Caring for yourself
Struggle, grief & joy can co-exist
Positive & negative emotions don’t cancel each other out, & you don’t have to be done with pain to make space for joy. Learn how grief & joy can co-exist.
Life’s hardest moments can bring moments of such overwhelming pain that it’s hard to imagine feeling okay again. Yet, a few hours later, you may find yourself laughing—perhaps even while tears stream down your face.
As a culture, we struggle to hold grief and joy in both hands. But positive and negative emotions don’t cancel each other out, and you don’t have to be done with pain to make space for meaning and joy. It’s common—and quite human—to feel both at the same time.
Healing happens when we’re realistic about how long our struggles may take (e.g. our grief may never be “over” even as it becomes easier to cope with over time), while staying open to the possibility of building a life of meaning, peace, and joy.
- Tip #1Give yourself permission to feel joy
During hard times, people may turn away from moments of joy. You might notice yourself doing this because:
- Feeling happy makes you feel bad about “moving on” from something or someone important.
- Feeling good while others are still struggling makes you feel guilty.
- You have survivor’s guilt.
- How to do it
- If you’re coping with the loss of a loved one, it might help to remind yourself that they cared about your happiness and would want you to feel joy again. Not just in the distant future, but today too.
- If you’re judging yourself for feeling joy, think about how you would respond to a friend in your situation. Would you tell them they shouldn’t feel happy? Practice being as kind to yourself as you would to others.
- Tip #2Notice small moments of joy
People often associate joy with big events, like a graduation or a wedding. However, happiness can often be found in small, everyday pleasures like the smell of coffee brewing. These moments are easy to overlook when you’re sad or overwhelmed.
Pausing to appreciate small joys alongside your struggles can make you feel happier and healthier. In one study, people who wrote about joyful experiences for three days not only felt better right away, they also made fewer visits to health centers over the next three months.1
- How to do it
To make a practice of noticing small moments of joy, you might:
- Journal about one moment of joy each day. Stopping to reflect can reveal there were more good moments than you’d realized. On tough days, you can use your journal to remind yourself that you’ve had good moments and you will have more in the future.
- Think about the best parts of your day before bed. Those might be a small win, like an unexpected compliment at work, or a simple pleasure, like the feeling of a warm breeze.
- Pick a few times each day to break out of autopilot and bring your attention to your immediate experience. Really focusing for a moment on your favorite song or the taste of your food can turn an everyday event into a moment of real pleasure.
- Tip #3Create moments of joy
Many people feel happiest when they’re absorbed in what they’re doing, a state psychologists call “flow.” Whether it’s meditating or knitting, reading or Brazilian jiu-jitsu, chances are you already have a flow-state activity you love.
If, for whatever reason, an old flow activity feels triggering or difficult to find pleasure in in the here and now, try doing something you loved as a kid or nudge yourself to try something new. The hard feelings might not go away, but over time, these activities can feel like a welcome distraction or a space where you feel connected to yourself again.
- How to do it
- Engaging in an activity at just the right level of difficulty for you is the best path into flow. Choose something challenging enough to require focus without being frustrating.
- Make space to experience flow by blocking out time on your calendar for an activity you enjoy. Treat it like an appointment with yourself that you will keep even if you’re busy.
- On our hardest days, our brains do a great job of convincing us nothing can be fun. To get yourself started, try setting a timer for ten minutes, with the promise that you can stop then if you want. Chances are, by the time your alarm sounds, you’ll want to keep going. If not, that’s okay. Set the activity aside and try again another day.
In any moment, joy can coexist with grief or sorrow and laughter can share space with pain. There is nothing “wrong” with you if your days are still feeling tough—you’re not a burden, you’re human. Setting the expectation that some days will be hard and others will be easier, that you can hold struggle in one hand and joy in the other, can help you navigate loss and hardship.
Caring for yourself: Lesson 1 of 10
Slow down and feel your feelings: Lean into the Suck
- None of us want to be sad, angry, or scared. But research shows that letting yourself fully experience your emotions can help you start to heal.
Caring for yourself: Lesson 2 of 10
Focus On The Basics: Breathe, Eat, Sleep, Move
- During life’s hardest moments, it’s critical to focus on the self-care basics: sleeping, eating, breathing, and moving. Learn more today.
Caring for yourself: Lesson 3 of 10
It’s Not Your Fault & It Won’t Always Feel Like This
- During difficult times, it’s easy to fall into mental traps, such as the “3 P’s.” Remember that it’s not your fault, & this feeling won’t last forever. Learn more.
Caring for yourself: Lesson 4 of 10
How To Be Practice Self-Compassion
- Self-compassion can help you get through hard times with less pain. Learn how to practice self-compassion & be kind to yourself.
Caring for yourself: Lesson 5 of 10
How To Ask For Help: Kick the Elephant out of the Room
- Don’t ignore the elephant in the room — kick it out. Learn how to open up, have difficult conversations & ask for the help you need.
Caring for yourself: Lesson 6 of 10
Avoid Avoidance & Accept Negative Emotions
- The battle to push bad feelings away will make your life smaller over time. Learn how to accept & embrace negative emotions during life’s hardest moments.
Caring for yourself: Lesson 7 of 10
How To Practice Gratitude & Spread it to Others
- During hard times, practicing gratitude may not feel natural or intuitive, but it can make a difference. Learn more.
Caring for yourself: Lesson 8 of 10
How To Build Your Support System
- During hard times, everyone needs extra support. Learn how to build your support system of friends, family, & other loved ones.
Caring for yourself: Lesson 10 of 10
Post-Traumatic Growth: Build a meaningful new normal
- Learn more about post-traumatic growth & creating a more meaningful life after hardship.
Supporting others: Lesson 1 of 4
Mobilize their Support Team: Find Support For Others
- In life’s hardest moments, people often need more support than any one person can give. Learn how to find & mobilize support for a loved one facing adversity.
Supporting others: Lesson 2 of 4
Show up and Support in Specific, Concrete Ways
- When someone is going through a hard time, even the smallest acts of support can be significant. Learn about specific, concrete ways you can support others.
Supporting others: Lesson 3 of 4
Help people cope: Be There for the Long Haul
- Grief and hardship can long outlast the initial waves of support. Show your loved ones that you’re there to provide long-term support.
Supporting others: Lesson 4 of 4
How to Talk about Stress, Trauma, & Loss
- Instead of avoiding hard topics, become part of a culture that avoids avoidance. Learn how to discuss stress, trauma, loss, & other hard topics with loved ones.
Chad M. Burton and Laura A. King, “The Health Benefits of Writing About Intensely Positive Experiences,” Journal of Research in Personality 38, no. 2 (2004): 150–63.