When we struggle with unpleasant feelings like stress or anxiety, we often act as if we’re the only human being who experiences these things. And then we feel isolated. We start to feel bad about feeling bad. And once we get to this point, it can be really hard to get out. But there is something we can do.
Amid all the struggling and negative emotions , it’s easy to forget that we are human beings. We forget that many other people feel the same way. Many other people find themselves in similar situations, as human beings. We are not the only one who suffers.
Here’s one thing to keep in mind: Tal Ben-Shahar (former psychology professor at Harvard) likes to explain that there are only two kinds of people who don’t experience negative emotions. The first kind of people are psychopaths. By definition, they cannot experience negative emotions like shame or guilt. And the second group without the ability to experience negative emotions are dead people. So if you’re experiencing negative emotions it’s good news. You’re not a psychopath and you’re still alive.
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What to do about it
So what you need to do is give yourself the permission to be human. Being a human means to experience negative emotions at times. Of course, those emotions come in different flavors for us a human beings. Some merely uncomfortable, others overwhelmingly intense. And admittedly, it won’t help much to remind ourselves that everybody struggles while we’re having the worst panic attack of our life. But there are plenty of moments of light and moderate stress and that’s exactly when this little insight comes in handy.
To get a better understanding of what it means to permit ourselves to be human and feel anxiety and other negative emotions, here’s something to try. Start by noticing what you’re saying to yourself in times of anxiety. What are you thinking about yourself? How do you evaluate yourself?
If you do that you might notice that you’re judging yourself. You might consider yourself to be weak, somehow defective, maybe inadequate. Then remember that you’re not alone with thoughts like these. Somewhere out there are people with very similar thoughts. There’s nothing unique or abnormal about it.
The second step is to notice if there are feelings of anxiety or inadequacy. Instead of fighting whatever you’re feeling, try — just for one moment — to see where you feel it in the body. Instead of fighting the feeling, take a few seconds to observe it and keep in mind that these feelings, too, are shared by many more people on this planet. Right in this very moment there are people experiencing anxiety attacks, depression, grief and all kinds of negative emotions. Whatever you are feeling, you are not alone.
Keep this in mind. And give yourself the permission to be human.