“Look on the bright side! Everything happens for a reason — you’ll see.”
When things go wrong in life, people love to throw clichés at the problem. Maybe it’s not even a big problem, maybe you’re just having an off day. But when people notice, they’re quick to try cheering you up.
Expressing unpleasant emotions makes people around you uncomfortable. Maybe they don’t want their own mood impacted by your negativity; perhaps don’t want to confront their own complicated feelings about negativity. But this discomfort might make you wonder — it’s ok for you to feel bad, right?
Although our emotions naturally run the gamut from elation to despair, most societies aren’t comfortable with the negative end of the spectrum. Even when such feelings fit the situation, we often behave as if there’s something wrong with feeling down or expressing negativity.
In my therapy practice, I find many new clients believe my job is to give them just the right piece of advice to stop their distress. They don’t expect to dwell in those feelings and workthrough them. They just want the pain to stop.
It’s true that getting bogged down in bad feelings can cause problems. In fact, feeling bad more often than feeling good can be a sign of a mental health disorder that would benefit from treatment. Still, the goal of therapy isn’t just to make bad feelings stop.
Unfortunately, our culture has come to believe feeling bad is, well, bad. That isn’t always the case.
Most of us don’t think twice about the role of physical pain in our lives. For example, burns hurt, but we accept that our bodies use this pain to warn us of danger.
Similarly, negative, painful emotions serve a purpose for our overall well-being. According to a 2013 study of the relationship between negative emotions and physical health, we often assume unpleasant emotions cause unpleasant physical symptoms. We assume we’re healthier if we avoid stress, but this study found the connection between mental and physical health might be more complex.
When study participants used negative experiences and unpleasant feelings for a purpose — to find meaning in a bad situation — their physical health actually improved. Learning how to take the bad with the good did the body good.
Along these lines, a more recent study found when participants could properly accept bad feelings as part of life, they kept up more positive coping strategies and, therefore, more positive feelings.
These findings fit with the true goal of therapy: helping clients understand and use their feelings to suit their unique situations. Therapists don’t just tell you how to feel good instead of bad, we help you embrace all of life’s experiences in a healthy way.
When facing unpleasant emotions, consider these tips gleaned from the research above.
The 2013 study found people felt better overall when they were able to see good and bad feelings not as opposite ends of the same spectrum, but as two distinct entities that each serve a purpose. Instead of trying to replace bad feelings with good, embrace the sense of mixed feelings.
For example, a new job comes with perks and stresses. If you tried to eliminate all unpleasant feelings, you would never apply for the job. By understanding that the tough part (learning new skills, being the new kid) is essential to get to the good part (a sense of accomplishment, making new friends), you can face challenges in a healthier way.
By facing the fact that life isn’t always perfect, we can reduce brooding when life takes a frustrating turn. The 2017 study found that acceptance of life’s peaks and valleys keeps us from overreacting or giving up. Acceptance pushes us to deal effectively with reality as we find it, not just wish for better.
So often we believe getting angry or being sad is the “wrong” way to feel. There’s no certain way you “should” feel in any situation, there’s only the way you do feel.
Rather than feeling guilty when unpleasant emotions arise, just note the emotions and acknowledge their presence in a non-judgmental way. This strategy makes you pause, clearing your head so you can figure out the next step toward feeling better.
It’s natural to want to stop bad feelings, but good mental health depends on how you behave with whatever feelings you experience. Unpleasant emotions can even work to our benefit, if we let them.
When negative feelings are too overwhelming, a therapist can help you — not with platitudes and advice — but with a broader understanding of your emotions in context. Embracing the full range of your emotional tapestry is the key to feeling your best.
Originally published on Talkspace.
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