Embracing the Bittersweet: Discovering Personal Beauty

I have felt like I’ve been followed by a hazy, gray cloud for as long as I can remember. This cloud of melancholy isn’t quite rain, nor does it completely block out the sun. It’s just a constant misty feeling that hangs over me. The word “melancholy” has two definitions according to Merriam-Webster: as a noun, it means “a pensive mood” or “depression of spirits,” and as an adjective, it means “sadness or depression of mind and spirit.” But to me, it’s more like bittersweetness. It’s a state of wistfulness that comes with a tendency for somber reflection. It’s not depression, nor is it the absence of joy. In fact, there can be moments of elation and hope within my melancholy. It’s a complex trait that has haunted artists, philosophers, and writers for centuries.

This bittersweetness is woven into the very fabric of my being, affecting every moment of my life. Even the most meaningless moments feel significant and overwhelming. It’s not uncommon for me to be moved to tears by nature, nostalgia, or things that are neither happy nor sad. It’s something that I’m drawn to, despite feeling misunderstood and isolated when trying to connect with others about it.

I’ve often been labeled as “overly sensitive” or “too emotional,” even from a young age. These labels have stuck with me, and I’ve come to believe that my melancholy is a natural shortcoming, but also a part of who I am. It’s why I feel like I’m always the last to know bad news in my family, as if no one wants to burden me with it. It’s also why I feel like my family sees me as weaker compared to my younger sister, who is viewed as the rational problem-solver.

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Even during moments of joy and celebration, I’m reminded to “enjoy the moment.” But how can I explain to others that I am enjoying the moment, that I am acutely aware of its beauty and significance precisely because it is fleeting?

It wasn’t until I read Susan Cain’s book, Bittersweet: How Sorrow and Longing Make Us Whole, that I finally found a sense of belonging. The book explores the bittersweet and melancholic disposition, diving into what it means to be “bittersweet” and why some of us find joy in somber things. Reading it made me feel seen and understood.

Cain combines her own love for melancholy with extensive research, explaining how those like me who seek deeper meaning and feel life more intensely may also live more fulfilling lives. She breaks down the benefits of melancholy into three main categories: creativity, connection, and transcendence. According to Cain, these make melancholy not a flaw, but a superpower.

It’s true that many great artists have had a streak of melancholy that fuels their creativity. Learning to manage it can turn it into a benefit rather than a burden. For me, my longing has always driven me to explore my own feelings, connections, and legacy. I’ve found solace in writing, which allows me to channel my emotions in a productive way.

However, it’s important to avoid getting stuck in the darkness. Learning to let the feelings pass through us and not linger is crucial to avoid falling into sadness or depression. But there’s beauty in those moments of stuckness too, as they inspire me to keep creating in order to avoid getting stuck again.

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Another valuable lesson from Cain’s book is how melancholy can be a force for empathy. By honoring sadness, we can bridge the gap between ourselves and others. We can recognize that everyone has suffered or will suffer, regardless of their outward appearance or opinions. This sensitivity to others’ emotions can be emotionally magnetic, building meaningful connections with those around us.

Acknowledging and accepting all of our feelings, including the melancholic ones, has its own set of benefits. Dr. Julia DiGangi, a neuropsychologist, argues in her upcoming book, Energy Rising: The Neuroscience of Leading With Emotional Power, that embracing our true feelings unleashes our emotional power. Fighting against these feelings only leads to emotional constipation, causing stress, uncertainty, and defeat.

In the end, embracing all the different parts of ourselves, including our melancholy, allows us to live authentically and experience life more fully. It’s not a flaw or a weakness, but a unique strength that can lead to a more grateful and fulfilling life.

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