Everyone endures hardships. To view a personal challenge as better or worse than those of others is extremely egocentric. Similarly, no experience is worthy or unworthy of eliciting certain emotions. While you may view something as a minor inconvenience, another person might view it as an agonizing struggle– and vice versa. I think we’ve all felt the frustration, confusion, and self-doubt that emerges after admitting to a hard time, only to be met with a lack of understanding. Comparison and disapproval serve no purpose in providing comfort.
Because of the unique individuality that characterizes our species, perspectives and reactions inevitably differ. You’ve heard it before, but I’ll say it again: There’s no such thing as an “appropriate” or “right” way to feel.
One of my best friends (a Guest of Honor at Aaron’s and my wedding) often uses the phrase “All feelings are valid.” Whenever I spout logical reasons for why I “shouldn’t” feel the way I’m feeling, she always simply states, “Your feelings are valid.” As in, “Don’t let outsiders tell you what is ‘normal,’ and don’t suppress how you actually feel just because you think it’s illogical.” How you naturally react to something is valid. It’s acceptable. It’s real, reasonable, and an important part of who you are.
The part that can be advised and guided by others (and by your own discernment) is how you act upon your feelings. Don’t lash out. Don’t wallow. Don’t be unforgiving. Don’t avoid productive confrontation. Don’t forget to lean on your support system. Don’t forget that God loves you. The list of ways we can manage our behavior, which should eventually curb the emotions themselves, is endless. However, we must first recognize that whatever we’re feeling is not “wrong.”
The books Aaron and I read during our premarital counseling addressed this concept in terms of the male mind. My book was titled For Women Only, and Aaron’s book was For Men Only (highly recommended, for any couples out there). In For Women Only, the author explains that men are physical beings. Obviously. But the book really delves into the details and extremities of male wiring that makes it nearly impossible for women to relate. From a Christian’s perspective, we can’t blame our [male] spouse if an attractive woman crosses his path, and his mind suddenly goes to a sexual place. We can, however, expect him to not look again, and to immediately, intentionally fill his mind with a different image (understanding it may take a while for him to get the hang of this). Temptation is not sin. Jesus himself was tempted. The important part is what happens after the temptation. Same goes for feelings. Any feeling itself is not wrong. How you address the feeling is what matters.
This blog post is on my heart because of how difficult I’ve found separation from my husband. He is deployed on a ship for two months, so we can only talk every 2-3 weeks…if we’re lucky. Sometimes I don’t hear his voice for longer than that, and I don’t know when these sporadic calls will happen. Other than those sparse conversations, brief emails are our only form of communication. Every single day, my heart feels pain, sadness, and anxiety. I miss him! His absence hasn’t proven to be taxing on our relationship, but it’s definitely been taxing on me.
Apparently, I’m not supposed to feel so worn. From what I’ve been told over and over again, it’s “not that bad” to be separated for nine weeks from someone with whom you’ve chosen to share your life. Who knew?
Nearly every single person who has asked how long Aaron is gone has reacted to “two months” with one of the following retorts:
“Oh, that’s not bad.”
“At least it’s not nine months.”
“Breaks from each other are good.”
At first, these responses made me feel defective. And perplexed. How does the thought of nine months make the reality of two months any easier? Is being apart really “not bad”? Because I wouldn’t say it’s good. Am I supposed to want a break from my husband? Do most married couples not like each other? I’m pretty sure my stepmom really misses my dad when he travels for work…and they’ve been married for 14 years. But maybe I’m oversensitive? Am I one of those people who is too dependent on another person for my happiness? What’s wrong with me??
The first week Aaron was gone, I stayed to myself because I was so tired of people telling me that I shouldn’t be sad. I had quite a few friends try to check in on me, but I ignored their calls to avoid the redundant “words of comfort” that actually made things worse. I knew that I should be stronger. That being honest about my distress would come across unsupportive, when in reality, I am so proud of Aaron. That they would remind me that other military wives have it harder than I do. (DUH.) That they would somehow view my heartache as annoying, unnecessary, and dramatic.
Eventually, the name of my aforementioned Your-Feelings-Are-Valid friend popped up on my neglected, buzzing phone. I almost didn’t answer, but I knew I needed to stop bottling everything up…and who better to consult than someone who has spent the last eight years drilling into my brain that my feelings matter? Within the first two minutes of our conversation, I was already hiccup-crying and apologizing and telling her all the reasons why I knew it was “stupid” to be sad. She said, “Duh, you’re sad, silly. That’s why I called. It’s completely normal that this is hard on you.” For once, I didn’t hear, “Hey now, two months isn’t that bad.” Her simple acknowledgment of my feelings felt like a burst of air into my depleted lungs.
Naturally, this friend helped me think of ways to make the most of my time apart from Aaron, but she never said it was “a good thing” or “not too hard.” She challenged me to react to my emotions a little differently, but she never blamed me for faltering in my weakness.
Any hardship deserves attention and validation. Whether it’s in response to a hurtful comment or a reaction to death, no feeling is inappropriate or unnatural. If you feel it, it’s acceptable.
When my mom died, people– myself included– compared her suffering to that of others. At least it was a 5 month battle, not 5 years. At least I had the chance to say goodbye. At least we had a healthy relationship. At least it didn’t happen when I was a kid. At least I have a loving family and friends to support me. Everyone did a good job telling me that whatever I felt was valid, but looking back, I spent a lot of time internally justifying why my struggle wasn’t so bad.
Yes, worse things have happened, but I still lost my mother. Viewing that loss in a positive, grateful light was and is very important, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t hard, or won’t continue to be hard throughout my life.
By unapologetically acknowledging sorrow over my mom’s death or Aaron’s deployment– without comparing them to what other people face, or how other people might react– I’m able to live in far less pain, which is the whole objective in the first place. Only after I legitimize those struggles am I ready to react in a way that actually helps my happiness level. If I were still in the stage of suppression, frustration with how I feel, or bitterness towards insensitive remarks, all of my reactive energy would be unavailable. Trying to ward off “wrong” emotions completely paralyzes our ability to actually move forward.
Accepting our hardships for what they are is the first step to emotional recovery– and if not recovery, then at least stability. Sweeping things under the rug doesn’t clean up the mess. Neither does trying to convince yourself that the mess is not actually a mess. With that, it’s important to surround yourself with people who validate (not to be confused with “perpetuate”) your feelings. Whether it’s anger, sadness, fear, or regret, all negative emotions are okay to feel. The goal is just to prevent them from overwhelming your life or leading you to poor decisions. Of course we should continually strive to foster peaceful souls with the help of solid friendships, trust in God, and learned wisdom, but by no means should we categorize internal struggles as “right” or “wrong.”
After saying all of that, I should point out that most people have the best of intentions when they tell you something “isn’t that bad,” or if they try to point out all of the reasons you have to be happy. I’ve done it a million times to my friends. So don’t dump those people in your lives and tell them it’s because Shanny the Granny told you to do so. Trust me, they actually want to help and are just trying to get your head in a better place. But my hope is that we can all take it upon ourselves to be the kind of supporters who validate the emotions of others, and therefore truly become useful in helping them walk in confidence, fortitude, and intentional joy. Everyone will fall short of a perfect walk, but those who know it’s normal to fall tend to have an easier time getting back up.