If you know me, you know I would never be described as a “Pollyanna.” On the other hand, I am not a total pessimist either. In fact, I describe myself interchangeably as an optimistic-pessimist or a pessimistic-optimist. I spend a lot of time in my work with clients to help them decrease avoidance and experience and process their important, painful emotions.
Often people believe that painful emotions are to be avoided and eliminated and go to great lengths to try to achieve that end. Only to eventually end up in therapy after those efforts fail. And those efforts will fail simply because emotions are designed to be felt. In fact, emotions will demand to be felt, in one way or another.
I believe that processing and honoring painful emotions is important and valuable to learn what those emotions have to teach us. It is by going through emotions, instead of around or over, that we will truly climb out the other side. Suppression and avoidance only adds to and prolongs suffering. It’s not an easy prospect, and for many it can be a scary prospect to experience the depth of emotions our bodies are asking from us. But that journey will be life changing, insight building, and allow us to learn important lessons, build new skills, and make valuable changes toward the life we want to live.
The “Bright” Side
In that endeavor, you won’t ever hear me say to clients or family or friends, “just look on the bright side” or “it could be worse.” These are frequent statements that I hear others voice, as well as clients tell themselves to try to pull out of painful experiences. Those statements, which might be intended to help people feel better, actually invalidate painful emotions, and increase reflexive avoidance when those painful emotions surface and come knocking on our doors.
And while I may not tell clients to “look on the bright side,” I also don’t advocate hanging out in dark, painful places all the time. Processing painful emotions, while worthwhile, is also exhausting, and we all deserve to come up for air at times. I believe that part of that respite comes from proactively allowing positive emotions to be part of our experience as well. One simple and powerful way to invite positive emotions is to actively recognize and see beauty around us.
This activity and deliberate mindset is not meant to avoid or minimize any negative emotions. Rather, choosing to see beauty helps us to expand the breadth of emotional experience. It is inclusive, not exclusive. It is an opportunity to hold both the dark and light of everyday experience. It is a choice to welcome and broaden the range of experience and emotions available and to embrace lessons from both the pain and the beauty around us.
And there truly is beauty to be found all around us, if we open ourselves up to it.
This time of year it is particularly easy to attend to the natural beauty all around us as the world literally “springs to life.” Not only is spring beautiful to see as the grass grows green again, snow retreats, and flowers bloom, but so many other beautiful experiences are available to our other senses.
I’d encourage you to take time this spring to close your eyes and feel the air around you. The air that witnesses to the departing winter (can you still smell the snow?) and heralds in the impending summer (feel the sunshine on your face?). Can you hear the wind rustling the new leaves on the trees and the bees eagerly buzzing from flower to flower? Can you witness the re-emergence of many different birds by their music? Birds whose music you didn’t hear during the winter?
Can you breathe in the smells around you? The smells of an April rain shower to some of those baby flower blossoms? And let’s not forget touch. When was the last time you touched the damp, moist earth beneath your feet or soft baby blossoms on trees? No matter the weather, the world around us constantly offers us the opportunity to experience life more deeply, more in the moment, and more beautifully if we pause and literally, breathe it in.
Beauty can come from so many other sources as well. One source I love is witnessing beauty in others around me, from my clients, to my closest friends, to my kids. When I say beauty, I am not referring to their outward appearance at all. I see beauty in others when I see their bravery, authenticity, vulnerability, persistence, and resiliency. It’s in the look on my daughter’s face when she feels proud of the kick she made in the soccer game (even if it didn’t result in a goal).
It’s snuggling my toddler while she sleeps and hearing her giggle as she dreams about something funny. It’s the moment when my mom and I drop into a deep conversation about the traits we see in ourselves that we need to own and work on. It’s watching a client open up about a new part of her history that she has never shared nor processed with someone else and is taking a leap of faith that talking about it will be helpful. I find the true humanness and characters of others to be inspiring and beautiful.
When we open ourselves up to everyday beauty, this nourishes hope, lifts our mood, grounds us, and connects us more meaningfully to the world and others around us. We are reminded that life is an experience of inclusion. Life is all about the ANDS. Life is complex and simple. Life is painful and beautiful.
One of my favorite authors, Tara Brach, who wrote Radical Acceptance: Embracing your life with the heart of a Buddha, simply and profoundly expresses this principle in the mantra, “This too.” This mantra is a call to accept and welcome whatever is coming up for us; whatever is asking to be experienced. I also believe it includes our ability to expand our experience and embrace more. It’s not, “Let me experience this instead of this,” rather it is, “let me invite and welcome THIS TOO.”
Let’s be proactive on both sides of the scale. Let’s allow ourselves to feel and experience pain, without judgment or resistance and also proactively recognize the continual sources of beauty, comfort, and connection around us.
Brach, Tara (2003). Radical acceptance: Embracing your life with the heart of a Buddha. New York: Bantam.