.
Everything in this list so far has helped ground me. I feel more able to appreciate my life, for life itself and what it has to hold, but also for myself, existing, contributing to the world. It is, for me, the only worthwhile way to have meaning – and eventually this does lead to a natural small joy, which I feel grateful to have. If depression is many years of cumulative sadness and desolation, I hope to cumulatively build a life of small joys over the next few years by investing as much as I can into a meaningful life – and recognzing that meaning? is entirely constructed – and that I get to do the constructing. There is so much I have to offer – being able to internalise that and focus on my dreams, ambitions, and goals has had a profound effect on my life.

Albert Camus’ writes in his classic essay “The Myth of Sisyphus”, “There is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide. Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy. All the rest— whether or not the world has three dimensions, whether the mind has nine or twelve categories—comes afterwards.” In it we are introduced to Sisyphus, that creature of Greek myth, condemned to carry a boulder to the top of a hill and roll it back down for eternity. Indeed, this is the riddle of life. We are all Sisyphus, and the boulder-trek is a metaphor our own lives – how much happiness, meaning, roller coaster of feeling we derive from this is our own task. The boulder can be a source of desolation, or it can be a source of meaning. Camus ends his essay with “I leave Sisyphus at the foot of the mountain! One always finds one’s burden again. But Sisyphus teaches the higher fidelity that negates the gods and raises rocks. He too concludes that all is well. This universe henceforth without a master seems to him neither sterile nor futile. Each atom of that stone, each mineral flake of that night-filled mountain, in itself forms a world. The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.”

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