Feeling How You Want
Do you know that you can feel however you want? No matter what someone else says or what circumstances happen in your life, your feelings are entirely up to you.
Doubtful? I know this statement brings up yeah, right thoughts of people pushing “positive thinking,” “affirmations,” and “gratitude.” You may disagree with me and say, “but how can I be happy when __________? (Fill in the blank: I got a divorce, lost my job, my husband has PTSD.)
But looking at your emotions that way implies that you always want to be happy. Do you really think it would be good to feel upbeat and sunny all the time? Would it make you more fun to be around, more supportive of others?
There are depth and fulfillment in a life that isn’t always giddy with joy. It’s supposed to be miserable some of the time.
Emotional health doesn’t mean always looking on the bright side or seeing the good in everything. It means being able to experience any emotion without thinking something has gone wrong.
When Feeling Bad is Good
If someone you love dies of cancer, is that a time to be carefree and laughing with glee? Should you try your hardest to see how her passing was “meant to be” or “for a good reason,” as I’ve heard well-meaning people offer?
You might be relieved and grateful if she had been suffering, and you believe that now she’s in a more pleasant stage of eternity.
Or you might be angry that you’re left to pick up the pieces or devastated that you’ll miss her terribly for the rest of your life.
Your feelings are a product of your thoughts, not circumstances, someone else’s behavior, or the state of the world.
What if your seven-year-old son is bullied at school? If he comes home crying, has nightmares, or says he wants to die, do you want to “look for the positive?” Are you secretly glad he’s going through this trial so he will be prepared for more difficult challenges later in life?
Not right now, you aren’t. It’s heartbreaking to see such a young boy suffering and bewildered. You want to take away his pain and solve the problem.
There would definitely be something weird about a mom brightly congratulating her tortured young son for having a harrowing day at school, telling him he’ll be grateful for his bruises someday.
Snuggling Up to Pain
In each of these situations, you may want to feel sad, lonely, or upset. These emotions are natural and help you make sense of your life and relationships. When you mourn the loss of a loved one, it honors their life and how much they meant to you. It reminds you of how fond of them you are.
Sorrowing teaches you empathy for others, and loneliness brings up cherished memories you don’t want to forget.
What would it be like if, when someone passed away, your memory of them was immediately wiped clean so you wouldn’t have to be sad? Would you want that?
Having negative emotions isn’t fun, but it’s normal and human and part of life. It can be cleansing and nurturing to be melancholy as you reminisce about your challenges and ask all the hard questions, like why is this happening to him, what can I do to help, or how can I teach him?
These questions are expected and often don’t have answers you can readily see. But they provide a rich foundation for life’s beautiful interactions: with others, with God, and with yourself.
You become your own best friend by embracing negative emotions and learning to be comfortable with sadness, fear, or loneliness instead of resisting and trying to replace them with positive emotions.
Trying to ignore negative emotion, putting it aside, tamping it down, or denying it only gives it more strength and power to hurt you. Pretending to be happy or strong to save yourself or your loved ones from experiencing their emotions will only lead to worse feelings, like anger, resentment, and anxiety.
Yours or Mine?
Your emotions are a product of your thoughts, not your circumstances or what someone else might say.
Remember the loved one who died of cancer? If you are relieved instead of devastated at her passing because she was miserable, or possibly cruel or judgmental of you her whole life, you might have a tough time if I said, “This so awful; you must be so sad.”
My assumption that you feel sad instead of relieved might cause you to feel guilty; if you think I’m right, you should feel sad instead of relieved.
Guilt and shame might result if you think you’re mourning wrong, that you should be crying instead of boxing up her things and taking them to Goodwill.
On the other hand, if her passing is awful for you, you might question yourself when others tell you it’s been long enough; you need to move on and “get over it.”
It isn’t their comments that hurt. Really. The fact that it’s family, a friend, or a trusted minister that might say those things to you that increase the chance you’ll judge yourself and make yourself miserable.
If someone in a social media group who didn’t know you at all said you need to move on, you’d probably think, well, they don’t know me or the situation, and let their comment flutter by without a second thought. In that case, you’d skip the pain of questioning your goodness.
What if you could embrace your negative emotions and refrain from deciding how others should feel? What if you welcomed sadness and pain if it felt natural and cleansing, or felt relief if it was comforting without wondering how others think you should feel?
