You have probably heard the phrase before — “live vicariously.” Turns out it’s more than just a phrase. People really do feel the emotions of others.
There is a realm of psychology referred to as “vicarious emotions.” This means that we experience the emotions of those around us. For example, maybe you have a friend who lost a sibling and you never met the sibling but you still feel heartbroken. Or maybe you had a spouse involved in some kind of personal trauma, and while you weren’t there in person you still feel pain.
A Psychology Today article by Dr. Robert Muller sites “vicarious trauma can be best understood as the absorbing of another person’s trauma, the transformation of the helper’s inner sense of identity and experience. It is what happens to your physical, psychological, emotional and spiritual health in response to someone else’s traumatic history.” This is vicarious trauma, but there is also vicarious joy.
You can experience the joy of others by being around them. Maybe its a friend who just got a promotion and you are beyond excited for him/her/them, or maybe a friend who has been trying to have a baby just got pregnant and you are suddenly overwhelmed with joy. Vicarious joy is also another reason to do good for others through charities or philanthropic work. When you are in a situation where you are helping others and they feel appreciated, that joy rubs off on you. You start to feel happier because those around you are also happy.
Vicarious joy can also be learned by children. The more our children are exposed to happy environments, the happier more joyful children we will raise. By engaging our children in volunteering or other ways of helping others they will learn to be more joyful.
The holidays can be a time for joy, happiness, appreciation but they can also trigger sadness, depression, and remind us of things we are missing. These feelings are so common they have a name — the Holiday Blues.
Around this time of the year, I frequently encounter clients who are struggling with loss in their family, financial issues, mental health, etc. They often ask me what they can do to get out of their funk. On top of therapy, medication, proper nutrition, and physical activity the main thing we need to do when we are struggling is to avoid isolation. When we are down and we isolate ourselves it escalates those negative feelings.
Turn negative into positive
Doing something nice for others by giving part of yourself helps to get people out of isolation and feel good when they see the joy of others. Through volunteering, cooking a meal, cleaning a house, or baking cookies for others in need you can help yourself while also helping others. When we see the joy of others achieved through our efforts it helps to lift us up and feel good about the way we are spending our days.
It is hard to get through the holiday season when you focus on all the things that have gone wrong throughout the year, or all the things that are missing. When you turn that negative energy into something positive it can help you get through this otherwise hard time more easily, and might also give you a reason to smile.
If you are wondering where to start, here are some websites to help:
National Coalition for the Homeless: https://nationalhomeless.org
Volunteer Match: https://www.volunteermatch.org
Create The Good: http://createthegood.org
I don’t pose that question lightly. It is a topic worthy of our thought, our discussion. It is a reality that demands to be paid attention to.
We rush to the hospital to give birth to our precious babies who quickly become the center of our worlds. They are carefully looked over and checked up on with appointment after appointment. All the weight checks, the shots, the checking to make sure their hearts sound well, their joints are developing correctly, it goes on and on..and for good reason. These are our babies and they are small and tiny, and oh so new to this world. We should be paying attention to their health and their development but what about moms?
Moms are sent home from the hospital after just going through a major life transformation with some guidelines, maybe a painkiller or two, and in many cases a few stitches. They aren’t followed up with. They are supposed to figure it out. It is their God-given ability to be a mother, so they should just know how to do it, right? Society expects that mom will seamlessly adjust. She will adjust to this new normal with little help. Yea, it won’t be easy but she will get through. The only follow-up she has to look forward to is six-to-eight weeks postpartum when in many cases her incisions are looked over and she is sent on her way.
There is no depression screening, no required well check, no one helping mom adjust. Mothers need to be ok too. After all, happy mothers raise happy children. It is hard to care for anyone if you don’t first care for yourself. Let’s check in with our mothers. Ask if they are ok. Make sure they are ok. Let’s listen to our mothers, hear their cries for help and honor their need for support even when they themselves might not realize how much they need it. It takes a village to raise a child, that is for sure. We can’t expect a mother just because she has a uterus to suddenly be thrown into a whole new world like nothing ever happened. It is a shock to the system. She deserves support and she needs it.
Over the years I have seen an increase in women coming to me with symptoms of Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder or ADHD. Many of them are concerned they may have ADHD and are looking for a solution. It got me thinking. Why are we seeing such an increase? What has changed to cause more women to experience symptoms of ADHD?
Our reality as women has changed. We are busier than ever before while still facing the pressures of traditional gender roles. We are still expected to take care of our homes and meals. Many women now have taken on professional careers outside of the home environment adding to the mounting pressure. We are worried more than ever—about everything. Not to mention we are constantly in a state of comparing ourselves to others with the rise of social media and smart devices. Those women who choose to stay home struggle with feeling stir crazy and unfulfilled. We are easily distracted.
All of the stress modern-day women are struggling with is causing them to lose sleep. They are staying up to later hours trying to get everything done. They are feeling the pressure to be the Pinterest mom or the perfect housewife/cook but also the career woman. Research shows that lack of sleep could be exactly what is contributing to symptoms of ADHD.
