This past year, I had big plans for my birthday. My actual birthday fell on a Thursday, so I took that Friday off and had plans to celebrate over the extended weekend. I was going to leave as early as reasonably possible on Thursday so I could have a nice sushi dinner and then enjoy my evening.
But that Monday, I got a phone call to confirm that I would be ready for a store audit later that week. On Thursday. Afternoon.
No other communication had come through about the audit, which was not how the system was supposed to work. I would have to spend extra time that week preparing because I hadn’t gotten advanced notice. And I knew that it would completely ruin my birthday evening dinner plans. I was upset. Like, day-ruining upset. Like, seriously sulking about it and I might have thrown the phone after I hung up upset.
Of course, those who were working with me were a bit taken aback, as I don’t usually react like that to things that happen at work. Some stayed out of my way. Some tried to cheer me up by listing all the reasons why the weekend would still be great. Everyone really just wanted me to not be upset anymore.
But why is that, exactly?
We’ve somehow come to the conclusion that being upset isn’t a thing we should be. For some reason our expectation is that the ideal state of being is contented, optimistic, smiling, and cheerful. There is all manner of advice on how to be happier, to the extent that any material on how to deal with sadness, anger, or grief is geared on making it to that happiness goal in the end. There is very little if any instruction out there on how to actually deal with someone else who is upset for whatever reason.
One coworker seemed quite taken aback when I (maybe more abruptly than necessary, sorry) told her to just let me be upset. I didn’t need to be fixed because my emotions weren’t the problem. I wanted the situation to be fixed. I wasn’t just mad that my birthday was ruined, I also had an issue with the lack of notice and the failure of the audit company to follow proper procedures. The fact that it was my birthday just made it more personal.
There’s a time and place for the “look on the bright side so I can stop being upset” reaction, and I don’t mean to say we should always give free rein to our frustrations. But if we don’t allow ourselves to be upset over situations, we are also not allowing ourselves to put our concentration towards changing those situations. I allowed myself to be upset, and to express and explain my frustration to those people who could actually change the situation. And so it got changed.
Now, that’s a pretty unimportant example in the grand scheme of things, but essentially that’s how we make progress and improve things. We get upset (to varying degrees) over things which aren’t okay (to varying degrees). That feeling of being upset is supposed to drive us to action. The idea that it’s not okay to be sad or angry or to express those feelings is an underhanded way of teaching us that we shouldn’t try to instigate change. If we believe that the problem is always our emotions and not the situations which cause them, then we remain focused more on our feelings than the world around us. We forget that emotions have a purpose. We forget that the important thing to focus on is the relationship between the outside world and our interior reaction to it, and it shouldn’t be entirely on our thoughts and feelings.
Because the world does need to be changed.
It always does. There is always something to be fixed, wrongs to be righted, progress to be made towards a better future of some sort. And it’s our emotions which point us towards those things we might want to change. We may all disagree on the specifics, but we should never fall into the trap of believing that the problem is always in our heads.
We can’t build the future on fake smiles.