Unintentionally Shaming People When They Aren’t Happy: The Shaming Secret No One Talks About
“Honey, you don’t understand, you can’t,” my mother responded when I was trying to understand the angst in her voice and her tear-filled sapphire blue eyes when we were talking about her mom, my Nanny, who’d passed away twenty-two years earlier.
Although I was super close to my Nanny, at that point when I thought about her, it was usually in a happy nostalgic way. Despite repeated questions, I didn’t really get another answer from my mom. I wanted to understand — but I knew to drop the subject. It was making her sad.
At that time, I also had no way to know that a few months later, I was going to start to understand what she meant by that comment. My mom’s passing almost fifteen years ago humbled me. It taught me that there were some emotional-hurt clubs you really can’t understand until you join them. Empathy doesn’t mean you really understand how someone feels — it’s simply guessing how you think you might feel in that situation.
My mom’s passing taught me that I could have a happy moment — and then be in tears the next one — because I wanted to share that moment with her, or I saw something that reminded me of her. It happened a lot the first few years. If someone noticed my mood change, then asked about it and I answered honestly, they’d usually try to make me feel better with the usual supposed grief comfort comments:
- She’s not in pain anymore.
- She knew you loved her.
- You were a good daughter.
- She’s in a better place.
- She wouldn’t want you to still be sad.
- You’ll see her again in heaven.
My head already knew these things, but my heart was — and still some days years later is — catching up to my head wisdom. So, instead of providing the intended comfort the comments were meant to provide, they just made me feel worse. Sometimes I even felt ashamed that my head and heart weren’t in the same place.
No one wanted the grief to be a distant memory more than I did. I wanted to only feel happy when I thought about my mom instead of the heartbreak from her absence. Eventually, I learned when I was around most people, if I needed to drop a few grief tears, I should pop into the bathroom and keep it to myself.
Happiness Shaming Is Unintentional
I understand that no one was trying to make me feel worse — in fact, they were trying to make me feel better by pointing out the positives. However, this experience taught me that when someone is hurting yet, felt comfortable and safe enough to share their pain with me, my words mattered.
Now, I try to listen — even though sometimes that’s uncomfortable. Naturally, I want to make the person who’s hurting feel better. But I try to keep my comments along the lines of, “I’m sorry you’re hurting.” Whatever I say, whether it’s sharing my common experience, or saying little, I try to validate that it’s okay for them to hurt. Even when I’ve gone through a similar experience or the exact experience like losing a parent, it’s always important to remember that no two people feel pain the same way.
This story is about the life-changing grief that all of us will eventually experience. However, these types of unintentional comments can also be made when people experience other types of unhappiness, such as family challenges, work frustration or health issues — including mental and emotional health.
When I started the Society, I naively believed you could positively think your way out of emotional hurts or at least make them hurt a lot less. Twenty-plus years later, experience has taught me that’s not really possible — and in hindsight, I probably owe countless people apologies for shaming them when they didn’t feel as happy as I thought they should.
It’s possible that your thoughts can turn your day around pretty quickly if you’re dealing with fleeting happiness zappers like annoyances, chaos and even stress. But, when you deal with life-changing unhappiness, like death, health issues, or unwanted financial changes, it can take more than changing how you think to reclaim your happy equilibrium. Sometimes it takes time to sort through the feelings.
During these times, it’s important to recognize and hold onto even the most fleeting positive experience. But in reality, you’ll notice fewer of them. And sadly, when you know someone in this place, you can support him or her, but you can’t take away their pain. They have to walk through it when they are ready.
Last month, I learned that two people I knew had recently committed suicide. Neither were part of my current inner friend circle, so I mostly knew about their life happenings from positive, happy Facebook posts. Now, in hindsight, I know these posts only depicted a small part of their life. They were also dealing with significant emotional pain that few could see.
Sadly, this is true for so many people — despite their outer, happy public persona, they hurt inside —just think of Anthony Bourdain and Kate Spade.
This year, Americans ranked as the unhappiest they’ve ever been based on the recent 2019 World Happiness Report. Other studies also show that people are feeling more stressed, depressed and anxious. Addiction, including the opioid epidemic, is also at an all-time high. These health challenges can also have a ripple-effect and impact more than one person — they impact their friends and family.
The reasons for these spiked mental and emotional health challenges are cumbersome and various, in part, because each person’s challenges are unique to them, yet, there’s a common or shared feeling of hopelessness — that they will never feel happy.
When the Society of Happy People began, culturally we were maybe too comfortable sharing our emotional woes. For example, people clamored to appear on self-help TV and radio shows to share their unhappy story with millions of strangers. However, now, perhaps we’ve moved to a place where too many people try to put on a (fake) happy face, hoping they’ll feel a little bit of happiness.
Unfortunately, when people find the courage to share their pain, it’s often met with the type of unintentional responses I described above, trying to help them feel better — but instead making them feel shame — because they aren’t feeling happy. This is especially true if their life appears to be filled with the elements of happiness — being surrounded by people who love them, a good job, a place to live, plenty of food, and able to travel.
While it’s true these things do provide a few moments of happiness for most people, if someone feels a bigger sense of unhappiness than, say, being cranky after a bad day, then these moments are fleeting. They may even add to their self-shaming. This shameful feeling is made even worse when someone else validates what their head tells them by saying things such as, “Hey, you have so much to be happy about. You have a blessed life.”
Sometimes feeling the hurt is the only way to heal it. And sometimes someone you love won’t be able to heal their own hurts. They will make choices you can’t understand, and which will give your heart new hurts.
If you’re reading this, you probably consider yourself a mostly happy person and would never want to make other people feel worse. However, you probably have more people around you hurting on the inside than you are aware of— because statistically, the numbers of people hurting are growing.
Avoiding Unintentional Happiness Shaming
If you want to avoid unintentionally shaming someone for not feeling as happy as you think they should, here are a few things to consider:
If someone shares their unhappy feelings that are connected to grief, depression, anxiety or addiction, for example, don’t try to fix them—other than suggesting for them to talk to a mental health professional.
When others share their unhappiness with you, it can trigger some of your own past hurts, so be mindful of that when empathizing with them, and don’t project your unhealed hurts.
Try to only listen, acknowledge the pain and empathize. In general, say as little as possible—which may be harder than it sounds and may take practice.
Of course, it’s okay to share your experiences or advice if someone is talking about frustrations associated with practical challenges with say, being are a new mom, a health challenge, dealing with a workplace frustration or parental caretaking issues. These situations, even if they zap a little happiness, are different than when people are dealing with bigger mental and emotional challenges.
If you need to, it’s okay to set boundaries when someone shares their problems by saying something like, “I’m not really qualified to help you with this. Perhaps you should contact a professional, but I’m here to listen.”
It’s always okay to be extra kind to people you know are hurting emotionally—send a “thinking of you text,” meme of something you think will make them smile or take them a treat. People hurting may not have the energy to spend time with you or even talk to you, but they still need to know you care.
Also, be kind to yourself if you’ve unintentionally shamed someone for not being happy. Learning to practice productive empathy can feel counterintuitive because we want to help others feel better. But mostly happy people, those who naturally gravitate to seeing the brighter side even when they hurt — don’t understand that it’s not always that easy for others to do the same. People wade through unhappy experiences in their own way and own time — but they don’t need to be alone. Sometimes sitting in silence with someone is being a lifesaver.
Understand that being there for someone isn’t about fixing or judging them; it’s about loving them. Some experiences are like my mom wisely said, “You don’t understand, you can’t.”