The disruption of day and night rhythms, staying up later, eating at different times, variations in body temperature and physical movement, all of it can contribute to inattentiveness and challenging behavior, according to research done at the Vrije Universitiet Medical Centre in Amsterdam. This research also showed that people with ADHD had a rise in the hormone melatonin an hour-and-a-half later in the day than those who did not, contributing to that lack of sleep. All of this pointing to the reality that ADHD might actually be a sleep disorder.
Similar studies have also found that those with ADHD had higher rates of daytime sleepiness than those without, making it harder to focus. Other symptoms such as restless legs syndrome and periodic leg movement are also common in those suffering from ADHD, according to the National Sleep Foundation.
The bottom line is we are overwhelmed, overworked, and exhausted. We aren’t sleeping as much and therefore we are finding it difficult to focus. If you are someone who is struggling with symptoms of ADHD, it may be helpful to seek out a licensed professional who is trained in helping adults.
Many of us are so afraid of judgment. We find ourselves covering up, hiding to avoid it. Some of us even change who we are. We pretend we are someone else. We lie about actions we have taken. We are afraid. But why? Why are we so terrified of how other people see us?
We mistake it as a truth about our identity. We let what other people say about us become us. We put too much weight in other people’s opinions. We give them too much power over how we see ourselves. We act like people and their thoughts about us determine who we really are. That is not the case. We can choose to see judgments simply for what they are—an opinion. Just because it is an opinion doesn’t mean it is true. Opinions are simply thoughts, they don’t have to mean anything.
That is not to say we shouldn’t listen to others. If a lot of people we care about come to us with the same opinion about our behavior then it is worth considering what they have to say. It is worth opening your mind to their opinions and analyzing them for yourself. They could be trying to tell you something that maybe you didn’t notice. Or, it could be something you have noticed but have brushed off.
The bottom line is all opinions should be taken in stride.
Don’t worry about the things you cannot control. People are always going to judge you. People are always going to have an opinion about the color of your hair, that outfit, how much food you eat, what time you put your kids to bed, how you spend your Saturday night, etc. Let it go. You could drown in judgments if you let them weigh on you. They are all around you. The best thing you can do is accept them as simply someone else’s opinion, which does not mean you have to listen to it.
Certain emotions frequently show up in science and the media as “negative” emotions. We all know them as sadness, anger, disgust, frustration, etc. Then there are the “positive” emotions—happy, excited, etc. Instead of classifying an emotion as “negative” or “positive” how about we just start calling it by what it actually is?
We are sending the message that emotions are bad.
When we classify an emotion as negative, we are sending the message that it is bad. That we aren’t supposed to feel this way. It makes us feel guilty about having these so-called “negative” emotions. No one wants to feel “negatively” or do the “wrong” thing. But an emotion isn’t bad. It isn’t wrong to feel a certain way. We need to stop grouping them together as a set and refer them to as an individual feeling. Yes, I am sad that my grandfather is in the hospital. Yes, I am disappointed I didn’t get the job. Yes, I am frustrated that the dog had an accident in the living room this morning. This is life, folks.
These emotions are ok, they are healthy, they are necessary. We don’t need to pretend that we don’t feel this way. We don’t need to feel guilty or that we are doing something bad by feeling upset or disappointed. Rather we need to let the emotions come. We need to feel them, accept them, allow ourselves to work through them. What we don’t need to do is ignore them. That only compounds the situation and makes things eventually erupt. So instead of thinking about emotions as “negative” or “positive,” think of them simply as an emotion. Leave it at that. There is no need for classification.
Somewhere along the line, we started being told that we should always be happy. It became this known ideal that emotions are bad. That needs to change. Emotions are not bad. They are part of us. We shouldn’t be pushing those unpleasant feelings deep into ourselves and trying to force ourselves to always be happy.
Ask yourself, who are you pretending for? Allow yourself to feel all the emotions—the good and the ugly. Let it out. It is healthy and part of helping ourselves cope with the unpleasant things that happen in life. It is not just ok to feel sad, angry, frustrated, disappointed, unhappy, it is necessary. Life would be boring if it was all hunky dory all the time. In order to truly appreciate those moments of peace, you know those little moments, we also need those moments of pure chaos and distress.
You need to feel safe in expressing your emotions. Surround yourself with people that accept you as you are. Stop pretending. By not allowing yourself to feel you are only doing harm to your mental health. You can’t make all those feeling go away. Eventually, they come back up. By allowing yourself to show them and feel them fully, you are tackling the situation head-on. Have you ever felt that moment of relief after a good long cry? That moment of clarity? That realization that you are ok and you can get through it? We need all those emotions to get to that moment.
Find that friend, or that village, that accepts you fully. You need to be with people who don’t want you to pretend, who don’t expect you to hide how you are feeling. This big beautifully scary, serene, tragic, wonderful world we live in requires a whole range of emotions.
