Are “bad” feelings bad?

We talk about feeling bad or having negative emotions. But if feelings are feedback, how can they be bad?

Calling a feeling “bad” is a classic case of shooting the messenger. The feeling isn’t bad, the feeling is there to tell you that something bad has happened.

Does labelling feelings negative or bad make it harder for us to feel them and give them space? Might a change in perspective and labels help us to feel all of our feelings more freely?

We are of course subject to social pressures to not feel certain feelings. When we feel “bad” we can’t easily conform to peers and authorities. Sad, scared, and angry people are deemed anti-social (unless they are sad, scared and angry en masse, in the guise of a social movement, validated by sheer numbers).

But the same is true of good and positive feelings as well! If you are too happy or enthusiastic you will also struggle to conform. Really happy people don’t want to share in the gloom of everyday complaints and anxieties that make up the daily news cycle and the concerns of the voting public.

So whether we call them bad or good, strong feelings that are out of sync with the rest of society or your immediate peers and authorities will invoke societal pressure to conform. Conformity is therefore not a good enough reason to label these feelings “bad”.

But surely these “bad” feelings are labelled bad because they literally feel bad?

Not necessarily. There is a difference between the content of the feeling and our degree of comfort with it. And although “negative” emotions are generally associated with negative stimuli, that doesn’t mean the emotion itself needs to be experienced as uncomfortable or intolerable.

It’s easy, for example, to use physical pain as an analogy that implies a survival value in the avoidance of negative emotion: bad feelings, like physical pain, tell us that there is something wrong and motivate us to remove ourselves from danger.

But even physical pain is not so simple. We can experience pain due to benign changes in our bodies and environments. We can experience chronic pain that becomes self-perpetuating long after an injury or illness has passed. Our tolerance for pain can be developed and increased.

Does a “bad” feeling really feel bad? Does it feel bad when we stop judging it as “bad” or “negative” or “to be avoided”? Many people enjoy watching sad movies, scary movies, or tragic movies. They find value in the activation of these emotions that we label undesirable in real life. Maybe, like physical pain, there is space after all to feel these feelings without knee-jerk reaction and avoidance.

Maybe we can consider it to be like an evolved palate. As adults we enjoy all kinds of foods and drinks that our child selves would have rejected as disgusting or gross or intolerable. As connoisseurs we even appreciate tastes and textures and fragrances that other adults find repulsive. And we can push our own boundaries by practicing tasting these things without judgement – whether it be stinky cheese, weird fermented drinks, offal, wildly fragrant fruits, or unfamiliar textures that seem a bit gross at first.

And while we are all free to consume according to our tastes, and there is no pressure to get out there and learn to love foods that make you want to puke, the fact is that your “bad” feelings are already with you. You already have a pantry stocked full of foods you’ve hitherto avoided. Might as well learn to appreciate them.

This will be my experiment starting today. How do my “bad” feelings feel when I stop labelling, judging, and trying to avoid them?

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