On ‘Blue Monday’, Hannah Barr writes about why good mental health is feeling the full range of emotions – even sad ones – and how Viva’s programme in Oxford is giving young people the space to reflect on their feelings and get support if they need it.
We can learn a lot from a girl called Riley…
I’m going out on a limb here: ‘Inside Out’ is the best Disney film ever. Better than ‘Beauty and the Beast’, better than ‘Snow White’, and better than the clichéd answer everyone gives to the favourite Disney film question, ‘The Lion King’.
‘Inside Out’ takes us inside the mind of an 11-year-old girl called Riley who moves with her family to a new city. We go on a journey with her anthropomorphised emotions: Joy, Fear, Disgust, Anger, and Sadness.
The five emotions interact with each other, each taking the lead throughout Riley’s day by being in charge of a console. When the chance comes to slide down a bannister, Joy takes the reigns; when someone puts broccoli on pizza, Disgust is in charge; playing ice hockey, Fear and Anger are engaged in a dance of ducking from danger and aggressively pursuing victory.
And then there’s Sadness. Joy and the others aren’t quite sure what she does, she just seems to lower the mood.
Riley’s new beginning doesn’t go smoothly. The moving van gets delayed so she has to sleep on the floor, she cries on her first day at her new school, her dad has to work more hours, and her parents are stressed out by everything so argue a lot. Anger takes the reigns and is all prepared to be for a fight with Riley’s mum when she comes to tuck her into bed.
Her mum says, “I just wanted to say thank you. Through all this you’ve stayed our happy little girl.” Anger wasn’t prepared for this, he turns to Joy, and lets her take back control of the reigns!
Unfortunately there’s a bit of a kerfuffle and Joy and Sadness end up being transported into long-term memory. Without Joy at the controls, Fear, Disgust, and Anger try to navigate Riley through life and try as they might, Riley is no longer a happy girl. With the other three emotions causing chaos, the console breaks. They realise with horror that Riley can no longer feel anything.
Meanwhile, stranded in long-term memory, Joy has lost all hope. She comes across a memory of a really happy moment in Riley’s childhood. She starts to cry and her tears causes the memory to rewind to the beginning of the memory, a memory Sadness has mentioned earlier in the film. Joy remembers what Sadness says: “Riley missed the winning shot. She felt awful. She wanted to quit. Sorry, I went sad again, didn’t I?”
In that moment, Joy realises what Sadness does, Sadness signals when Riley needs help and support. The film’s beautiful, tear-jerking dénouement is Riley, with all her emotions back in place, weeps in her parents’ arms that she can’t be their happy girl all the time, that she’s sad, and that she misses her previous home and friends and life.
And in their huddle of love, a faint smile appears on Riley’s face; she’s safe, she’s loved, she’s found joy in that place.
Today, the third Monday of the third week of January, is known as ‘Blue Monday’. It’s said to be the most depressing day of the year, although it actually originates with a PR company rather than with science. But that doesn’t mean it’s not a tough week as the magic of Christmas is far behind us and yet the cold and dark weather persists. It’s not surprising many of us will feel pretty gloomy.
Emotions aren’t inherently right or wrong. They can have their weakness; if you are only ever angry, for example, it’s hard to build relationships and if you are only ever fearful, you miss out on so many of the incredible things that life has to offer. But there is also something to be said for embracing your emotions as part of building your resilience.
Journalist Johanna Leggatt writes, “I have been sad, deeply sad, in many instances throughout my life… Sad because I lost contact with a friend. Sad over the death of a family member. Sad owing to a love lost or a promise unfulfilled.
“Sometimes the sadness stretched on for weeks, sometimes it lingered for months. In those early stages of sadness, I never quite knew what to do with the feeling… Always the emphasis was on moving forward straight away. Leaving the sadness alone never occurred to me. And why would it? When you’re sad, everyone around you is hell-bent on making you less so.
“Sadness is a state to be expunged and purged; if it not a place you stay in. If you go down, you must get up, and quickly too.”
If you’ve ever worked with teenagers, like I do with the Doorsteps programme Find Your Fire and also outside of work, then you will know that they have this paradoxical ability to feel a whole range of emotions in quick succession, whilst also remaining in one predominant mood for a long period of time. It’s part of what makes teenagers so brilliant and fun to work with (and also so challenging!)
In fact, this week Doorsteps is working with one of our partner schools to run a series of workshops helping young people to reflect on their emotions and what things they can do to practice self-care and, crucially, how to ask for help and advice if they need it.
We do young people a disservice when we try to rush them through their feelings. Young people need to be given the freedom and the space to first acknowledge how they are feeling and then process it, before they can begin to find ways to move forward.
Without this space, we don’t actually build their resilience: we just facilitate the creation of a flimsy emotional façade which is unsustainable and will collapse at the slightest hurdle.
The nature of human life is such that hand grenades are thrown in our path without warning. And they make us feel the whole range of human emotion!
Part of what it means to work at Viva is we come across situations which do have our colleagues weeping. To hand them a tissue and tell them to get a grip doesn’t make their sadness go away, rather, being allowed to feel the depths of those feelings renews the justice for children we are fighting for.
It’s also a reminder to take a break so that you can be on your best form to work for releasing children from terrible situations worldwide. And it helps you to build resilience. Good mental health is feeling the full range of emotions, sometimes really strongly, but those feelings not functioning as a full stop in your life.
At Find Your Fire, we place so much emphasis on emotional resilience, not because we don’t want them to feel all the different emotions they are faced with, but because we want to encourage them to learn from these feelings and to be able to channel them well when faced with life’s many obstacles. It’s a valuable lesson not just for young people, but for all of us.
Emotional resilience isn’t forcing Joy to hold on to control by her finger tips, it’s letting Joy, Fear, Disgust, Anger, and Sadness play their necessary role. We’re meant to feel, it’s part of what makes being a human being so fantastically and frustratingly glorious! So don’t fear your feelings, don’t feel you have to rush through them either.
Remember, joy is not happiness, it’s something much much richer; joy is the freedom to feel your feelings in relationship with others whose response is all mercy and compassion.