When feeling bad can do some good …

Can you feel good about feeling bad? Can we embrace the state of feeling sad, depressed, angry, confused or lonely?

My mother, not normally an emotionally intuitive woman, was a genius in this one respect. If I was grieving, or undergoing one of life’s trials, she would say: “of course you feel bad, and of course it hurts. If it didn’t hurt, you wouldn’t have a heart. Do you want to be the kind of person that doesn’t feel anything over something like this?”

For my mother, feeling bad in response to a real and horrible event was not a sign of being “negative” or “whiney.” It was a healthy acknowledgment of reality. Anything less was a sign of spiritual defect.

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A few years ago I began to suspect that the world had changed. Feeling bad about anything seemed to be a violation of …. something. The internet is rife with scholars alarmed at our culture’s attempt to shield our children from the least little unpleasantness. Parents helicopter to avoid dealing with anxiety. We have so devalued the concepts of guilt and shame that no one need feel badly for doing anything to anyone – unless, of course, they get caught. In that case, we do allow them a modicum of embarrassment.

I saw one of the biggest signs of the times only a few years ago. Our family’s adoption social worker adhered to a policy of complete indulgence for herself and the children with a militant passion that closely resembled Il Duce in 1937. Any wish, any desire was to be completely fulfilled. There were to be no consequences, no chores, no responsibilities, no corrections. Life was to be a 24-hour amusement park ride for the children.  No one was to experience any adversity, there were to be no bad feelings. Ever.

As other events unfolded, it dawned on me: we now live in a world where everyone wants to feel good all the time. Feeling bad is now labelled as “depressive,” “anxious,” and in dire need of a treatment: therapy, pill, etc.

this is awesomeI understand depression that requires treatment. It’s not the end of the world when you break up with your teenaged boyfriend of three months, or the idiot manager at Box-a-Burger fires you. When you’re young, boyfriends and fast-food gigs come along every ten minutes, just like buses. If you do feel overly hopeless about it, well, you do need help.

Therein lies the rub: if you do feel overly hopeless about something like that, maybe those bad feelings aren’t about that break-up or that job at all. Maybe your life is trying to tell you something. The help you may need is not with how you feel, but with the problem your feelings are trying to point out to you.

Emotions, when viewed as part of a spectrum of available sources of information, are a bit like the weather report. ~ Noam Shpancer, Ph.D.

I asked my pastor about this the other day. I explained to her I was in an unenviable position. I have very bad feelings that don’t make me particularly good company. But I’m okay with feeling bad about things right now; I don’t care to adapt that just to become more palatable.  If I felt good, it would sort of seem like looking at my own demolished house and saying “well, I just have to sweep those breadcrumbs up over there and I can host high tea on Friday.”

fesh woundYou remember Monty Python and the “flesh wound”? Yes, well, it would be like that. Only not funny. Because it’s me.

I asked her if she thought we’d become a society that expected to feel good about everything all the time. “Of course,” she said, and agreed with me that it’s not a good place for our society to be.

positive thinking may be counterproductive if it leads us to blithely ignore life’s dangers. ~ Scott O. Lilienfeld, and Hal Arkowitz, Scientific American

Remember “Sex, Lies and Videotape,” with Andie MacDowell and James Spader? MacDowell’s Ann Mullany’s inability to deal with the problems led her straight into dysfunction: an obsessive anxiety about a completely irrelevant garbage barge.

In today’s world, she’d be given one or any number of prescriptions and sent on her way. A neat solution like that is really a cheat, though. We find out that her anxiety is her own life’s way of screaming at her about the WASP façade of affluence and attractiveness that covers the hurtful and exploitive nature of her relationships.

Unpleasant feelings are just as crucial as the enjoyable ones in helping you make sense of life’s ups and downs. ~ Sebastian Thibault

Spader’s Graham also feels bad. Ann’s husband describes his manner of dress as “a funeral director for the art world.” He’s so locked into his own guilt and grief that he can only communicate with women sexually in a unique way.

In the end, these two characters bond – not in some mythological, Hollywood romanticized way, but as human beings. Each sees the ugly truth about the other – Graham learns about Ann’s husband, Ann confronts Graham about his intimacy issues. Once they bond, and each is forced to deal with their own problems (by Ann’s husband), Ann doesn’t think about that barge anymore, and Graham’s problems are … well … remedied. Problem solved, bad feelings about problem gone.

If some shrink had just given them a pill and sent them on their way, yes, they’d feel better, and the people around them would feel better, but their lives would still be empty and hollow.

Science is even behind me on this one.  In Scientific American Mind, Sebastian Thibault writes:

In recent years I have noticed an increase in the number of people who also feel guilty or ashamed about what they perceive to be negativity. … Although positive emotions are worth cultivating, problems arise when people start believing they must be upbeat all the time.

