How to Feel Shit
Eat a whole Sara Lee cheesecake in a single sitting. Get fired. Get hired. Put too much pressure on yourself. Or not enough. Be diagnosed with a terrible lung disease. Drink excessively to mask a mortal fear, then go out the next night and drink even more. Long for something far beyond your control. Commute three hours a day for three years. Be in a relationship. Be single. Be married. Have someone close to you die. Feel no love for your newborn. Wrestle with your faith at 2 a.m. on the toilet. Spend six hours in darkness YouTubing and Redditing and Twittering. Sleep too much. Sleep not enough. Ruminate for fun. Watch the news. Miss a coffee. Move country. Queue up at the bank. Do your taxes. Get a bill. Visit Sea World. Eat a whole Sara Lee cheesecake again.
Many things can make you feel shit.
But what should you do when you feel shit?
The common, knee-jerk reaction is to push that shit down, deep so you don’t feel it. You either ignore it, soldier on and suck it up, or bombard yourself with sunshine and puppies and positive affirmations.
“Cheer up!”, “Don’t worry!”, “Be happy!” — we seem to have a tacit discomfort in our society with discomfortable emotions. So much emphasis is placed on the pursuit of happiness, the lionizing of positive emotion, that it sidelines a full two-thirds of the six basic emotions we can feel — those being sadness, anger, disgust, and fear. As a result, when we feel the so-called “negative” emotions, we often don’t know how to feel about them, or what to do when we encounter them in others.
In other words, we’re shit at feeling shit.
Since 2020, I’ve been running a small project called “Thoughts For The Dark” that collects the hard-won thoughts that’ve helped people through, well, shit times. This will come as no surprise, but phrases like “Don’t worry!” or “Be happy!” or “Cheer up!” have not yet appeared in anyone’s submission. That’s because blind positivity can’t contend with the 24/7/365 shit-stream that is life. When facing a firehose of mental effluent, you need something else — iron-wrought and galvanised and real.
One submitter (who we’ll call May) was about to turn 21 when her father died. She felt consumed with grief and loss — the unshakable feeling that her father never got to celebrate the adult woman she had become or see and experience the adult woman she would continue to be. She didn’t know what to do with herself. Where others offered kind words and well wishes and positive thinking, like bandaids, it was one of May’s “most down-to-earth friends” who offered the opposite — reality.
“It’s shit now,” May’s friend said. “And it’s probably going to be shit for a while.”
There was a pause. “But I can promise that it will be less shit, one day.”
This stark and stoic acknowledgment of the shit-ness of the situation helped May immeasurably. “Sometimes just acknowledging the pain and darkness for what it is can be enough to set you free,” says May. “And is often a lot easier than the effort required to dismiss or change the way you feel.”
And one day, true to her friend’s word, it was less shit.
Ally Poole was 37 with two young kids, when she was diagnosed with stage 3 Hodgkin Lymphoma. It was the second cancer she’d been diagnosed with in her life.
Being young, she was treated with very strong chemo that knocked her around quite badly. Some days, she couldn’t reach out for her anti-nausea medication because of how nauseous she felt just by reaching for it.
Ally shared her story on Instagram and would get comments like “Chin up!”, “You’re doing great!”, “Look on the good side!” and, to her, worst of all, “You’re my hero.”
What would Ally have rather someone said?
Speaking on a recent television program, Ally said “When you’re going through something like that, sometimes you just need someone to say ‘This is really awful.’”
She says that all those “Keep positive!” comments made her feel the opposite — they made her feel guilty. “I had survivor’s guilt,” she says. “That I should be positive because someone else has it so much worse.”
Asked what words she would’ve wanted to hear, she has three:
“This is shit.”
The instinct to pretend you don’t feel shit, ignore the shit, need to feel immediately better when you feel shit, or make other people feel immediately better when they feel shit, is perhaps misguided and more harmful than intended.
Perhaps the wiser advice is to sit with the shit.
It might be helpful to think of shitty feelings as though they’re actual shit.
If you try to hold in weapons-grade diarrhea, if you don’t let it pass through your stomach and intestines and bum parts, you’ll end up rupturing a bowel or getting constipated and developing hemorrhoids.
In the same way, shit feelings have to work their way through your mental system, so that they may pass. You need to trust in the process that makes them decompose. You need to let them flush through you.
If you try to clench your mind’s asscheeks, by soldiering on or trying to “stop” feeling shit or actively pushing those uncomfortable feelings down, paradoxically, you’ll end up making yourself feel shitter.
Feeling shit feels shitty. There’s no way around it. But anecdotes like Ally’s and May’s seem to suggest that acknowledging the shit, accepting it, sitting with it, might just be the best thing to do.
There’s no right way or wrong way to feel shit. You can mope, eat cheesecake, curl up, cancel plans, listen to Radiohead and cry and cry and cry. You don’t have to feel any other way. The only important thing is that you actually feel it — because only then, one day, can you move on. 💩