When I was a teenager and young adult, I felt like whatever emotion I was feeling at the moment should be the one I was putting forth. If I felt sad, I’d be sure my whole self was putting forth that emotion so that no one would miss that THIS was how I was feeling today. My shoulders would sag a little, my lip would be down, a dejected tone in my voice. As I’m writing this, it sounds a little more dramatic than it felt at the time.
I remember in college commiserating with fellow students, “Omg, I’m sooo tired and I have this long paper to write.” I’m not saying that those emotions—sadness, tiredness, frustration—aren’t valid emotions, but just that those negative emotions don’t always need to be shared with others. In times of crisis in my life, when my emotions were powerful and overwhelmed me, I needed to share my feelings with a friend and receive the comfort of their empathy.
At other times, I find that talking about negative emotions causes me to dwell on them for too long and get swallowed up in feeling sorry for myself. Recently I read Mindy Kaling’s book Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? This paragraph made me laugh,
“I do not think stress is a legitimate topic of conversation, in public anyway. No one ever wants to hear how stressed out anyone else is, because most of the time everyone is stressed out. Going on and on in detail about how stressed out I am isn’t conversation. It’ll never lead anywhere. No one is going to say, ‘Wow, Mindy, you really have it especially bad. I have heard some stories of stress, but this just takes the cake.’ ”
Have you ever been around someone, a friend perhaps, who sounded like Eeyore every time you talk to them? Sometimes this person is so committed to their bad mood that they can’t be convinced out of it. I’ve been in conversations like this where every single positive thing I tried to bring up was met with a depressed response.
Me: “Well at least you don’t have to worry about rent.”
Friend: “Yeah, but I hate my job.”
Me: “Well, maybe you should apply for a different job.”
Friend: “I’ve applied for other jobs but no one ever calls me back.”
Me: “I’m sorry, that’s so frustrating. How is your writing group going? I know you enjoy that.”
Friend: “I just don’t feel like going lately, no one ever talks to me.”
This example is not meant to trivialize true depression. I am merely pointing out that sometimes negativity begets negativity.
We can choose to dwell on our negative emotions or share them, and I don’t think that’s necessarily bad. Sometimes I feel it is productive to share the difficult things in my life and receive support, comfort, or advice. Other times I know that I’ve talked a bad situation to death. I’m someone who tends to run myself in circles trying to talk out my stress. By the time I’ve rehashed my “sob story” some 10 times, I know everyone (including myself), is tired of hearing it.
Dwelling on negativity can lead to more negativity. In her book The Happiness Project,, Gretchen Rubin said that one of her life rules for herself is, “Act how I want to feel.” I like that. I feel it fits in the same category as “fake it till you make it.”
Because this is a weakness of mine, I use this strategy when I’m in a conversation and tempted to dwell on what’s going wrong in my life. I take a couple minutes to mention the hard things and then I change the topic to an enjoyable discussion—a recent happy event (perhaps in someone else’s life) or an interesting book or project I’ve been working on.
Because sometimes no one needs to know how tired I feel.