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Bad feelings tell us to change. Tragedy can provoke us into making much needed changes in seemingly unrelated areas. There comes a point where something personal: a relationship, a situation can feel so terrible that it simply must undergo a change. Suddenly, obligation, guilt, custom, and the seemingly infinite chain linked by “shoulds” and “oughts” and “owes” collapses into dust and a person seeks her own happiness, justice, respect, dignity.

It seems to me that if positive change is the ultimate outcome of feeling bad, then by all means, feeling bad seems very useful indeed.

What about things beyond the personal? True and real dangers we cannot avoid, anger and grief at losses or injustices we are powerless to prevent? Should we just accept and be happy?

I think this is a problem that plagues my particular demographic. When other communities face injustice, they seem to take to the streets without the least bit of shame for feeling angry. They splatter their faces and their cause across every camera and news headline with absolutely no embarrassment for seeming angry or “negative” or “whiney.” Worst of all (gasp) … they get things done.  Let me repeat: They. Get. Shit. Done.

In the end, the world is usually a better place for these brave people giving voice to their “bad” feelings that make some people so uncomfortable. They aren’t whining; they’re screaming. And God love ’em for it: corrupt police departments get reformed, ineffective leaders get ousted, and laws get passed.

The only bad feeling I have in response to that anymore in response anymore is envy.

The mainstream has grown up nursed on the idea that we are the captains of our own destiny: any prosperity or accomplishment is our own to embrace, any loss or failure is equally our own. It’s an ideology with invaluable evolutionary benefits: it encourages accountability, discipline, and persistence.  It also insulates against the potentially paralyzing fear of the dangers that really lurk out there, and convinces us that they are controllable.

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Work hard, be diligent and you will find prosperity. (But what if something terrible happens and takes it all away? Illness, death, crime, corruption, economic collapse? Don’t worry, that happens to other people.)

Don’t go out at night, and the villains won’t hunt you down. (But what if they come in the day, in my own home? Don’t worry, they won’t.)

Obey the law and respect authority and they will serve society and protect you. (But what if they are corrupt or greedy? Don’t worry, they’re not.)

These fears are of things that are very rare, but also very uncontrollable. They are scary, make no mistake. Godzilla-sized and Godzilla-scary. The only cognitive alternative is to find some way to reason that they won’t happen to me. Otherwise, why get out of bed?

The vast majority of the time, this trick is true and serves us well. However, there are times it does not. Civil servants can be corrupt and cruel (wave to the Chicago Police Department everybody); criminals can find even the most diligent of innocent victims (terrorism), the economic breakdown of 2008 speaks for itself. So, if you start out believing that you can prevent them, you then end up believing it’s the other person’s fault if he/she couldn’t prevent them.

That’s when things get hinky, and that’s probably when the phrase “blaming the victim” was invented. Let’s face it, if we can make it all their fault for having happen to them, then we can make sure it won’t happen to us.

So, what I see usually in my corner of the world is a confused kind of defiance that seems like plugging one’s fingers in the ears and singing “la, la, la, la,” or an outright and vehement denial that bad things happen to good people through no fault of their own.

Those bad feelings are no different for public problems than they are for the personal ones: something has to change. In society, it’s the bad feelings of the victims: the outrage, the anger, and the fear that drives the denial of others that are trying to tell us something is wrong and needs to be fixed. Be it crime, corruption, racism, pay equity, labor exploitation, the prevalence of guns. It’s usually the victims that are out there telling us that these social problems need to be eradicated.

Without their outrage, if we were allowed to stay insulated by a non-stop soundtrack of “don’t worry, be happy,” ensured by a limitless supply of pills and therapy and immersive entertainment, we’d never know things need changing.

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What saddens me the most is when we know things need changing, and we simply are convinced that we are powerless to do so. What fear or anxiety that manages, I don’t know. But I believe it to be a lie, because so much has changed already.

When we decide to drown in blithe assurance that all is well and anything else is insanity, we lie about ourselves and the world. Worse, still, we deny the very fundamental indignity and wrong behind tragedies that happen to other people.  It’s insensitive to think or feel, and downright cruel to share.

Thus, I’m okay with my bad feelings right now. I know what they are trying to tell me. I am listening. Because of these bad feelings, I am fundamentally different. If the soul were made up of cells, scientists could find splits and changes and mutations at the most fundamental level.  Though I my opinion of the world has been forever tarnished – having seen its dark underbelly for the umpteenth time – I like myself so much more.  Somehow, that seems infinitely fairer.

I’m okay with others’ bad feelings, now, too, in a way I’ve never been before. I don’t try to explain their feelings away or convince them their world isn’t what it is. I don’t ask anyone to cure me, or fix me, and certainly not to make it go away. I do expect justice, I do ask for reform, I do tell the truth about what I want.  None of which I did before. Sometimes, that makes other people feel bad. I don’t feel guilty anymore. I just know that if they feel bad, maybe their feelings are telling them that something needs to change.

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This seems snarky – but it’s an epiphany. Besides, what’s a little snarkiness between friends, right?
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