How many times have you said, “I feel bad”? How many times have you been asked “What’s wrong?” or told, “Don’t be sad/mad/worried/_____”?
About a million, right?
And therein lies a problem.
We are taught from early on that certain emotions are good. They’re ok to have. They are desired. Other emotions, in contrast, are bad. We shouldn’t want them, or worse, we shouldn’t even have them. We’re taught to believe that when they show up, there’s something wrong. There’s a problem – our EMOTIONS are a problem – and problems need to be fixed. This leads to working hard to get rid of those “bad” feelings. Unfortunately, avoiding, suppressing, getting rid of, or otherwise fixing feelings doesn’t actually work. Worse, we might even pile on to them by beating ourselves up for having them in the first place.
What most people aren’t taught is that emotions – the full range of emotions – are normal and natural. By virtue of being human, you are destined to feel sad. And mad. And guilty, jealous, joyful, embarrassed, confident, ashamed, happy, disheartened, peaceful, confused, surprised, ambivalent, horrified, empty, excited, etc. You will feel them all, whether you want to or not. In fact, we’re wired to have twice as many negative emotions as positive ones, and we have them for a reason.
Emotions Serve an Evolutionary Purpose
Our brains have the enormous job of processing every bit of data coming in through our five senses all of the time so that they can keep us alive. As a result, they’ve developed a lot of shortcuts. Emotions are one.
Emotions are messengers designed to give us a lot of information very quickly and motivate us to act in certain ways, aimed at ensuring our survival. Think about it. The message of anxiety is danger, and the action urge is to avoid or escape. That’s very helpful when a threat to our bodily safety is near. The message of guilt is “I did something wrong,” and the urge is to make amends. Again, helpful for a social species whose survival depended on being part of the community. Even in present day when we’re not likely to be eaten by predators or die if we are shunned, emotions are incredibly useful…when we understand and have a healthy relationship with them.
Redefining Your Relationship with Your Feelings
Bad is not feeling. Neither is good. Those are judgments, another brain shortcut. Our brains quickly categorize things as good and bad, safe and unsafe, desired, or undesired to speed up information processing. When it comes to feelings, though, judging them is part of the problem. That’s not promoting a healthy relationship with them. Consider this. How healthy is your relationship with that person who constantly judges you?
When we designate natural, normal experiences as “bad,” we’re setting ourselves up to struggle. Feeling sad or anxious or angry or guilty at some point is unavoidable (remember, we are literally WIRED to feel them). Yet, when we call something “bad,” we are saying to ourselves that we shouldn’t have that experience, that there is something inherently wrong with what’s going on inside of us. That would be like saying that having to go to the bathroom or eat or sleep is bad. It’s just a part of being human. We accept those experiences, throughout the course of our day, and move on.
We need to do the same with feelings
When we can learn to recognize the emotions that show up and call them by their proper names, not good or bad, with the understanding that they are there for a reason, we are now open to receiving their messages. From there, we can decide whether the message is helpful or not and whether to act on the urge or override it.
Dealing with Painful Emotions
Once we are able to pause, take a step back, and call our emotion by its name, we’ve already begun to make space for it, to allow it to be there. As we examine our emotions with curiosity, we can reflect on whether acting on them is in our best interest. The goal is to take the input from your feelings under consideration but to stay in the driver’s seat of your actions. And sometimes the best course of action, the one that keeps you moving in the direction that is right for you, is simply to be patient. All emotions, even the most intense and difficult ones, will pass if we let them. If we do not add fuel to the fire and, instead, know that we won’t drown in them if we just stay mindful and compassionate, they will burn out.
I heard this quote the other day that so deeply resonated.
“Emotions aren’t math problems to be solved. They’re sunsets to be experienced.“
If that didn’t immediately make you pause, read it again.
Emotions are not math problems to be solved. They are sunsets to be experienced.
That shift in perspective leads to a fundamentally different way of relating to your emotions, a new way to be with them, especially the unpleasant ones. It allows you to make space for and explore with curiosity the very human experience of emotions.
Instead of judging feelings and falling into the trap that comes from having “bad” feelings, we need to accurately recognize them and precisely name them, open ourselves up to having them so that we can explore them with curiosity, glean their message, then move forward intentionally. We need to bask in those sunsets. Doing so isn’t easy, and it doesn’t come naturally to many of us. Fortunately, we can all build psychological strength, including those skills of emotional intelligence and acceptance, which, among many others, we teach inside our Ascend program. If you are interested in building your own psych strength, consider enrolling in Ascend or our brand new live Quarterly Workshop Series (or bundle them and get the workshop series free for a year).
“Emotions are not math problems to be solved. They are sunsets to be experienced.”
– Dr. Robyn Walser