Feeling okay about feeling bad

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I expect myself to be a saint with a Buddha-like capacity to flow through the vagaries of my daily life with grace and equanimity. On a good day when the sun is shining, I can accept that crap happens and not become a disgruntled mess.

Other times, it throws me off balance. Whatever has gone wrong becomes intimately personal and the negativities start sprouting like mushrooms in a hot house: self-directed disappointment, frustration, regret, anger, doubt, anxiety, fear. On a day when I am already feeling vulnerable and sensitive, these desperate emotions can lead me into a spiral of castigation. I may feel guilty about having negative thoughts about someone, ashamed about getting teary-eyed upset, or I may begin accusing myself of not being good enough to handle the situation better, because I should be wiser/stronger/calmer than my current wild-eyed response.

I’ve had one of those weeks. You know the ones where your car inexplicably shudders and breaks down when you’ve got carefully planned day of appointments, your work colleague is pushing every single one of your annoyance buttons and you can’t sleep because of the incessant heatwave. Then there’s that feisty email war I’m having over a dishonoured exchange of merchandise (shame on you well known designer brand that I won’t name). A general combination of blahh and arrgghh!

I understand that I’m human, and that life entails the full spectrum of roller-coaster emotions, but I still struggle with accepting that its okay for me to feel bad about anything.

Why feeling good about feeling bad is good for you

A recent study looked at the psychological health of people who accept, rather than negatively judge, their emotional experiences. [1] Researchers looked at three separate, but similar, studies on how a person’s psychological health is affected by accepting negative emotions rather than reacting to them. They found that the study participants who could accept their thoughts and feelings, without judgement, had fewer negative emotions long term when dealing with daily stressors. Simply put, accepting negative emotions can reduce guilt, stress and unfavourable self-image.

Feeling okay about feeling bad when you’re a highly sensitive or anxious person

The challenge for those of us who are highly sensitive or anxious is that we feel life extremely deeply. Our thoughts and feelings are visceral and kaleidoscopic. Any situation that makes us feel unhappy or distressed becomes yet another reason why we are not good enough.

I used to give myself the pep talks, you know the ones that are rife in self-help books and that well-meaning people may spout at you. Don’t sweat the small stuff, keep it in perspective, stop putting yourself down, you’re a good person, let the universe take care of it, yadda yadda yadda. That never made me feel any better about myself or the situation.

Trying to put a positive spin on a negative feeling is like putting a band aid on a gushing wound. It might look and feel nice for a moment but it won’t stem the flow. Reframing feeling bad doesn’t stop you feeling bad. If you’re like me, it may leave you disconsolate about the fact that you feel bad and you’re unable to change how you feel. You may even start to become defensive – this is how I feel, why should I try to deny it? But you do, to avoid being judged, to prevent conflict, to protect another person from having to share your suffering, or because you are utterly sick of feeling bad. I’m sure I’m not the only person who’s been caught in that pointless cycle of plastering over my mistakes and weaknesses with a happy face band aid, only for it to fall off again at the slightest tweak of vulnerability.

The fact that it falls off is important. You’re left exposed with your frayed and unsightly feelings flapping wildly about like an old pair of knickers caught on a tree branch. Again.

Next time a negative feeling arises see if you can just watch it tussle with the tempest of your thoughts, rather than attempting to grab it and hide it away.

It’s a worthy challenge to acknowledge an uncomfortable emotion without immediately giving in to it or acting upon it. It can be extremely difficult to sit in the mire of your own discomfort without feeling bad about it. And that’s okay, you sit there, you feel angry or sad or worried or remorseful or just plain pathetic. You acknowledge how shitty you feel at this moment in time, rather than avoiding it or trying to make yourself feel better.

Here’s the thing, friend – the more often you do this, the easier it becomes to embrace that surge of emotion without suffocating under its pressure. You feel, without being overwhelmed.

I may never reach the point of enlightenment where I can float above my negative thoughts and feelings and remain calmly detached from their forcefulness. However, I am learning to allow myself to respond to life as it happens around me without judging myself so harshly for the moments when I don’t like what I think or how I feel.

My car repairs will take a month as the engine parts need to be imported at an alarming cost. My colleague will never change his ways. This heatwave is predicted to stick around for another month. I’ve given up on the email fight as I won’t win, no matter how right I am and how wronged I have been. Tomorrow I may wobble again, and that’s okay.

[1] The psychological health benefits of accepting negative emotions and thoughts, July 2017 Journal of Personality and Social Psychology

 

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