Are there bad feelings?

Are there “bad” feelings? In brief, my answer is no. Increasingly I am coming to challenge the language we use to describe our feelings, both for myself and for my clients. Saying that I feel “good” or I feel “bad” is a common verbal shorthand that really tells us very little other than we have internalized the cultural norm in which emotions, with all their variety, texture, and specificity, get swept into two giant buckets labeled “Acceptable to Have” and “Unacceptable to Have.”

This fosters an unhelpful division within ourselves in which we try to push away unacceptable feelings and cling to acceptable ones. Feelings are an important source of information about ourselves and our environment. If I generally get along with most people, but one person in particular always seems to elicit feelings of defensiveness and fear, that is important information about myself and my relationship with this person. Perhaps this person is not emotionally safe for me to be around. Perhaps something within me wants to stand up to them but perceives other barriers that keep it stuck. Feelings are ultimately not logical and easy to reduce to one verbal statement, often they are more easily understood symbolically (capable of meaning multiple things but retaining an essential quality around which those meanings are organized). If I refuse to acknowledge that defensiveness and fear because it’s “better” to be either angry or happy, then I am likely to stuff down, ignore, deny, avoid, or minimize this information and it’s value is lost to me.

The more restricted our range of acceptable feelings is, the more limited we are in our capacity to feel. Ultimately, our capacity to feel emotions that cause discomfort is the same capacity that lets us feel emotions that cause pleasure. The feelings we avoid stay stuck within us, getting stickier and more toxic, unable to move. Bringing loving or at least nonjudgmental awareness to these feelings is what helps them to begin to move, helping us to become more open to other feelings.

Phoenix rising from its ashes

I recently read an article in which a writer discussed how she disagreed with the injunction to “feel your feelings,” stating that there are some feelings that are destructive to her, such as the feeling of wanting to commit suicide. I am not linking to that article in part because I cannot find it and in other part because I do not want to come across as arguing with or disrespecting her process. For those struggling with self-harming behaviors or actively wanting to die, the priority is making sure you are physically safe and getting the mental and emotional support you need. (If you don’t have a therapist and don’t want to go to the hospital, you can call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255).) In this situation, then finding strategies not to fixate on those thoughts and feelings is life-saving.

However, in the long-term I think it is useful to learn to befriend one’s feelings. When my clients are relatively safe and stable but still have thoughts like “I feel like I want to die,” one of my annoying habits is to encourage them to tease apart thoughts and feelings. It’s another verbal shorthand in our culture to communicate thoughts and opinions through the language of feeling, like, “I feel like the [political party] are going to destroy the country.” Part of this, I think, is trying to acknowledge intuition as a source of information, as intuition is a way of rational processing connected with feeling. However, emotions and feelings are almost always single words, nouns or adjectives, not statements. I would encourage the person making the above statement to reframe it as, “I am feeling fear, and I am having the thought that [political party] is going to destroy the country.” In the case of wanting to die, I would still want to explore this more deeply. “I want to die” is a thought, an interpretation about what is happening in the spirit, heart, and body, but what is the feeling connected to this thought? Is it despair? Humiliation? Disappointment?

If we can name the feeling, then we have a chance at freedom with it. We can recognize how painful this feeling is and we can talk about it. We can mindfully bring awareness to it. We can seek the support we need for it. We might learn that we do not have to be so afraid of it, that a feeling can just be a feeling, a thought can just be a thought, and all of it can be information and not destiny.