Have you ever tried to force happiness? How did that make you feel?
It would be nice if we could be happy 24/7, stress-free, relaxed, all smiles, but that is not reality. We are not supposed to be happy all the time. We are supposed to feel a range of emotions.
Could being ‘happy’ all the time actually be dangerous?
I speak to clients all the time who are feeling down. They ask me what is wrong with them for feeling down even though they can’t identify a specific stressor in their life. I help them to learn how to cope and find happiness in themselves, to feel better, but there are always going to be moments of sadness. There are going to be times when we just don’t feel happy. This is life.
In fact, some say it is dangerous to try to be happy all the time. It is better to allow yourself to feel all the emotions. Being happy is great but it is not the appropriate response to all situations. If someone you care about dies, you can’t expect to respond in happiness. If you are not having a great day, maybe your car won’t start or you got stuck in traffic on the way to work, it’s appropriate to feel frustrated. If your schedule is packed and you feel like you don’t have enough hours in the day to get things done, it is ok to feel overwhelmed. In fact, you should. Feeling these emotions helps you to cope.
Life can be wonderfully beautiful in so many ways, but it can also be devastatingly tragic. If we are always happy and something bad happens, we won’t know how to process that information. We won’t know how to deal, according to Danish psychology professor Svend Brinkmann in his book Stand Firm: Resisting the Self-Improvement Craze.
The bad things in life help us to better appreciate all the good. So, while it is good to look at the positive in bad situations. It is ok, and healthy, to feel all the emotions associated with the good, bad and ugly of the world.
You lost someone you love, someone near and dear to your heart. Maybe this was a person you spoke to on the phone a few times a week, or someone who lifted you up and supported you. Maybe it was someone that was part of your day-to-day life. Maybe it was a parent, child, sibling, friend, or even a pet. Regardless of the circumstances, losing someone you love is incredibly difficult. It can be hard to “go on” after such a loss. You suddenly don’t know what to do with your time, what to do without that person or pet by your side.
Honor what once was
The fact is, we are not the same after we lose someone. It is not easy to transition between what once was and what now has to be. Grieving is building a bridge between the old and the new, with each piece being put into place a piece at a time. It is a slow and concentrated deliberate process. You may have heard others say, take it a “day at a time” or even a “moment at a time.” Start slow. Don’t expect to feel better in a day, a week, a month. Yes, you will find that new normal. You will find your place but it is a process.
For example, maybe you have lost a grandparent whom you visited every Wednesday afternoon for coffee and a chat. Although things have changed, you can create a new tradition. Maybe replace it by going to a coffee shop and reading a book your grandmother enjoyed or visiting a special place of hers. Maybe use the time to call a friend or relative and chat. You don’t have to completely change your routine just alter it a bit to ease the transition while honoring what once was. If you have lost a pet that you walked every morning, replace that morning walk with a jog. These small changes, although full of a emotion and feeling much larger, will help you to build that bridge from old to new and rediscover contentment.
Loss is not easy but the pain does subside when we acknowledge it and honor it. You can move forward, you can hold on to the old while going forward in the memory of your loved one. After all, they would want you to find happiness again. We don’t need to gloss over our grief. Grief exists because we love.
What small steps have you taken to build a new normal after loss?
There is a difference between being nice and being genuinely kind. Being nice is on the surface. It is superficial, pleasing, and agreeable. It is making people happy around you but not necessarily meaning it. It is not authentic, not deep, and not always true.
Being kind goes deeper
Rather than “being nice” as you have been told since you were a child, practice kindness. Being kind goes deeper. It is the practice of being compassionate and authentic. It is establishing healthy boundaries and truly meaning what you say, what you do. When we reach the point of just “being nice” we are damaging our relationships and creating unhealthy situations for ourselves. Running errands for a neighbor “just to be nice” or volunteering at an event “just to be nice” establishes unhealthy boundaries.
When we, instead, do things out of deep-seeded kindness from within, it means we genuinely care about what we are doing. We have a vested interest in how things turn out and the people around us can see that. It means we aren’t just doing things because we feel like we have to, we are doing them because we really truly want to do them. We really want to bring the neighbor dinner, we really want to help with the shopping for the school event, we want to help a friend out with a project, or hold the door open for a stranger.
Avoid teaching your children to “just be nice.” Instead, explain to them what it means to be kind and to establish healthy boundaries with that kindness. Teach them how it feels to truly be helpful and to want to do good things for others. In turn, you are teaching them to be genuine, to be truthful and to take care of themselves. You are not teaching them to overextend themselves for the mere purpose of “being nice.” You are teaching them to dig deep inside themselves and determine what they can do to be good people, not superficial or fake.
It might feel like a thin line but chances are you can think of a few times in your life you have just been nice and differentiate between the times you truly meant what you were doing—those times you were being kind.
How do you practice kindness?