Give Unhappiness Space

Permission to be unhappy

When my brother died, my community gathered around me in support of my sadness. I think it might have been the first time in my life that I felt permission to give my unhappiness space. I was honoring the way I felt, in part because I had no other choice, but mostly, I think, because the world had given me a green light.

Instead of pouring myself into “feeling better,” I dove into my sorrow. Not to wallow. Not to deny myself things that alleviated my pain. But I released all resistance to that pain. As I sank into it, I discovered there were many aspects of my unhappiness to explore, and even some surprising invitations to growth and change.

If happiness is a skill, then sadness is too. Unhappiness is too.” – interview with Katherine May, author of Wintering, On Being Podcast, 1/21/2021

The skill of sadness

If the last seven months have taught me anything, they have taught me this: sadness, sorrow, unhappiness, whatever label fits for you, is a skill. And in digesting this wisdom, I realized that I (and perhaps others) might be more inclined to brush my unhappiness aside, stuff it in the corner, than to embrace it.

But this is a big mistake. Huge.

If unhappiness is uncomfortable, unexamined unhappiness is frightening. Sadness that is investigated, considered, and processed is something we can learn from. When we give our sadness the space to become a known thing, we can simply be with it, and, eventually, we can work with it.

Sustaining practices for unhappy times

What did I do within the space I gave my sorrow?

  • I practiced daily – yoga, mindful breathing, meditation. My practices were (and still are) a daily invitation to notice and honor my feelings, to notice these feelings shift and change, and, also, to glimpse a part of myself deeper than my feelings that does not change.
  • I read daily and gathered little pearls of wisdom. Articles and essays on spirituality. A book on the transformative power of heartbreak. Daily meditations on grief. Novels. Mysteries.
  • I wrote in my journal – not rigidly, but when the spirit moved me to do so. And it moved me quite frequently.
  • I walked with friends who could listen and just be with my pain. I walked with friends who could make me laugh. I walked with my husband. I walked with my dogs. I got outside and breathed the fresh air and noticed life going on around me.
  • I met with my therapist weekly and my spiritual director monthly.

Unhappiness does not exist alone

In short, I refined my sadness skills. Which, surprisingly, has left me feeling, not sadder, but peaceful and refreshingly open to life.

That’s right, I have learned that it is possible to be deeply sad and, also, deeply grateful and content. It’s not an either/or thing. It’s very much a both/and thing.

Unhappiness can be a season of change and growth

I discovered within my sorrow invitations to rediscover myself, to live more authentically, to embrace curiosity, and to explore new ways of living my life. These discoveries are exciting. They make me smile.

Mostly, though, I discovered that I am no longer willing to ignore unhappiness in the old ways that had become my habits – by getting busier or running faster. This unwillingness feels like strength. It feels like love.

Katherine May says that unhappiness is instructive. It lets us know that something is wrong. I love that. I believe that with all my heart and soul. Unhappiness can be received as a gentle, loving call to change, to grow.

When we feel unhappy, we can choose to give ourselves a break. To take a breath and get some perspective. We can remember that, like any season, neither happiness nor unhappiness lasts forever. We can choose to be kind to ourselves and, also, to dig deep for the strength and the grit to make changes that will help us flourish.

I am here as living proof that if you stay open, reflective, curious, and willing to participate, your unhappy moments can be as rich and fulfilling as your happy ones. If you are reading this in an unhappy season of your own, I hope it gives you hope and strength.

Looking for some direction on practices to sustain yourself? Please reach out.