The Good in Feeling Bad

Not all negative emotions are bad for you. Plus, greeting obstacles with joy, pain but not suffering, nastiness and what matters to us.

Why Feeling Bad Feels so Good

How to open yourself to romantic success

Did you create a negative worldview as a way to take control of your emotional state? Image: Flickr/LifeMentalHealth
Are you interested in someone? Is he or she interested in you? Maybe—but it’s a lot easier to assume not, because if you lower your expectations, there’s much less far to fall. This tendency to manage expectations and keep them low is meant to be protective. The problem is, whether you’re expecting a lot or a little, you’re still down if it doesn’t happen. The only chance you have of the situation you're in becoming a viable relationship is if you open yourself up to the possibility that you deserve emotional reciprocity.

That's really hard, isn't it? The effects of this cynical way of viewing the world extend well past relationships—you might be invested in feeling bad in general as a means of coping with what you fear is inevitable disappointment. In this state, you’re already hurt or prepared to be hurt, so how much more can someone hurt you? Saying things like “I hate my life” can feel like a shield against the world’s attempts to crush you.

In the previous three posts in this series (here, here and here), we’ve explored the uses of sex to pull an emotionally distant person closer, and sex as a tool to close a perceived power gap. Now, we’ll look at the genesis of this power gap, the origin – how you ended up drawing the short straw.

It's likely that the feelings you have that you are undeserving of happiness, or of a reciprocal relationship comes from a profoundly deep place, most often imprinted when you were young. How did your parents or parent or caregivers model what it means to love? Maybe you’ve experienced trauma or neglect. Maybe you were made to feel ashamed for how you looked, or you were painfully teased, and these experiences made you feel socially awkward, as if you didn’t have anything to offer. Maybe you were taken advantage of, bullied, overpowered, and you felt alone and isolated in these experiences. These personal histories contribute to how we treat others, how we expect to be treated, and how we treat ourselves as we move forward in our lives. 

Maybe despite these challenges you’ve been able to escape the feeling that you hate yourself and your life. But a common reaction is to adopt a negative worldview over which you alone hold power. What a relief to feel like you have some control. Who wouldn't want a feeling of control in the face of inner chaos?

Obviously, these feelings about yourself influence your relationships. Now, with your low expectations in place, you still believe you’re going to be shamed, dumped, used, or be the object of ridicule so that you can avoid the surprise and hurt of these actions. But, look closely. This attitude you've adopted is meant to be protective: you take control of challenging situations by putting yourself into this negative headspace before others can do it for you.

I don't think anyone will be shocked to know that feeling undeserving can create the outcome you expect.

This isn’t the metaphysical idea of verbalizing your expectations so that the magical world can deliver them for you. Rather, it’s based in research. For example, this study shows that a person’s romantic beliefs—their expectations for the expression love—create a strong initial relationship. But then romanticism isn’t enough to make satisfaction and wellbeing in a long-term relationship. For that, you need intact self-esteem, as seen here. What creates intact self-esteem? Well, this research shows that in large part it’s your early attachment to your first caregiver. And this attachment later predicts not only your success in adult relationships, but also aspects of your personality including self-esteem.

Your early experiences shape your self-esteem and these expectations of your self worth help to shape your reality. As I’ve seen in my practice, it can be hard for an adult to change the expectations that he or she was forced to adopt as a child. But again, the first step toward change is heightening self-awareness. Take note of what you're doing, take note of what you've been doing and how it impacts how you relate to others now.

Think about the genesis of your expectations. How much have you organized your current emotional life around your childhood and your young adult experiences? Making the connection between then and now is an important step to diluting the power of this protective (but dysfunctional) system you’ve put in place, the system that once kept you safe but now keeps you isolated.

The next step in moving past feelings of low self-worth that may contribute to sabotaging relationships is to access compassion for yourself—not for everyone else, but for you. When you created this worldview, you really did need some semblance of control. There are reasons you developed these strategies. After all, happiness is tenuous and can so easily be taken away, but you can always hold on to your sadness—it belongs to you and no one can take that away. Feeling sad or even hopeless has been a safe state, a protected state, perhaps even necessary state. It's been a security blanket. But, you’re still reading this post because somewhere within you, you want to feel compassion for yourself for fighting to feel safe in a world full of relationships you haven't been able trust. 

If you can, work on processing these experiences, including relationships that brought you to this untrusting place. Work on feeling compassion for yourself. Chipping away at self-blame and deepening your self-understanding can allow you to sneak up on yourself and actually enjoy experiences in relationships in ways you didn’t think you could. The resilient part of you longs to feel more content, safer. And as you build moments of unhindered enjoyment, it becomes easier to be in your own skin and to look at the world with eyes less clouded by the traumas of your past and into the emotional and relational possibilities of a new, less encumbered life.

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Next week on Tuesday and Thursday, we'll continue to explore this idea of relationship insecurity, including its causes and manifestations. As I write these posts, I would love to hear your voice! What is your experience with this profound and difficult issue? Let me know in the comments on this post or at the social media links below.

Twitter: @DrSuzanneL

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The Good in Feeling Bad