At the school where I work, I constantly hear teenagers say that they don’t talk to their friends or family about their problems because they don’t want to feel like a burden or be pitied. They say that they don’t like to cry or that they should stay busy and not think about their difficulties. I don’t blame them because at times these same people have sought out the support of a friend or a caregiver and been told either directly or indirectly that they should get over it. Teachers often tell kids they have no excuse for missing homework assignments before hearing the student’s story. Of course sometimes their stories are fabricated as an easy way out of their responsibilities, but what about the kid who was awake all night listening to her father beat up her mother in the next room? If the teacher never listens, isn’t that the same as telling the child their feelings don’t matter? I’ve heard stories of parents laughing at their children for crying. That may seem extreme (and it is), but what about parents who never cry or express any emotional pain in front of their children? Or what about parents who never ask their child how he/she is feeling? These actions may have the same impact.
It seems like our culture doesn’t allow a space for emotional pain. We seem to receive the message that emotions are a sign of weakness. This idea is especially significant for men and boys. Sure, we are given a few weeks or a month to grieve the death of a family member or the loss of a relationship. But after that, people are expected to return to life as it was or at least stop “whining” about it. After all, we slap on a disorder label if bereavement goes beyond the “normal” time limit. Is this the result of a culture which emphasizes individuality over social support? How do statements like “suck it up” and “pick yourself up from your boot straps” impact peoples’ ability to manage emotions in their own ways? Is the desire for immediate gratification reducing Americans‘ ability to slow down and accept their process? When so much of American culture is focused on making money and gaining power, is there any room for feelings?
I don’t have the answers to those questions, but I’ll propose another question in response. Does it work to tell ourselves or others to get over it? If not, why do we continuously expect that result? What is the impact of judgement on our well-being? Judging can make the pain continue much longer than if there had been space to express feelings in the first place. Avoiding feelings does not make them disappear, and it often increases suffering. Telling someone that he shouldn’t feel something does not stop him from having that feeling. It will most likely create distance in the relationship, and he’ll be less likely to go to you for support in the future. Not allowing healing to occur on its own time can lead to an unending slew of consequences including but not limited to depression, anxiety, self-medicating, violence, and suicide.
There’s a Buddhist story that explains how life hits you with arrows, but some people are hit with additional arrows because of their responses. Accepting the pain, attending to physical and emotional needs, and recognizing that everything is temporary can reduce suffering. Ignoring or judging can increase pain, while showing compassion and acceptance will most likely help the healing process. Thoughts and feelings pass like everything else, and kindness (even toward yourself) goes a long way. Letting go of the should’s and giving yourself and others permission to cope as needed is the way to increase happiness, improve relationships, and accomplish your goals.