Why bad feelings aren't always bad

When an unpleasant feeling surfaces, most people aren't too happy about it.  It's natural to want to maximize pleasure and minimize pain. You wouldn't leave your hand on a hot stove-you would pull it back as quickly as possible and try to soothe any burns. It can feel the same with unpleasant feelings like sadness, anxiety, anger, shame, or jealousy. 

When these moments do come, they can cause many different reactions.

You might fall into the feeling and be completely absorbed by it- like nothing else in your world exists besides that feeling The feeling may take over your internal world, and all the other parts of you become small or even invisible to you. In doing so, you may also feel like you can't control your reactions (e.g., lashing out in anger, falling into a ruminative funk).

Or, you might try to avoid the feeling. You might attempt to distract yourself with busyness. The internet, TV, books, work, mindless websurfing, and alcohol/drug/food all might be used to try to take the attention away from your suffering.

Or, you might react against the feeling or against the person who is most associated with the feeling. For instance, if your supervisor gave you critical feedback that made you feel ashamed, you might lash out against him/her, whether silently or out loud. If a friend achieves something that you wanted, and you feel envious, you might minimize their accomplishment or push them away.

Unfortunately, while these coping strategies may feel useful in the moment, in that they draw attention away from suffering, they actually do not help you in the longer term. In fact, these strategies often decrease overall well-being and resiliency. It's my experience that when feelings are not acknowledged and/or processed, they can grow and even sometimes morph into what I call the unseen hands that push us around. They become the stories that we tell ourselves-the limits we perceive, the general feelings or irritability, anxiety or malaise. There's the general benefit of listening to ourselves, but there's a secondary and really important learning that can also come when we have an unpleasant feeling--it's information.

An unpleasant feeling can be a signifier that something might require change or attention. It can be an opportunity to improve yourself and make your life easier and more pleasant than it was before. 

Here is a way that I find useful to approach dealing with negative emotions so they can be tools for improvement in your life. These ideas come from teachers like Tara Brach (RAIN method), Chade-Meng Tan (Siberian North Railroad method), as well as from my own experiences helping people work through challenging experiences and feelings.

First, you must notice the negative feelings. It may sound obvious, but it can be very easy to go through daily life, not fully noticing your general sense of discomfort because it's so familiar. You may need to use physical sensations to guide you if it's hard to notice the emotional states. Watch for head or neck aches, digestive problems, clenched jaw, or shallow breathing (obviously, ruling out medical causes of these symptoms and seeking medical care if required). If you observe these symptoms, you might explore if they are signals of some unpleasant feelings or thoughts.

Once you've noticed the feelings (whether physical, mental, or emotional) congratulate yourself for noticing your feelings and treating the feelings (and yourself) with value and importance. That may sound obvious, but it's hard to do.  All people like to be treated like they are seen, worthy, and valued, and most people don't get enough of that feeling--both from themselves and from others. So give yourself a healthy pat on the back for caring enough about yourself to pay attention to your suffering.

Then, as simple as it sounds, pause and breathe. Take at least two slow, full breaths to calm down and get a little space from the sensations.

Now, get curious. Investigate what is happening. Get as interested as you can. Often, we think we know what the feeling is, but we're actually underestimating the complexity of the feelings. You might first notice one feeling, but try to discover what else is in there. Notice thoughts, feelings, and bodily sensations, and, if they change as you observe, notice that too (e.g., "I feel sad, and my throat feels really tight. I feel like everyone is happy except me. Now, I'm starting to also feel envious and a little bit angry at all the other people that seem happier than I am. Now I'm mad at myself for wallowing in feelings...") Take your time in this step. Be as kind and gentle and interested as you can, and try not to assume that you already know. You might discover thoughts or feelings you didn't realize were there.

After you complete your reflection, pause and breathe again, at least two breaths.  And then, this is your moment to learn. Did you learn something about yourself? Was there information in that bad feeling. Do you need to take an action? Is there something you need or want to say to someone (e.g., an apology, letting someone know that they hurt you, clarifying something that you might have misunderstood).? Is there a change you want to make (e.g., is it time to start looking for a new job? Do you want to get help in establishing or eradicating a habit that hurts you?) If you're not ready to take action, do you have ideas about what a future action might be? Even if you're not ready right now, it's good to have a vision of where you would like to get in your future.

**At any point in this process, if you cannot do any more, or need to pause, that's fine. This work sounds simple, but it can be very challenging to change lifelong habits. Even doing the seemingly small act of noticing (e.g., "my teeth are gritted, I think I'm angry about something.") is really useful in building a foundation of being aware and interested in your internal world**

It may feel initially painful to have to spend so much time focusing on a painful feeling or experience. However, as you begin to figure out what the negative experience has to teach you, you may find yourself feeling uplifted or excited by the possibilities for change. By more fully experiencing the problem, you may be able to think more clearly about possible solutions.