When was the last time you felt truly, completely, authentically happy?
Was it playing hide-and-seek with your daddy as a child? The day you you landed your dream job with a salary that made your head spin? The first kiss you shared with a guy who actually got you?
The truth is, we’re all constantly chasing happiness, whether it’s in the guise of a sweet new job or a perfect life partner. But holding onto that happiness when the new puppy eats your favorite pair of Jimmy Choo’s or your promotion turns out to be a total drag is easier said than done.
One of my clients, Rose, learned that by experience. “I want to stop fighting with my boyfriend,” she told me on one of her first visits. “I realllly love him…but we end screaming at each other almost every night!”
The more we talked, though, the more clear it became that Rose needed to do a lot more than stop fighting with her boyfriend to feel happy again. Deep down, Rose knew her boyfriend wasn’t long-term material. He didn’t respect her ideas or inspire her to be a better person. Even worse, he was possessive and had a drinking problem. Think Beauty and the Beast…except this beast wouldn’t be turning into a prince anytime soon.
The problem? Rose was convinced that she could find the prince in her boyfriend, if only she looked hard enough. She was dead-set on trying to fix the relationship, before she really took the time to reflect on her feelings.
“We just need to communicate better,” she’d say. “You know, really talk? And I bet I could stop feeling so annoyed at the beer bottles he leaves lying around or the way he sometimes snaps at me if I just tried harder!”
But Rose’s denial that she was unhappy in her relationship wasn’t bringing her any closer to authentic happiness…and pushing down whatever blah or heartbroken feelings you’re dealing with right now won’t help you either.
Ironically enough, accepting your sadness in the first place.
The Surprising Secret of How to Feel Happy
I know you’re probably thinking, “But Caitlin! How will wallowing in my bed with a pint of Ben & Jerry’s help me become the happy badass I know I want to be!?!”
Well, recent research indicates that people are happier and healthier when they have psychological flexibility. Which is basically just a fancy way of saying that you can adapt to different situations. Adopt a change of mindset as needed. Act in a way that reflects your most sacred personal values. Basically, go with the flow – whether it’s good or bad – without compromising your personal integrity!
How can this kind of flexibility help you feel happier? Let’s think of psychological flexibility in terms of an epic, sobbing-into-your-pillow-every-night breakup. If you believe you MUST be happy 100% of the time, you’re not going to let yourself grieve the end of that relationship. You’ll overeat your feelings. You’ll lie to your friends and family by saying you’re “totally OK.” You’ll feel like none of the guys you’re now dating “get you”…because you have your true feelings and self all bottled up.
The truth is, being able to experience a variety of emotions and tolerate periods of discomfort can allow us to move toward a richer, more meaningful existence. This isn’t just applicable to moving on from a past relationship, either. Enduring three freakin’ brutal months of in-office training can set you up for kicking major ass at work. Going through an intense bout of depression can help you realize what lifestyle changes you need to make to actually feel happy again.
Studies have also shown that the way we respond to the circumstances of our lives has more influence on our happiness than the events themselves. Didn’t get the promotion you’ve had your eye on for months? Allow yourself to bummed. Anyone would be. And then transform the experience into motivation to find another, even more amazing fit. Found out that someone you love has cancer? Let yourself feel sad and scared and even angry at fate! And then, when your ready, figure out how you can support this person to have the sweetest days filled with love as they battle this experience.
Happiness is a Choice…To Some Extent
Sometimes, life is pretty crappy. That’s impossible to avoid or deny. To some extent, though, happiness is a choice. You can choose how you react when life goes sideways…and that choice can drastically influence how many days you wake up feeling Oprah-level amazing.
It’s also important to remember that feeling hella stressed, anxious or sad for one day – or even for a few months straight – doesn’t mean you’re going to feel like that forever. In fact, unlike feeling happy, which is a transient state, leading a good life is about personal growth, connection, and meaning. And as much as the painful emotions you’re dealing with right now majorly suck, this experience will let you live a richer life in the future.
