“When life gives you lemons, make lemonade.” A common phrase almost all of us have heard at least once in our life. (At least I know it’s common here in the western USA, let me know in the comments if it’s common in your neck of the woods!) Even though it’s common, it’s a phrase I do not like. At all.
The phrase is supposed to mean “make the most out of a less-than-ideal situation.” Yes, it’s a good idea to take whatever circumstances life has handed you and try to make the best of it. However, I’ve found it gets used a lot to minimize or dismiss uncomfortable feelings. Using this phrase, or other phrases, to dismiss the negative feelings that come up when life gives us negative situations does far more harm than good.
When life hands you lemons, it never hands you the sugar needed to make the lemonade. It’s alright to be frustrated, or even angry, that now you have to go track down some sugar and take the time to make the lemonade. If life had handed you the oranges you had ordered, you would already be enjoying your citrus-y snack!
A lot of people seem to forget that negative and uncomfortable emotions are a part of life: unavoidable, unpleasant, and very real. If you don’t ever experience uncomfortable emotions, I can guarantee you’re either lying to yourself or you’re not living.
I’ve spent almost 29 years (my birthday is in March) having my emotions invalidated. (Everyone has had their emotions invalidated on a regular basis, unfortunately.) I’m a creature of extremes, so I feel everything with intensity. That means I feel joy intensely, but I also feel sadness and frustration intensely. Most people like to take the easy way out and not deal with difficult emotions, and the more intense those negative emotions are, the harder people try to avoid them. It can be hard to see loved ones dealing with difficult/negative emotions, and usually we want to make the yucky stuff go away as quickly as possible. Fixing negative emotions, and making them properly go away, is difficult or even impossible and takes time; which makes people turn to the quicker methods of invalidation and dismissal to make the negative emotions go away.
Abby is feeling upset that her boyfriend, Sam, broke up with her. She goes to her best friend, Jane, to talk and not feel so alone. Jane can tell Abby is upset, but doesn’t know how to make her feel better. Instead of sitting with Abby in these difficult emotions, Jane tells Abby “Sam wasn’t any good for you anyway, it’s for the best that he’s gone.” Now, Abby is still heartbroken while also realizing she cannot talk about these emotions with Jane, and now Abby is confused. Where’s the confusion? Abby can’t help but feel heartbroken, but Jane has made her wonder if she should be happy instead. Jane has invalidated Abby’s emotions, in an attempt to make them go away.
This example is common, almost verbatim. I know I’ve been Abby a million times, and I’m sure I’ve been Jane, too. It’s taken me almost 29 years to realize that the above situation helps absolutely no one, and allowing people to experience their negative emotions is an integral part of life. When someone is experiencing negative emotions, they need support to work through the emotions in a healthy way. When someone has their emotions invalidated, they suppress them, which allows them to fester (much like a physical wound would if you ignored it). Eventually, suppressed emotions will bubble to the surface again, but this time they’ll be stronger. These suppressed emotions are strong enough and negative enough that they almost always manifest in unhealthy behaviors.
Yes, we’re allowed to help our loved ones with their difficult emotions, but you must do so from a point of understanding and love. You cannot make a loved one instantly stop feeling an emotion. (I shared a great video about sympathy vs empathy here.) Here’s an approach that I have learned, that allows the person experiencing the negative emotions to heal.
- Approach the situation with love and understanding. Put yourself in their shoes, recognize where the negative emotion is coming from, and tell them you can see that it’s there and that it’s valid! (Validating someone’s emotions is remarkably powerful.)
- Let them talk about it, even if they’re talking in circles. Gently pointing out if their logic is flawed is acceptable, as long as you’ve validated their emotions and do so from a loving perspective: “I can see why right now it feels like you won’t ever be loved again, but you’re a lovable person – that’s why I love you and am here for you – so I know someone will love you again!” Understand that if their emotions are extreme, it may not seem like they’re listening to you. Stay calm, stay polite, stay loving, and stay understanding. I promise you, the person hears you and is absorbing what you say, but their brain is spiraling out of control, and they need to spiral out the other end first.
- Know that their emotions do not personally affect you. If your loved one is depressed, allow them to be depressed. Follow Winnie the Pooh’s example, and continue to include your loved ones without changing them – Winnie the Pooh and his friends always included the clinically depressed Eeyore and allowed him to stay depressed. Because Winnie the Pooh allowed Eeyore to stay himself and feel his emotions, Eeyore would have a genuinely good time with his friends, and because Winnie the Pooh and the others didn’t take Eeyore’s depression personally, they also had a genuinely good time. Always allow your Eeyore to stay Eeyore.
- Remind the person that you love them, you recognize their emotions, and you’re there for them in whatever capacity they need you to be. Include them on invite chains, even if they constantly say no. Include them in one-on-one hangouts, where they can freely be themselves (with the negative emotions). Allow them to exist in whatever capacity they need to, and just be there with them.
- When your friends that are experiencing their negative emotions have come to a point where they’re ready to move past it, then you can help them to do that. Know that this could take hours, days, week, months, or even years! Do not try to rush it, and do not try to invalidate them. Make sure they’re always moving forward, even if it’s slowly, and just love them. (Moving forward with life; they don’t necessarily have to be making progress on the emotions to still move forward.) When they’re ready, you can help them find the sugar so that they can turn their lemons into lemonade!
Yes, it’s a good idea to make lemonade out of the lemons that life hands you. But, it doesn’t have to be immediate and it doesn’t have to be every situation. Sometimes, the sugar is too far away and too difficult to get to, and it’s okay to throw away the lemons and move on with life. Difficult situations and emotions are what allow us to grow and fully experience life. Stop trying to dismiss the negative, and allow it to exist. And remember, everything in life is temporary, so there will be positive emotions to feel again!
Some more posts about mental health: