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.
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.
Before you go to a party, leave the house, or get out of the bed in the morning you probably have some kind of expectation about the experience. You have a predetermined notion in your brain of how things will play out, how the day will go, what you will do, how much fun you will have at the party, how much traffic there will be on the way to work, etc. Most of us have a general idea of how long it will take to get somewhere, or how things should go when we get there.
The problem comes when things don’t go the way we expect. We become unhappy, stressed because things aren’t working out the way we had planned in our brain. Happiness is reality divided by expectation. We don’t really know how things will go but because we have a pre-formed expectation we tend to feel the unhappiness of disappointment when things go a different way.
That is not to say we should lower expectations in order to be happier. If we always expect the worst that is not a very fun way to live either. So rather than thinking in one line, it is better to think in a range. What I am referring to is the RTM Formula — Reach-Target-Minimum. Reach is a high but realistic expectation, target is an area that is reasonable, and minimum is the least to meet. If you begin to think in these realistic terms then you will be able to move forward in life with more acceptance of the way things turn out — whether higher or lower than expected.
I frequently say you have control of your happiness, because you really do. You have the ability to change the way you think about things before you go into them. You have the ability to come to terms with a new reality and open your mind to new possibilities.
Your friend calls and asks you if you are able to help work the table at the school fair next week. You think about it and despite the fact that you will have to rearrange your schedule, and squeeze this event between two others, thus leaving no time for you to make it to your weekly yoga class, you still say “yes.” A few days go by and you are dreading it. On the day of, you start to get really disappointed that you have to miss that yoga class, so you cancel on your friend. You tell your friend something came up, or you aren’t feeling too great, and you back out.
Reevaluate your boundaries
If situations like this are a common occurrence in your life, you may want to take a step back and reevaluate your boundaries.
You don’t always have to be a people-pleaser. It is ok to say “no.” It is ok to disappoint a friend or a family member by turning down a request. It is ok to set boundaries. Rather than always saying “yes” just to say “yes” and make everyone happy—while really hurting yourself— set boundaries from the beginning. You don’t need an excuse or a reason to say “no.” If you just don’t feel like it, then don’t do it. Saying “no” from the beginning will save time and stress for everyone later when you inevitably back out or are unhappy for participating.
While in your head you are disappointing those around you for not doing everything they ask, you are actually displaying strength and confidence. Your ability to understand your needs and to take the steps to set a boundary will most likely be respected by your friends or family. And, so what if it is not. You have to do what is best for you, and the people in your life will eventually understand. Plus, no one wants to be seen as a flake. Rather than always having that appearance, take the right steps from the beginning—and save yourself the stress. No one is perfect, and no one can do it all ALL the time.