Finding authentic happiness is about accepting our humanity with all its ups and downs, enjoying the positive emotions and harnessing painful feelings in order to reach our full potential. But you can’t turn lemons into lemonade by just binge-watching Girls and eating chocolate for dinner.
So how can you turn difficult emotions into true joy? Here are five actionable steps that helped Rose and I used to reclaim her happiness. They will help you do the same.
How to Use Negative Emotions to Find True Happiness
1. Believe in your ability to get through it.
Raise your hand if you’ve been through some major shit in your life. And, friend, let’s be honest. All our hands are reaching toward the ceiling right now. Whether it was dealing with a boss that screamed at you every day or almost losing your life to depression, make a list of every big or small obstacle you can remember. Then, write about how you got through it. Did you develop a huge network of career connections that let you find a better job with a better boss? Did you cover your mirror with positive affirmations to ensure you smiled at least once every day?
Make note of all the strengths and resources that helped you through each obstacle. Then, treat this list as evidence that you CAN and DO handle adversity. That you are resilient. That you can handle whatever sadness or obstacle is thrown your way!
This exercise was key in Rose finding the happiness she truly deserved. The main reason Rose was staying with her beast-of-a-boyfriend was because she was thought she couldn’t handle a breakup. Where would she live? What if she never found someone who loved her more than he did? How could she survive feeling so sad, lonely, scared, angry and overwhelmed all at once?
Going through all of that pain sounded much worse than what Rose would have to deal with on any particular day if she stayed with her boyfriend. But staying with someone who wasn’t good for her was, in the big picture, tanking her self-esteem and stopping her from finding a real, equal and loving partner. Once we started talking about all the challenges Rose had already slayed in life, she started realizing that she could handle a breakup and all the not-so-great feelings that went along with it. And the same can be said about you and whatever adversity you’re worried about facing!
2. See the good that comes from bad.
You’ve probably jammed to Kelly Clarkson’s hit song, “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” That song title actually has some truth to it, though. Research shows that experiencing adversity can be good for us, depending on how we respond. Tolerating distress can make us more resilient and lead us to take action in our lives, like changing jobs or overcoming hardship.
Similarly, in studies of people experiencing trauma, many describe their experience as a catalyst for profound change and transformation, leading to a phenomenon known as “post-traumatic growth.” Many people who have faced challenges, illness or loss even describe their lives as happier and more meaningful as a result.
Why does this matter to you? Go back to your list of the bad stuff that has happened in your life. Then, write down at least one gift that came from each experience. Breaking your arm forced you to slow down and be grateful for what you body does for you. Every. Single. Day. The end of a serious four-year-relationship pushed you to travel the world on your own. Losing your job made you realize you wanted to change career fields – and now you love going to work every day.
Realize that every pile of mud, no matter how shitty, has the potential to create a beautiful garden. The muddy experience you’re going through now is no different.
3. Have some dialogue with your sadness.
Now that you know that meaning, connection, wisdom and many other gifts come from getting through tough times, focus on what this particular experience has to offer you. This is an important step in learning how to overcome sadness and depression, no matter what might have triggered it.
Begin by choosing something to embody the source of your emotional discomfort, like a picture of the ex who you just broke up with, or a briefcase that reminds you of your now-previous job. Sit down across from it. Ask: “What are you here to teach me? Show me? How will I be better/stronger/wiser/more fulfilled after this is over?”
I know that this may sound like a silly exercise at first. You might even be thinking, “Caitlin. Girl. You know I like you. But how can talking to a bracelet from the friend who just stabbed me in the back really help me feel happy again?”
But I’m asking you to trust me and just give this exercise a try. Look at the object, ask those questions and write down whatever answers come up. You’ll be surprised with how many deep insights can emerge from just giving yourself time to reflect on your experience without any self-monitoring or censorship. Maybe losing your father will teach you to work a little less and spend a little more time with friends and family, while they’re still around. Or having your apartment robbed is a reminder that objects are replaceable while time, people and memories aren’t.
Once you’ve reflected a little, write a thank you note to your experience – to your sadness – for coming to offer you this gift.
