Here’s the problem with telling people to be happy all the time

The last thing I want is to feel ashamed about feeling bad. As a culture, we encourage positivity, we strive for perfection, success, to always smile and be our best selves at all times. To think otherwise is to live in denial. If you’re not happy, you’re categorized as sad.

This mentality and stigma surrounding anyone who gets sad and doesn’t hide it is toxic. Let me explain why.

I was in middle school when I was diagnosed with OCD, depression, and generalized anxiety. My mental illness is not something I grew out of, it is something that I continue to deal with every single day. I am not embarrassed, nor do I feel like a lesser person because of it.

I know that I am not the only person with struggles and fears, but still, in an effort to not be that person, I fake it. I fake a smile, a laugh, enthusiasm, and force myself to be “on.” It’s utterly exhausting. I couldn’t understand why I struggled more than my peers. Yet, since I mask my true feelings, I can’t help but wonder: How many others are successfully hiding their sadness and doing the same?

Around every corner, I feel bombarded with articles that tell me how to cultivate grit, how to succeed, how to be my best self all of the time. In doing so, I continuously feel as though not responding positively to such a challenge is failure. The stress and pressure to overachieve only add to my increasing daily anxiety.

Catchphrases like, “Don’t worry, be happy,” or worse, “Don’t worry, be-yonce,” seemed to be everywhere, taunting me. My least favorite: “You’d be a lot prettier if you were smiling.”

This pro-positive push that I feel surrounded by has the exact opposite effect. I feel both a moral and ethical duty to enjoy myself, and never ever bring anyone else down. However, we are also taught that bottling up our emotions is bad, so then what? If I feel bad, should I isolate myself? If I meet up with a friend for dinner during a rocky period in my life, do they then have to “deal with” me?

I am one of many millions who suffer from mental health illnesses, and I simply cannot – will not – fake it till I make it anymore. I’m done suffering in silence at the expense of my health.

This is what I’ve learned: Instead of keeping up an appearance, be open and welcoming to what’s going on inside.

Staying happy and being positive sometimes translates into dismissal and rejection of your true state. Depression is an uphill battle as it is, and having to constantly hide it only makes it worse. As a result, mental illness, stress, anxiety, or grieving end up happening offstage, hidden beneath it all. Depression flourishes, prospers, and grows in the bottomless pit of isolation.

I felt pressure to act a certain way, to present myself as happy-go-lucky when around others, and I know I am not the only one. I post the highlights on my social feeds and I curate a version of myself that I feel is acceptable in society, just like everybody else.

Don’t get me wrong, I do believe in positivity, but as someone who has battled mental illness, I’m exhausted of having people tell me to be more cheerful. The emotional energy involved in explaining to someone the inner workings of my brain is something I simply cannot spare right now. Does that make me selfish? Perhaps.

Again, the problem becomes worse for feeling bad about feeling bad.

But, from where I stand, the only way to pick yourself up when you’re down is by embracing your feelings head-on rather than shying away from them for fear of being a downer.

Just over a year ago, in June of 2015, my oldest brother died. Mourning, according to Freud, is a mental illness too, similar to manic-depression. Except, mourning is expected to be transitory. People accept and acknowledge public display of grief and mourning after a death, but not for long. It has been my experience that mourning after a certain point is considered weak, a failure to “get over it.” Am I drowning in a sea of self-pity? Because everyone tells me to be happy, to get over it, to move on, and to get past my feelings.

Adding on the death of my sibling naturally only worsened my depression and anxiety. Sayings like “Look on the bright side” sound impatient and only make me feel worse, like my feelings are invalid or not justifiable.

In my mind, I had two options. I could hold it all in for the sake of social etiquette, and present myself as happy and cheerful, regardless of whether or not it was how I felt. Or, take refuge in solitude. It’s hard to accept a third option. It’s scary and it feels like there’s a lot at stake. But I did, and haven’t looked back since. I allowed myself to be express any and all emotions around close friends, letting go of that fear of being a burden. Some stay and, unfortunately, some go.

But if you can’t handle me at my worst, you don’t deserve me at my best.

I’m not saying I’m depressed 100 percent of the time, and I do put value on having a positive attitude, but for a long time I felt like I was extra baggage. I felt myself becoming the stereotype I in no way wanted part in. The stereotype of a sad person, bringing others down, burdening friends, cursed by a condition I have no control over.

Everybody has their own battles to fight, and they’re all equally important. Over 16 million adults in America have suffered from depression in the last year. It is the most common mental illness in this country, yet nobody wants to talk about it, and least of all acknowledge it. Telling people to be happy all the time is to live in denial.

It’s important to fight and to make it up that hill in any way you need to. My mental illness has made me strong, not weak. It’s a journey that takes me forwards, backwards, and sideways, but I’m always going. Being able to openly express both “good” and “bad” feelings is a conversation that needs to be normalized.

Being a “downer” doesn’t make me a lesser person. So stop telling me to be happy all the time.

If you or someone you know is dealing with mental illness, there are plenty of resources out there. For immediate assistance, you can contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (all 800-273-TALK (8255)). 

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