Noticing Thoughts; Allowing Emotions
You have about 60,000 thoughts per day; many of them are volunteer, crazy thoughts you don’t want, or they might be suggestions from other people.
Some thoughts relate to the past and aren’t useful in the present. What happened to you when you were five is not the reason for your choices now. Only your thoughts about what happened will predict the outcome of your decisions.
Thoughts that try to figure out the future are also pointless because you don’t know what will happen. You can predict and plan and make informed choices to prepare for the future, and we recommended that.
But if you believe things like: I could never do that, or that will end in disaster, that’s just the toddler part of your brain trying to convince you to play it safe and not try anything that might take extra energy or possibly be embarrassing.
So, here’s what this means to you:
Think about right now. What’s important to you today, this moment. What thoughts will help you create the drive to fulfill your responsibilities or connect with others? Choose to keep the beliefs you like, the ones that prompt emotions you want.
Most of our thoughts go unnoticed. But when you notice yourself emotionally reacting to a situation, figure out what idea prompted the feeling.
A source of frustration might sprout from thinking the dog shouldn’t have hidden her bone behind the end table. Ants are crawling all over, and now you have to take care of it.
If you continue to believe your dog shouldn’t act like a dog, you’ll resent her. Instead, you can think, of course, I’m frustrated about the ants. What a pain! You can then allow yourself all the time you need to process frustration, clenching into a knot in your chest as you kill ants.
Knowing the problem isn’t that you have a dog or that the dog is doing anything wrong, you can figure out what to do next. Solving problems is infinitely more exciting and pleasant than harboring resentment and anger.
You might decide only to give the dog her treats when you’re outside, or when she’s in her kennel, or not give her treats at all, or you can always give her away if you don’t like her anymore. There are so many options to consider that are more useful than thinking she shouldn’t hide her bone.
There are always choices. You probably would never give your dog away unless you had a massive stroke, and it was the best thing for her. But you’re never trapped. Notice when your brain tells you you’re out of options and recognize the lie. That way of thinking leads to desperation and hopelessness.
You may not notice some of your negative thoughts about yourself. You’re likely to be more judgmental and critical with yourself than anyone else would ever be.
When you notice a negative thought you don’t want, acknowledge it. Be curious about why it came up, and challenge the truthfulness of it. Most negative beliefs are products of anticipation of the unknown, possible danger lurking, or worry that you aren’t smart enough, pretty enough, or good enough in some way. Question those thoughts, but don’t judge yourself for having them.
Remember the bullied little boy? A mom might be tempted to think she’s a bad parent, that she’s doing something wrong, or that she should protect her son from pain.
Allowing negative emotions without thinking anything has gone wrong takes work.
Beauty in the Ugly
Most people think allowing negative emotions will turn them into big grumpity-bumps. But it does the opposite. By allowing yourself to consider the thoughts that create your feelings, you feel less threatened and don’t have to worry about not paying attention to danger signs.
For instance, when your brain says, If you write that story, everyone will know what a fool you are, and they’ll dislike you. You won’t have friends, and you’ll end up alone; you can notice how interesting it is that your brain is trying to ensure connection with other people, since that is vital to your health.
You can appreciate that your brain is so thoughtful, but acknowledge that you can choose to think something else; if I write that story, everyone will see that I’m vulnerable and human, too. Others might feel more connected to me and feel supported in their journey.
You don’t have to be ashamed of feeling vulnerable. Try to understand why it’s there, and, without judgment or discomfort, allow the emotion it creates, process whatever pain comes up, and then maybe choose a thought you like a lot better. One that will help you do what you want to do.
The Fun is in the Results
If your husband, who has schizophrenia, says, “Why are you looking at me that way?” Instead of thinking how annoying it is that he’s always conjuring up something to be upset or suspicious about and snapping back, “I’m not looking at you any WAY!” you can think, Oh, he must think I’m sneering. Of course, he’s thinking that; he’s paranoid and delusional.
Then you can be curious about what he needs and say, “How would you like me to look at you?” or “I’m totally smitten with you and wondering how I can win you over again.”
It feels powerless to think your emotions depend on other people or circumstances that you have no control over, but it’s delicious when the things others say have no power over you.
Your thoughts about yourself are the key to your emotions. They provide the confidence to feel how you want without looking to others for validation, saying endless positive affirmations, writing everything you’re grateful for as you sob uncontrollably, or trying to be strong when you need to depend on others for a time.
Embrace the negative to bring out the positive.