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Is Keeping Calm and Carrying On the best option?


It's a thoroughly British phrase isn't it? More than 70 years ago "Keep Calm and Carry On" was created as one of three propaganda poster slogans produced by the British government in the run-up to World War II. The other two were used, but "Keep Calm" was kept in reserve only to be used in times of true crisis and never actually came to use.

The phrase is used on all sorts of merchandise and paraphernalia, in many different variations and has come to mean "just grin and bear it". Yet life is full of challenges. We are continually faced with tests of our strength and character and is it always a good thing to simply grin and bear it? Yes, in some instances it's probably best to keep calm and carry on, you wouldn't want to be in the midst of an emergency and completely lose control, keeping calm until such a time as you can fall apart – if of course you want, or need, to – is one of life's coping mechanisms after all. But can prolonged keeping calm make it worse in the long term?

Tal Ben-Shahar is an author and lecturer, he taught the largest course at Harvard on Positive Psychology and recently gave a talk for Action for Happiness called "Give Yourself Permission to be Human". He says "Positive psychology is not about the rejection of painful emotions, or the belief that a happy life is devoid of difficulties and struggles. In fact, the rejection of painful emotions, of hardship, is the number one barrier to a happy life. We are a culture obsessed with pleasure and believe that the mark of a worthy life is the absence of discomfort; and when we experience pain, we take it to indicate that something must be wrong with us. In fact, there is something wrong with us if we don't experience sadness or anxiety at times—which are human emotions. The paradox is that when we accept all of our feelings—when we give ourselves the permission to be human—we are more likely to open ourselves up to positive emotions. Rejecting our feelings, whether positive or negative, leads to frustration and unhappiness."

So perhaps sometimes we shouldn't just keep calm and carry on, we should allow ourselves to be human and experience the bad as well as the good.

Writing this has made me think back to when my mum was diagnosed with terminal cancer. At first I avoided the issue and tried to hide from it, I didn't want to think about losing my mum, I was only 28. But then I realised that everyone around me, with the exception of my mum, was losing their heads and someone had to "keep calm and carry on" so I decided that someone would be me. I adopted this stance and kept it up through mum's 12 week illness, her death and funeral and beyond. I think I'd built up that keep calm suit of armour and didn't know how to take it off. Then two years later, on the anniversary of her death, I met my now husband. We had a whirlwind relationship and by the end of that year I'd moved in with him, started a new job and was happier than I'd been in a long time... then I started to suffer from stress and mild depression and ended up off sick, I couldn't understand it.

My GP was wonderful and his words to me were "you've held everything together for so long, now you've relaxed and that (suit of armour) protection you built up around you has started to slip. You're grieving for your mum and dealing with all the feelings you kept at bay while you kept calm and carried on". As soon as he said it I knew he was right and that was the first step on my road to recovery. By not allowing myself to be human and feel the emotions and experience my grief, I'd just prolonged the inevitable.

Being resilient is a great thing, we all need to bear up and deal with things when life gets tough, but remember what Tal Ban-Shahar says "...when we accept all of our feelings—when we give ourselves the permission to be human—we are more likely to open ourselves up to positive emotions."



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