For Rose, this period of reflection helped her realize that she shouldn’t be afraid of or always push down her sadness. Feeling sad about her current romantic situation helped her recognize what traits she really wanted in a partner that were currently missing. Viewing this sad period as a “gift” also made it easier to let go of the time and effort she’d already put into a relationship that wasn’t going to work out. Viewing sadness as an opportunity to learn keeps it from becoming a “waste of time” or a “mistake” that you should keep kicking yourself for making.
So don’t just acknowledge your sadness; analyze it. It can be your guide to finding the happier life you’ve always wanted.
4. Reach out to your people.
In step two, you probably realized that many difficult experiences give us the opportunity to grow closer to people. To discover who our true friends are. To bond with others who feel our pain.
So when you are going through a sad period in your life, don’t go through it alone! Reach out to your people and tell them what you’re going through. You don’t have to tell them everything, but give them an idea of why you’re in a funk and the kind of support you need from them. In my experience, the people who care will truly want to help you any way they can…but they can struggle to know exactly how. So be specific. If you’re breaking up with your boyfriend and moving out, ask for company while house-hunting. If your mom’s in the hospital and you need to spend time with her, ask your co-workers if they could cover one of your meetings or ask your boss about working virtually.
It’s hard to ask for help. It can feel embarrassing. Vulnerable. Scary. But the more you lean into love and trust, the more support you’ll have on your journey back to happiness.
5. Prepare for how you’ll handle the darkness.
We all use negative coping habits to avoid our pain. Drinking. Running back to our comfort zone. Working overtime after overtime. Exercising too much – or too little.
The good thing about bad habits is that, once you identify them, you know what signs to look out for. Right now, think about the three ways you might try to avoid your pain or negative emotions. List them out. Next, write down what you’ll do instead when the instinct to negatively cope in that way comes up. Include lots of details here, from how you’ll hold yourself accountable to how you’ll celebrate yourself for handling your sadness in a healthier way.
If you typically over exercise to bottle up your negative feelings, vow to go to yoga three times a week during stressful times instead. That way, even if you’re exercising, you’ll also be forced to reflect on your emotions – and maybe even cry them out in shavasana. Or if you avoid your pain by going out to bars every night and drinking too much, promise to not drink alone or in a crowd of more than three people so that you’re forced to make social (AKA talky-feely!) dinner dates with your friends instead. And once you’re feeling better and have let all that pain out, well, bring on the Sunday brunch and mimosas!
As a confidence coach, my work with Rose focused on making sure she developed the psychological abilities to deal with difficult emotions and use her not-so-great relationship to build her psychological resilience and build confidence. That way, the next time she faced adversity – whether it was another beastly boyfriend or disease, loss, betrayal, fear, etc. – she’d have the tools and confidence to face it head-on. And once you learn how to handle this darkness, you’ll be able to handle any other dark periods in your future too.
The Real Secret to Feeling Happy
I know that finding happiness by embracing negative emotions is a super scary idea. But if you’re reading this and thinking, “Once I go down that painful rabbit hole, I’ll never be able to get back out – especially on my own!”, take a deep breath and remember that you are not alone. To get extra guidance and support during your happiness journey, book a breakthrough session with me. Together, we’ll unlock the sad, scared or just blah emotions you keep trying to push away. Then, we’ll develop personalized tools that you can use to handle difficult emotions and turn your biggest challenges or into stepping stones to joy. Learn more here.
Happiness is right up there with the Fountain of Youth in terms of it being super wanted…but also super hard to find. As crazy as it sounds, though, finding authentic happiness actually starts with accepting any of the authentic and painful emotions that come your way. So if you’re feeling sad, know that this short-term emotion can still lead to long-term joy. The power to feel happy again is in your hands…and your mind!
What is one struggle that taught you an important life lesson or was a blessing in disguise? Tell me in the comments!
Have you ever felt out of sync with your real self? Like you’ve hustled hard to follow all the guidelines you’ve been given for living a happy life, and yet some deeper part of you still feels rudderless or unfulfilled?
Well, this workbook will put an end to all your doubts and distresses. In it, I take you through the exact, step-by-step process I use with clients to create abundant clarity and joy in their lives.