One of the side effects of this lockdown for me, seems to be a type of insomnia. I have no problem going to sleep, but often wake up about four hours later and have an hour or two of wakefulness, before eventually drifting back into a sound sleep. In those wee hours, worries arise and chase round my head, but I have learnt over time that they will often seem much smaller in the morning. So I try not to solve big problems in the middle of the night, but instead turn my mind to smaller and more interesting ones to mull over. Yesterday I was reminded that it was time to submit another blog post, so I found myself lying awake at 3am wondering what I could write about, that might actually be useful or helpful to read as the current lockdown drags on.
I have written before about using humour and social connection to get through these tough times. It would be very tempting to write another article about staying positive or seeing the bright side and although I’m a great believer in the power of looking for the silver linings in the clouds, there are days when it has been cloudy for so long that we’re all just tired out. Then it occurred to me that’s what I should write about. It’s OK to not be OK. We can embrace the dark side too.
The Dark Side
Positive psychology is not about being happy all the time. It’s also about being a whole person who will have dark days too. It’s not helpful to tell ourselves that we should be upbeat all the time. There are times when boredom, sadness, grief and overwhelm are appropriate for the situation that we are in. If we can accept those feelings and treat ourselves with kindness, hopefully we can work through them and then positivity will return.
Importance of Balance
The key to getting through this is balance. It’s helpful to acknowledge the way that we feel, but it’s not helpful to allow ourselves to get bogged down in rumination about everything that’s wrong with our lives. Kristen Neff’s work on self-compassion is very relevant in this respect. She defines self-compassion as having three key elements; self-kindness, common humanity and mindfulness.
Self-kindness is about accepting ourselves as being human, and not expecting ourselves to be perfect. It’s about treating ourselves as we would a friend. Instead of always pushing ourselves and thinking we should do better, it’s about cutting ourselves some slack and asking “What do I need right now?”. Maybe we’re tired and just need to take it easy for a day, maybe we are frustrated and need to talk to a friend to vent. Maybe we’re worried or scared and we just need to talk to ourselves kindly. “I’m feeling scared and worried, but that’s OK. Things will get better and this will pass.”
When things aren’t going well, it’s easy to feel isolated. I’m studying for a Master’s in Applied Positive Psychology and I am really missing face to face interaction with my fellow students. I have felt isolated at times and the other day found myself wondering if everyone else is somehow keeping touch and I’m getting left out. But then I thought of everyone else in the same situation. I also thought about the younger undergraduates who don’t have the same maturity or resources as I have to protect them from what’s going on. Whatever we face, we are not alone, even if it feels like it at times. Someone, somewhere else is going through the same thing. And once we realise that, instead of feeling sorry for ourselves, we can start to think how we can help, which makes us feel better. Thinking about how I could help others feel less isolated by getting in touch with them, made me feel much better about my own situation and stopped my irrational fear of missing out.
Mindfulness is being aware of our emotions openly and without judgment. We might feel angry, or sad or scared and we can accept that’s how we feel right now. We don’t have to suppress those feelings, but neither do we have to overidentify with them and get swept away. Sometimes the language we use to talk to ourselves can help. Instead of “I’m angry” try saying “I feel angry”. It’s a subtle distinction but identifying those emotions as feelings helps us step back just enough to help us realise that we don’t have to react to those emotions right now. It gives us space to work out what we really need, rather than a knee jerk reaction. A good analogy for mindfulness is that our emotions are the weather but our mind is the sky. It might be a stormy day – we might have to take some action and put up an umbrella – but the weather is something that passes through, and then the sky will be peaceful again.
Putting it all together
It’s good to be able to see the bright side, but sometimes we have to deal with the dark side first. Accepting our negative feelings mindfully, remembering that we are not the only ones suffering and that this is part of our common humanity, then treating ourselves as a friend, will all help us deal with the bad days. Some days it’s enough to just get through it and to hope that tomorrow will be better. In the same way that I have learnt that 4am worries always seem smaller in the morning, we learn that the better we get at dealing with the bad stuff, the more quickly the shoots of optimism will return.