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.

A Practice with Love at the Center, Part 2

Love is a combination of six ingredients: care, commitment, knowledge, responsibility, respect and trust. – bell hooks

As I practice compassion and coach others in empathetic listening, one mantra I keep returning to is, “You don’t have to agree with a person’s experience of the world to have empathy for it.” The Gottmans have an excellent suggestion for a simple practice of empathy, simply to try to understand the person’s experience and then say something like, “I can understand why you’d feel that way.” This understanding gives nothing away, it does not yield one’s own truth and perspective, but it is a balm for the person benefiting from the understanding.

In my experience, people caught up in an emotional response have difficulty receiving and processing feedback when they don’t feel understood. Someone who’s feeling particularly angry, sad, depressed, or even happy become more hardened and defensive against someone who seems to be attacking their emotional experience by disagreeing with or criticizing it. Imagine a good friend who is in a relationship you think is horrible but they seem blissed out. How well do they hear your concerns? But approaching someone first with understanding helps them to soften that emotion and then hear what you have to say. Often I find that when I offer that empathy and understanding, the person then feels safe enough to share the concerns they have about the situation, which would be all the concerns I would have said.

What does this have to do with loving practice? I think it defuses an unspoken fear that people have about love, that if we act with care and respect toward a person who is doing something harmful then we become naïve and susceptible to harm. This is also where the confluence of all six of bell hooks’s ingredients is invaluable. I can offer caring and respect to a person but also maintain an attitude of responsibility and knowledge. “I can appreciate why you feel that way, and what you are doing is causing harm.”

hooks’s ingredients of love suggest a process that refines and heals, and not an outcome or prescribed set of acts. I might look at a story of brokenness or self-hatred and rethink what it would mean to approach that facet of life with love. Body-hatred comes to mind. There are ample discussions of how media and culture creates body hatred, particularly for people of color, queer people, and female-bodied people, so I’m not going to get into that. Instead I want to look at how it could be if instead of trying to “fix” my body I could act with love toward it.

Care – Can I start from the perspective that my body is worthy of care and wellness? That it is a precious resource and deserves to be treated so?

Knowledge – What actions support and strengthen my body? Where does my body need comfort or rest? What food and exercise helps my body to feel its best? What food or activities seem to harm or deplete my body?

Commitment – What steps will I take to give my body the support and rest it needs? What will I do regardless of how I feel on a given day? What promise can I keep to my body?

Responsibility – How can I claim more responsibility for my body? Can I call into myself the authority to decide what is best for my body? Can I set aside all the media and cultural images of what my body is “supposed to” look like and see my body for what it is, what shape it wants to take? Can I take responsibility for my choices, whether they harm or help my body? What resources do I need, and can I ask for them?

Respect – Are my choices aligned with what I know and understand about my body? Am I pushing myself too hard? Am I letting myself off the hook too often? Am I making the best choices I can for my body, given my life and circumstances as they are today?

Trust – Do I trust myself to act in integrity? Am I showing up consistently to my commitments? Are there particular commitments that I regularly find hard to keep? If so, could I scale back the commitment to one that is more realistic and more likely for me to keep? Trust is something that is built with consistent action, and succeeding at doing something small every day is better for trust than regularly failing at a large goal. With a foundation of self-trust, you can increase your commitments with time until you meet that big goal.

One lesson that comes from acting with love is learning to see an innate worth to nearly everything and everyone. This, again, does not mean that we have to accept every action with naïve acceptance. What it does mean is that we get to listen to the parts of ourselves that feel angry, that feel joyful, that believe something about the world, that know something different about the world, and from this inner democracy make a loving choice. It means we don’t have to, for example, swallow  anger when we feel hurt and spiral into a story of “if I wasn’t so weak then I wouldn’t feel hurt,” but we can care about ourselves enough to tell the person how their actions affected us.

A Practice with Love at the Center

What would life look like if efforts to grow and develop began from an attitude of love? For this conversation, I do not mean “love” as a feeling or impulse, but “love” like M. Scott Peck’s definition as “the will to extend one’s self for the purpose of nurturing one’s own or another’s spiritual growth.” Another great definition comes from bell hooks in this interview: “Love is a combination of six ingredients: care, commitment, knowledge, responsibility, respect and trust.” This is about love as an attitude and approach, as a source of committed action.

Recently I’ve stepped back to look at my own relentless quest for self-improvement, and listening to others share their stories of efforts to improve, develop, and grow. One theme I’ve noticed in my experience is an attitude of “self-improvement” coming from the basic assumption that one is flawed, unworthy, defective, or in some way bad. From this perspective, one might look at a goal of becoming physically fit and healthy and frame it as, “I hate my body.” Other spurs for change include statements like “I hate my job.”

I almost wrote that hatred doesn’t necessarily motivate action, but then I rethought things. I think hatred does motivate action, but the motivated action is not necessarily one that promotes health, wellness, or joy. Hatred is about aversion and repulsion. Hatred doesn’t focus on what is desired, only what is despised. It’s a feckless creature. Some days, my body hatred might spurs me to eat three donuts and confirm the reasons why I hate my self or body. (“Now I feel gross. I’ll never be healthy.”) Other days, it spurs me to go work out, but exercise motivated by self-hatred is dangerous. It’s the kind of exercise that doesn’t listen to the body’s needs and limitations, or acknowledge that bodies have different shapes and respond to exercise differently. It’s the kind of exercise that pushes past the body’s warning signals and causes its own damage.

I think a lot of people grow up internalizing some view of self as being bad, defective, broken, or unworthy in some way. Advertising capitalizes on these messages to sell us things to fix our myriad problems, even problems that the campaigns create for us so that we’ll want the solutions. The core message is that something’s wrong with you, and you need something external to fix it, except the fix is not permanent and doesn’t make you any different. I see this toxic thread throughout culture. “I feel unlovable, but if that person loves me then I’ll know I’m lovable, but they’ll never love me because I’m unlovable.” (“And even if they do love me, it’s somehow a mistake or I’ve tricked them and one day they’ll know I’m unlovable.”) When we buy into these stories–that I’m broken, unworthy, damaged, or hateful–then our attempts to “improve” may well push those stories deeper.

Light sculpture, Nils Rigbers, Luminale 2012

The ways we regulate our systems looks different when coming from a place of control or condemnation. As a society, the United States is being forced to reckon with the consequences of its system of policing and imprisonment, which focuses on controlling and punishing criminals. With this attitude, it makes sense to allow officers largely unregulated authority to use force to subdue and incarcerate people. The result is that the police are allowed to become increasingly militarized and free of accountability for their decisions. I am not personally in favor of this approach, but I can see why police officers might feel angry about the backlash against them for doing their jobs in this way.

Contrast this with a social worker, whose job it is to promote a desired society and might look at the same person, the “criminal,” through a different lens. Instead of seeing a need to control, the social worker might see a person trying to cope with a lack of skills and resources that afford basic dignity and health. There is evidence that punitive measures against social problems like drug addiction are not as effective as approaches that connect the person to social supports and stability. Instead of control, the social worker responds with loving action–the attempt to foster change and improve lives.



All this said, I’m pondering what my life and culture could look like if love was at the center of our practices. As this entry has already gone on long enough, I may return to this later.