Laughing or showing joy is not allowed. Ergo, happiness becomes a mortal sin.
It is also not allowed to show discouragement or fall apart. You have to stay positive.
In these times, whatever point of the emotional spectrum we position ourselves on, it seems inadequate. And many are those who let us know it. People who set themselves up as “emotional judges”, a kind of custodian of “good feeling” during a pandemic, as if such a thing existed.
There is no correct emotional response
“Benevolent or hostile, the answer was always out of tune”, wrote Albert Camus in “The Plague“, a book in which he narrates an experience similar to the one we are living. The philosopher explained that, despite the fact that there was a reality common to all, so many micro-realities coexisted that everyone “spoke a different language” and thought that their feeling was the most important, valid or urgent.
Fine-tuning emotional responses has always been a challenge. But when the stage that opens before us becomes chaotic and uncertain, that challenge multiplies. We do not know very well how to act because we lose the cardinal points that until then had served as a reference. And yet we are forced to keep walking on unknown and dangerous terrain where many of the rules have changed. That obviously destabilizes us emotionally.
Since the beginning of the crisis we have been imbued in a kind of emotional roller coaster. From fear we pass to sadness, vulnerability and hopelessness. Then there can be apathy, a mechanism that helps us protect ourselves by taking a psychological distance from what is happening. Then we cheer ourselves up. We strive to appreciate the little things and can feel optimistic and even happy. And the cycle begins again. All nuanced by outbursts of anger and a deep sense of injustice.
In the midst of these emotional swings there are also people who resort to humor to deal with the drama we are experiencing. And many are those who criticize them.
However, humor is a very powerful tool for dealing with adversity. “Humor does not minimize the importance of a terrible event, but it allows the survivors to cope with the problem and progress in their environment”, as wrote Jacqueline Garrick, a social worker who cared for war veterans.
Humor contributes to relieving pain and allows us to alleviate the negative impact of what is happening to us. That is why, even in the darkest circumstances, there are people who resort to laughter. And they have the right to do so, if it is their mechanism to save themselves from the tragedy.
The essential emotional validation
The situation we are living in is already surreal and tough enough in itself, so that we are also forced to impose a “correct” emotional reaction. Everyone reacts as best they can. We do not choose our emotions. We can only manage them.
We would love to be able to choose what we feel. Snap our fingers and suddenly be much more optimistic. Or force ourselves to feel sad when all we feel is deep apathy. But we can not. Or at least not so easily.
For this reason, we can comment on behaviors that may seem inappropriate, selfish, lacking in empathy or frankly harmful to ourselves and others, but we cannot comment on emotions or pretend that others feel the same as we do. Although we are all in the midst of a pandemic, confined to our homes, we cannot forget that each reality is different, so it is understandable that it unleashes different emotional reactions.
When we criticize or judge the emotions of h others, what we do is “invalidate” them. We are telling them that it is wrong for them to feel that way. Therefore, those persons will feel inadequate, alone and misunderstood.
On the contrary, right now what we all need is emotional validation. Emotional validation involves taking seriously the emotions of the others. Do not neglect, trivialize, or judge them. It involves understanding and assuming that there are no “good” or “bad”, “right” or “wrong” emotions.
All the emotions we experience are valid and have a meaning in the history of our life and in the context.
How can we provide that emotional validation?
1. Pay attention to what they say. Sometimes we just have to get out, even for a few minutes, of our worries and way of seeing the world, to put ourselves in the other’s place and listen – really – to what he’s telling us. This active listening can do real miracles since it facilitates emotional connection and can even have therapeutic power.
2. Accept the emotional experience. Whatever emotion a person is feeling is a legitimate emotion, rooted in his life history and circumstances. Maybe we don’t share that emotion, but we can understand where it comes from or what its reason for being is.
3. Better company than advice. Right now, most people just need to know that they have someone else, that they have a friendly shoulder to lean on, even from a distance. Giving advice, when that person has not asked for it, can be invalidating since it is based on the assumption that he is not capable of managing his emotions. Therefore, it is better to accompany without invading.
One of the reasons why it is so difficult for us to validate the emotions of the others is the anxiety to help them feel better and, incidentally, feel better ourselves. We have a hard time making room for emotions, especially when they are painful or unpleasant or do not coincide with ours.
In these times, we are all supposed to row in the same direction to save ourselves. And it is so, but it is not necessary that all the people who go in that boat sacrifice their identity. As Camus warned, fighting the epidemic cannot be reduced to giving up what is most personal to us to collectivize a general feeling, by decree.
In fact, that emotional diversity is what enriches us and allows us to move forward despite everything. Although it may not seem like it, fear helps us protect ourselves, joy motivates us and sadness unites us.
All emotions are valid and all have their reason for being. They all have a message to convey and are all useful. Therefore, do not let anyone judge your emotions, much less tell him how he should feel. No one has the right to become an “emotional judge”. Much less now.
Pérez, A. et. Al. (2019) Laughing away the pain: A narrative review of humour, sense of humour and pain. European Journal of Pain; 23(2): 220-233.
Garrick, J. (2006) The Humor of Trauma Survivors. Journal of Aggression Maltreatment & Trauma Maltreatment & Trauma; (1-2): 169-182.