When I had my first miscarriage, I thought the worst was over—I didn’t know I’d have three more before I gave birth to my son five years later.
When I left a dysfunctional, badly-paying job, I didn’t know I’d go on interview after interview, using up my savings and relying on my new boyfriend to cover our rent before I finally landed a job after almost a year of searching.
When my first marriage ended, I thought I’d learned my lesson and would be better at relationships the next time around. I didn’t know I’d get married a second time and then get divorced again nine years later.
When we experience tragedies, large or small, we look for relief. We may ask the advice of friends, spiritual advisors, or search the internet for how to make things better. Often we’re told to think positive, make a list of what we’re grateful for, or these days, create a vision board and manifest the life we want.
If you dream it, you can do it, they say.
Through all the difficult moments in my life, I’ve always attempted to follow this advice. Not only was dwelling on my pain uncomfortable, but it meant I was spending less time trying to make things better. Whenever I was overwhelmed by feelings of sadness, disappointment, or hopelessness, I would get angry at myself for doing what I thought of as wasting time. And at some point, you’ve got to pick yourself up and keep going, right? So that’s what I tried to do each time I experienced something painful.
And my approach was encouraged by those around me—in addition to seething this message everywhere in books, reading it in articles, and seeing it on social media, many well-meaning friends advised me to be grateful for what I already had.
I watched lifestyle gurus on Instagram post images of breathtaking travel destinations, gorgeous families, prestigious awards, then talk about how miserable they were only a few years (or months) ago, but by writing in a gratitude journal, creating a vision board, and otherwise envisioning the life they wanted, they manifested their deepest desires.
But after years of learning from my own tragedies, I’ve discovered something important: people who try and explain the process of manifesting your desires are missing a critical piece of the equation.
They’re telling you what it looks like, and not how it feels.
Those who advocate for positive-thinking, Law of Attraction-style philosophies rarely talk openly about the nitty-gritty, unpleasant stuff that, along with the good stuff, has gotten them where they are now. I think there are many reasons for this, but I believe one of them is that those who have mastered the “Law of Attraction” don’t realize exactly how they’re doing it. When it’s a well-developed habit, you trust your own path to relief because you’ve walked it dozens of times before. They also assume that everyone else must want to manifest similar desires—wealth, beauty, and exotic locales.
But everyone’s path toward desire feels a little different.
And as I’ve gotten older, I’ve learned something important about how I personally process tragedy: if every time I experience pain I immediately force myself to focus on the good, I am telling myself that my feelings don’t matter.
It’s the equivalent of my adult ego telling my child self to shut the f*uck up and quit whining. Which, if you’ve ever been around a kid or just been a kid (so, everyone) you already know this is not only ineffective but cruel.
This is the critical piece that so many miss. They skip over the part where feelings are real. They exist to be felt. Ignoring them doesn’t make them go away. I’ve learned this the hard way more times than I care to count.
Here’s what this can look like:
You lose your job, break up with a romantic partner, or otherwise experience something that is scary, upsetting, or hurtful.
You may feel shocked, betrayed, disappointed, hopeless, angry, despondent, depressed, or numb. You know you need to keep moving, keep trying, but the feelings you have are making that hard. So you tell yourself to be grateful for the good things in your life and to stop whining. And a tiny piece of resentment gets shoved to the corner of your subconscious.
Do this enough times, and that resentment gets a life of its own.
Unpleasant feelings like despair, hopelessness, anger, fear, or shame don’t just disappear because you don’t want to feel them. They fester. They grow from little baby bad feelings into massive, mean, nasty feelings that will impede any opportunity for joy. Ignore them for long enough, and they will control every decision you make.
Meet your shadow.
It sounds scary because it is. We avoid giving attention to negative feelings because they feel—well, negative. They hurt. And maybe we worry that if we give in to them we won’t ever feel anything except bad ever again.
We fear that we will get stuck in this dark, scary place. But the truth is, the only way out is through.
And by through, I mean through the darkest, scariest parts of the self. The places where we feel the most fear, the most doubt, the most shame. These are the parts that the shadow-self is composed of.
The more you avoid feeling bad, the worse it gets until the ONLY thing you feel is bad (exactly what you were trying to avoid in the first place).
So what can you do?
Here’s how to disrupt the shadow cycle and feel good again:
When something bad happens, make the time and space in your life to fully embrace how it feels.
You might talk about it (preferably to a trusted therapist), write about it (freewriting, journaling, or my favorite, the Deepest Fear Inventory developed by Carolyn Elliott), run it out, yoga it out, hike it out, get a massage (or ten), take a few hundred long hot baths, or (most likely) a combination of these things.
Regardless of the method, you allow yourself to fully experience the negative feeling. You sit in the yucky, uncomfortable, painful place. You name it, or if you can’t name it, you feel the sensations it creates in your body.
This, quite frankly, sucks, which is why we avoid it. But a funny thing happens when you sit with your negative feelings. They start to shrink. They exhaust themselves, and they dissipate.
It’s important to understand that your body can only hold so many emotions at one time. If all of your energy and resources are being used to store the pain you don’t want to feel, there is no room for joy. Once you allow yourself to feel painful emotions, your full self opens. This leaves space for you to experience other sensations like joy, curiosity, delight, and wonder. It also gives you the abundance of energy required to know what you want out of your life, and to pursue it accordingly—also known as manifestation of your desires.
This sounds a lot simpler than it feels. And like everything else, it takes practice. It never becomes easy, but those of us who’ve had to learn this the hard way, multiple times, can and do eventually figure out how to bumble our way through the dark and come out the other side better than before. And once done, we have faith that it can be done again.
One thing I know for sure: the worst mistake you can make in life is to ignore the bad in favor of the good. Because once you allow the full spectrum of emotions to be expressed within you, you’ll be able to create that gratitude journal and vision board with your full self intact.
THAT is when the real magic happens.