Feeling Bad About Feeling Bad

Believe it or not, one of the most common issues that I help with in my counselling practice is when people feel strong negative emotions and feel badly that they have them. And I’m not talking directly about the emotional pain that comes with certain emotions; rather, I’m referring to the idea that human beings shouldn’t have certain feelings – that some feelings are just wrong.

And then the argument goes: This feeling, or feelings or emotional states are wrong, which means that I’m wrong, although folks aren’t necessarily aware that they’ve internalized this sense of wrongness.

Emotional States

What kinds of negative emotions are we talking about?  As you can imagine, people differ when it comes to what emotions they consider to be unacceptable.  Popular candidates include:

  • Anger
  • Emotional vulnerability
  • Fear and worry
  • Shame
  • Guilt
  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Jealousy
  • Hatred
  • Obsessional thoughts/images
  • Boredom or restlessness
  • Happiness (usually not feeling deserving)
  • Calm

Save the Judgment

An old friend once said to me that there’s no difference between a good feeling and a bad feeling, one just feels better.

We are prone to encouraging positive feelings and much quicker to push away painful emotions, although as I noted above, sometimes so-called good emotions feel intolerable too. Sometimes joy can feel scary or you worry that your calmness in a situation is a sign of something bad.

It can be a hard sell when I point out to people that judging our feelings as good or bad, right or wrong can make them feel worse.  Common counterarguments include: “If I’m not strict with myself then all hell will break loose,” “If I give myself an inch, I’ll take a mile,” “I have to be hard on myself. If I’m not, who else will be?”

When we add judgement to the already painful emotion we are experiencing, we inadvertently increase the emotional complexity and intensity of the feelings we’re dealing with – we add an additional emotional layer that makes them more difficult to sort out. In other words, not only does judgement make it more difficult to discern what is truly happening emotionally, but we have unintentionally increased our emotional pain.

OK, I’ve Accepted, But….

And then sometimes people get to the point of accepting the feeling, or feelings, which is truly a good thing, and then things go a little haywire again. It goes a little like this: “Yes, I acknowledge that I’m feeling __________ but if I were a better/smarter/more productive, _______ person, I would be managing them a heck of a lot better! Sure I can have strong emotions, but there’s something wrong with me because I not dealing with them properly!

Is this acceptance?

You may be correct that there are more effective ways of helping particular feelings and I’ll throw a few ideas into the ring in a moment. It’s actually a humble thing to notice when coping strategies are not working, yet we don’t have to throw in the towel or retreat back to self-judgment when we’ve disappointed ourselves. The key is awareness and information gathering. Identifying and understanding unhealthy coping strategies is pivotal to stopping them and choosing new ones.  Better the devil you know, then the devil you don’t.

There is a Way Out

Fortunately, there are things we can do to help with emotional acceptance and moving forward:

  • Recognize that all emotions are valid.  While they may or may not be factually based, they are part of the emotional reaction that they you are currently experiencing and for that reason, they’re true for you.
  • Feeling a feeling doesn’t necessarily mean acting on it.  For example, we may feel rage towards someone but we can make a choice not to rage out at them.
  • Recognize that some emotions have historical roots.  For example, certain emotions are natural in the face of trauma and help us understand the depth of what has happened to us.  They are not merely “excuses,” as some people fear.
  • Notice judgement when it arises and let it goJudgement erodes self esteem and does not promote learning.
  • Take extra care of yourself.  When emotions are hitting us hard and especially if judgment is creeping in, this is the time for looking after yourself.  This could mean being consciously forgiving of yourself or choosing activities that assist you in being kind to yourself. Some of the self-care strategies on my Grief and Loss Page (scroll down for coping ideas) may speak to you or help spark ideas of your own.
  • Meditation or other activities that help the mind to be still can help us recognize that we can sit with emotions, allowing them to arise and pass, without succumbing to them, or “becoming” them. Through this process we also see that emotions arise and pass and that we’re capable of moving through them.
  • Decrease isolation and gain perspective by talking with supportive friends, family members or a counselling professional.