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  • Writer's pictureAmy Leggett

Life is Bittersweet...Embrace ALL the Feelings

Updated: Jul 16, 2022

If you are a middle-aged person (or just a connoisseur of good music), you may be aware of a song titled "Bittersweet" by Big Head Todd and the Monsters. I loved this band back in the day and I particularly loved this song. I would belt the lyrics to the chorus from the top of my lungs whenever it came on. "It's bittersweet. More sweet than bitter, bitter than sweet. It's a bittersweet surrender." I didn't realize the wisdom of these words at the time, but have come to realize that they describe most of life's experiences. But not only that, as the song indicates, it is necessary to surrender to both sides of the bittersweet feeling in order to live a full beautiful life.

I had the opportunity to really explore this topic during the past week as the universe bombarded me with examples of how the bitter and sweet of life play out. My week started with a phone call from Taylor, my youngest, who will be graduating from college in May. She was expressing her feelings about being ready to be done with college and move on to the next phase of her life, but she also felt sad about leaving college behind and wondering if she had fully taken advantage of the experience. I told her that her such a mixture of feelings is quite normal whenever we experience a transition in our life. But do we really ever stop to think about the duality of what we are feeling? The mixture of happy and sad feelings is unsettling. If we feel sad about leaving something behind, we may question if we are genuinely happy about what is coming next. This is uncomfortable so we generally just ignore the sad and focus on the happy.

The second bittersweet message came to me at a yoga class the following day when the instructor advised that the mantra for the class was "It is like this AND also like this." She was talking about paying attention to how our bodies were feeling in particular poses and note that a pose can feel challenging to one part of our body, but also be relaxing and calming to another part. Again, a juxtaposition of two distinctly different feelings at the same moment. But she also told us that this experience of competing feelings is something we also face in life and we need to learn to observe, acknowledge and embrace all the feelings that arise within us in order to learn and grow from a situation.

The final universal nudge came when I was doing my walking meditation and listening to my favorite podcaster Brene Brown's Unlocking Us. Her episode this week featured Susan Cain who is an author and researcher who recently wrote a book entitled Bittersweet: How Sorrow and Longing Make Us Whole. During the interview Ms. Cain explained that bittersweetness is a state of longing, poignancy, and sorrow, an acute awareness of passing time; paired with a curiously piercing joy at the beauty of the world. It recognizes that light and dark, birth and death, bitter and sweet, are forever paired. She found that when we are confronted with experiences that have both a bitter and sweet element, we have two choices:

  1. Push away and ignore the bitterness, but doing this will most likely cause us to unconsciously inflict or transfer the bitterness to others; OR

  2. Accept that pain and joy, or bitter and sweet, go together and experience and feel them both in order to have a whole-hearted life. When there is pain that you can't get rid of, she recommends transforming it to something else as a creative or healing offering to others. Some do this by writing music, creating art, or writing poetry of sad stories.

Taking Ms. Cain's advice, this particular blog is my effort to take some of difficult feelings I have experienced lately and create a healing offering. Perhaps my journey exploring bittersweet feelings will offer support or solace to someone going through their own challenging times. You are not alone in your struggles and should not feel guilty when you feel pain or sorrow in the midst of an otherwise joyous experience. It is a part of life's journey.

One thing that became obvious to me in thinking about all of these messages I received this week, is that I am guilty of trying to avoid the bitterness and pain that should be a part of my life experience. Even though I think I am emotionally in touch, I frequently try to rush through the difficult parts. For instance, my instinct when my daughters share bittersweet feelings with me is to jump in and make it better. I focus on the positive feelings and while I acknowledge the validity of the sadness, I definitely downplay the negative side of the situation. I believe this is the tendency most people have as experiencing sad feelings is uncomfortable and generally seen as something to be avoided at all costs.

This brushing past the hard part is Standard Operating Procedure in handling my own feelings as well. I do not ignore or suppress the difficult feelings, but I definitely try to expedite the handling of them. (Pro tip: This is not possible-it will take as long as it takes. Learned this the hard way!) During the past year, I have tried to rush and force my way through the emotional processing of my divorce and get to a point of being "OK". I frequently told people I was "fine" (which my therapist said really stands for "Fucked Up, Insecure, Neurotic and Emotional"...pretty accurate.) I thought if I acknowledged that I still felt pain or sorrow that would mean I wasn't over it and wasn't moving on properly. To be honest, I really did feel "fine" most times, but then something small would trigger a large emotional response clearly indicating that the pain and sadness had not been fully acknowledged and released.

I now see that this "toxic positivity" is not helpful nor is it beneficial to really experiencing joy. In this increasingly binary world, we feel like we need to identify and put a label on each situation as "happy", "sad", "exciting", "frustrating", etc. Often times experiences do not lend themselves to such an easy description. We do not have to feel one way to the exclusion of the other. We do not have to be absent of pain or sadness in order to feel happy. As my yoga teacher said "It is like this AND also like this."

Moving forward, I will embrace experiencing bittersweet emotions. Getting divorced obviously involves many sad feelings. Loss of an important person in your life, loss of the future you had planned, disruption to the family unit and extended family relationships that have been built over the years, painful memories of past good times, new difficult situations, and a destruction of the foundation you had built your life on. However, these sad feelings do not take away from the many positive feelings that I have as well. I have created a new vision of my life that I am excited about, I have met many new people I would never have known if my life had continued on the same path, I have experienced tremendous self growth and empowerment and have reconnected with the inner spark I had lost along the way. I love the part-time job I have selling jewelry in my retirement. I learned that I am good at selling and actually really enjoy accessorizing with jewelry. My life now has freedom to consider possibilities that were closed to me before. Will I move back to San Diego to live my later years by the ocean and in the incredible weather I enjoyed when I was in law school? Maybe! Or will I return to my childhood home of Colorado? Perhaps! I am the captain of this ship and can steer it whichever way I feel inspired to go and that is joyful and exciting. But for the time being, the sad feelings still co-exist with the happy ones. And that's ok.

It is my belief that the joy in our bittersweet moments cannot be fully appreciated unless we also encourage and allow the sad feelings in to provide the context. It is only by realizing and acknowledging what we have lost or what we are letting go of (a period of life, a moment, a person, an experience), that we can be truly free to enjoy what comes next. Embracing bittersweet feelings also encourages us to fully grab the joy in the current moment because we understand that these precious moments are fleeting and they too will pass on our way to new experiences.

All changes, even the most longed for, have their melancholy; for what we leave behind us is a part of ourselves; we must die to one life before we can enter another. -Anatole France

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