Feeling bad isn’t as bad as feeling bad about it
Updated: May 5, 2020
Avoid beating yourself up for feeling bad
Unpleasant is not the same as wrong…
A normal part of the human condition is that we sometimes feel bad. Particularly about ourselves or our situation.
Sometimes this is internally oriented: we feel discouraged or intimidated (for example “imposter syndrome”) or our self-worth is low. Other times it’s externally oriented: we feel scared, or lonely, or worried about the future.
These feelings are natural reactions to the ebb and flow of life coupled with our experiences and emotional baggage from our past. It doesn’t feel good to feel intimidated or discouraged or sad but it’s important to realize that though these feelings are unpleasant, they are not inherently bad or good.
The distinction is that unpleasant refers to only the opposite of pleasant: these are painful emotions and we don’t like pain.
But in the same way that physical pain doesn’t have an inherent value judgement, ie stepping on a tack hurts but it is not good or bad, emotional pain also hurts and we want to avoid it, but it is not good or bad. It is not a measure of the morality or correctness of our actions.
Our actions do have a correctness to them but our level of discouragement or shame is not the way that correctness is accurately measured.
…but we equate unpleasant to wrong
Unfortunately, that is exactly what we do.
We feel this sadness or intimidation or shame and we think that it is bad to feel that way. We make ourselves feel worse by piling on this extra pressure that we shouldn’t feel bad. At some point we being to attach our self-worth to the unpleasantness of what we feel.
We feel bad, we think we shouldn’t feel bad, therefore we must be lacking as a person because we feel bad. So we feel worse, but we shouldn’t feel worse, so we feel worse about feeling worse about feeling bad.
It’s a downward spiral of beating ourselves up for what started out as a natural reaction that, while unpleasant, was not supposed to be a value judgement.
The key to short-circuiting this spiral is to realize that nothing is wrong with you. This spiral is actually your feelings working exactly as they were “designed” to.
Unpleasantness is meant to protect us from tigers
Let’s go back to that unpleasant feeling.
Be it sadness or fear or shame or something else, the reason we have unpleasant emotions in the first place is to keep us safe.
Those feelings are unpleasant because they are associated with things that we should theoretically be avoiding. Pain, whether physical or emotional, is meant to teach us to avoid the thing that caused it.
Fear is the best example of this. We fear things that are dangerous.
Well, not quite. We feel fear not necessarily because there is an actual danger but just in case there is an actual danger. Fear is a sign that we should be more alert.
However that subtlety is lost because our reaction to fear is designed for a world where physical danger was common and often fatal. We are conditioned to treat fear as a sign of danger since making sure we didn’t underreact to something dangerous was worth overreacting to something not dangerous.
The same is the case for shame, sadness, etc. The “purpose” of all these emotions is to condition us to avoid situations that may result in increased danger.
Shame is associated with a transgression against the social order of the group since such transgressions could result in us being cast out, left to fend for ourselves against the lions and tigers and bears.
Sadness is triggered when we feel a loss of something we value, be that an object or connection with another. Again, “designed” to skew us towards activities that increase our chances for survival in a world of ubiquitous fatality.
We no longer have tigers to fear
The problem is that though we no longer live in that world we still feel these feelings. And with the lack of an obvious threat, our sophisticated brains begin to look for it.
Not being able to identify the actual threat increases the chance that we may not be adequately prepared. After all there must be something wrong or we wouldn’t be feeling this way right?
The trouble is that with this lack of an external threat we begin to look internally. Instead of just viewing unpleasantness as an impersonal measure we attach a value judgement to unpleasant, the feeling itself becomes the actual threat rather than merely a warning of a potential threat.
We don’t view the bad feeling as a warning of something to be avoided, we begin to view it as something that shouldn’t have happened in the first place
Something to be avoided implies that it is expected and undramatically steered around. It has nothing to do with our goodness or badness as a person. That calm nondramatic steering is what the unpleasant feeling is supposed to be motivating in us.
However something that shouldn’t have happened implies that we are at fault for allowing or causing it to occur, the cause is internal and since the result is bad, the cause must be something bad within us.
We begin to judge ourselves harshly since our decisions (including not making a decision, which is a decision to do nothing) caused the unpleasant feeling, we are a bad person for making that decision.
So when there is no external danger to justify our feeling we begin to map “be alert to danger” to a value judgement about ourselves.We begin to equate unpleasant (external) with wrong (internal). It begins to affect our ego and sense of self-worth.
We begin to go down that spiral of feeling bad about feeling bad and then feeling bad about that.
Acceptance without giving in is the solution
So how do we arrest this spiral?
What we need to do is recognize that the bad feeling is just that, a bad feeling, it is a measure of something external not a measure of our own self worth.
We remind ourselves that unpleasant just means unpleasant, it doesn’t mean wrong
Things can be pleasant but bad for us (addiction)
Things can be unpleasant but good for us (exercise)
Things can be pleasant but good for us (eating healthy)
Things can be unpleasant but bad or us (physical injury)
Unfortunately, there is no magic formula to get rid of the bad feeling. We just have to feel bad and that’s it. We have to respect and accept our feelings. We need to feel them with our heart intelligence and do our best to not “process” our feelings with brain intelligence.
That doesn’t mean we don’t analyze our situation, it means we analyze our situation with the goal of driving self-awareness of patterns of behavior and what decisions we should make, instead of with the goal of trying to make the bad feeling go away.
Accepting that bad feeling without trying to “fix” it isn’t easy. It takes courage. Courage isn’t not being afraid of something, it is being afraid of something and doing it anyway. And the power of courage is that being courageous itself gives us the strength to be courageous.
Pema Chodron, an American Buddhist teacher, put it well:
“So even if the hot loneliness is there, and for 1.6 seconds we sit with that restlessness when yesterday we couldn’t sit for even one, that’s the journey of the warrior.” ― Pema Chödrön, When Things Fall Apart: Heartfelt Advice for Hard Times
Being human means feeling bad but feeling bad doesn’t make us bad humans.