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Letting Bad Feelings Feel Bad May Actually Help

Sometimes bad feelings make you feel bad, and that is both okay and normal.

Key points

  • Being human means having big feelings, and one does not need to fear, avoid, or reject them to pursue passions or achieve goals.
  • Resisting big emotional feeling states compounds their effect.
  • Even the worst emotional or feeling states will eventually pass if they're allowed to run their course.
Pexels/Alex Knight
The robot is cute, but it is not an idealistic result of therapy, nor of the human experience
Source: Pexels/Alex Knight

You know that old saying, “You can’t have your cake and eat it too"? It means that you cannot do two incompatible things at the same time. In the case of cake, you can’t both have a cake in your house and eat that cake at the same time. Either you have a cake beautifully displayed on your counter, which means you aren’t eating it, or you ate the cake, which made the cake magically disappear.

Frustrating, isn’t it?

Not surprisingly, the same conundrum occurs when our body and mind make us feel overwhelming feelings; it is equally, if not more, frustrating in the case of anxiety and OCD.

For example, I sometimes talk with people who are ready to begin looking for a romantic partner and start dating, but they hesitate because they are terrified at the thought of rejection or being hurt.

Other times, I hear people suffering with OCD talk about being overwhelmed with sadness, anxiety, and a sense of agitation when experiencing intrusive thoughts about loved ones getting hurt or dying. They inevitably say, “I just want to stop feeling so bad when I get these thoughts!”

When faced with these problems, people try therapy in the hopes that it will help them eliminate their bad feelings so they can get on with their life.

In the course of therapy, I work with my clients to help them change their relationship with these big emotions.

However, despite all the exercises and improved willingness to live their life without unnecessary compulsive behavior or thoughts, many clients tell me they are upset that they still feel anxious, sad, scared, worried, unsettled, angry, or any number of other feelings when faced with a triggering situation or intrusive thought. It is as if they had the belief that they would go through treatment and I would somehow surgically remove any unwanted feeling state, leaving them to be either a stone-cold robot of efficiency, or some forest-nymph, Care Bear hybrid that only feels happiness, joy, love, and occasional righteous indignation.

Therapy doesn’t work that way, because being human doesn’t work that way.

What people are telling me is that they want to exist and have a full life without feeling bad. They want the good without the bad.

It’s that cake thing we were just talking about.

No One Wants a One-Color Rainbow

A harsh reality about life and being human is that we have a wide range of emotions, and many of those feeling states are big feelings. Some big feelings feel pleasurable, and others feel, well… bad. Over the years, humans have developed a biological drive to pursue the stuff that feels good and avoid the stuff that feels bad. What’s worse is that while there are things and thoughts that feel good, there is a lot more stuff that feels bad (or neutral at best).

Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) offers a foundational principle that happiness is not the natural state of humans, and that lasting happiness is rare. While we do feel happy, joyful, and peaceful sometimes, it is not permanent. You are not weird, defective, or bad when that good feeling morphs into a less desirable feeling.

Understandably, some reject this concept and fight against their big feelings and painstakingly struggle to feel good. This vain attempt to reject a naturally occurring unwanted feeling in order to achieve the fabled lasting happiness only makes the pain and unhappiness worse!

Think back to our previous examples. Not only are you not happy due to the thought of being rejected, but you also feel the shame of not feeling “good.” Or, you feel anxious because of the OCD thoughts, but you also feel the pain of failing at the effort to feel good. ACT calls this Experiential Avoidance.

Bad feelings feel bad, and you should let go of trying to un-bad a bad feeling.

As weird as that sounds, it is that simple. Bad feelings feel bad. We don’t like them. We don’t want them. But sometimes they are there no matter what we do. Crassly speaking, they suck, but you shouldn’t try to un-suck a sucky feeling. Give up, and let it suck.

Being rejected is emotionally painful. Thinking about your family being harmed is incredibly sad. And, there is no amount of CBT or other treatment that can or should change that. However, feeling these big feelings does not have to be the end of the world or stop your attempts to have a full and meaningful life.

Pexels/ Andrea Piacquadio
Eventually, we can and will feel all of these, and even the ones in between that aren't pictured
Source: Pexels/ Andrea Piacquadio

Being Human Requires Feelings

To not feel feelings is inhuman and it rejects our very existence to believe that we can, much less should, be emotionless either broadly or in response to emotional stimuli. When we think or do certain things, it is expected that we will feel, or we may have to feel, some emotion. We should be embracing and welcoming it as a human experience.

To give you an idea of what I’m talking about, here is a short list of big feelings we can have in the course of living life:

  • Feeling sad when remembering a past traumatic event
  • Feeling angry when thinking about genocide or crimes against humanity
  • Feeling uneasy in a dangerous location, such as the roof of a tall building or the edge of a cliff
  • Feeling guilty with the memory of bullying someone when young
  • Feeling tense with the thought of going to Hell
  • Feeling dejected at the thought of a relationship ending
  • Feeling edgy and overwhelmed with the thought of being responsible for a tragedy
  • Feeling avoidant at the thought of being rejected or humiliated in an emotionally vulnerable relationship

When experiencing some of the thoughts and feelings listed above, someone with OCD and other anxiety disorders may attempt to compulsively or effortfully eliminate the thought, ensure that the unwanted outcome will not occur, or do something to neutralize the bad feeling. Therapy encourages someone to resist these compulsive actions in order to learn that they are capable of handling the fullness of these big feelings all on their own and that their compulsions do not keep them safe from bad events happening or bad feelings occurring.

Time Is on Your Side

The big feeling will always pass. Even if you chose to do nothing about the thought or the situation, the big feeling will eventually go away. Think about any big feeling you’ve ever felt. It always went away. It might have come back at some point, but it always went away again and was replaced by some other feeling. If you try the Experiential Avoidance route, you can guarantee you’ll just keep feeling worse for longer.

So how do you let the big feelings just be there without doing anything about them? To answer this, let’s look at some of the above examples and see how you can think about them differently and give yourself permission to let the big feelings simply be there without trying to avoid or change them.

Feeling sad when remembering a past traumatic event: You went through a terrible situation and you are allowed to feel sad for the pain it caused you, but you are not required to internally rage at the event or refuse to let yourself move forward until the feeling is resolved. Trauma is sad, and you can feel sad when thinking of the trauma while working to treat others and yourself as your ideal, authentic self.

Feeling guilty with the memory of bullying someone when young: Reflecting on past choices that do not align with your current values and morality can make anyone feel embarrassed, ashamed, and disappointed. That’s natural. You can still take accountability for your actions while also taking yourself off the hook of punishment for your past deeds. Acknowledge the pain you caused and commit to your current values.

Feeling avoidant at the thought of being rejected or humiliated in an emotionally vulnerable relationship: No one likes to feel rejected or vulnerable, but adult relationships will include emotionally being hurt or hurting someone else even if you don’t want to. There is no escaping it. You can only do your best to minimize pain while we pursue the best for you and your partner. Love, connection, and intimacy are also part of relationships.

In other words, stop trying to un-bad the bad feeling. Let it be bad because it feels bad, but continue to live your life, embrace the temporary big feelings, and pursue your desires despite the urge to avoid the feelings.

So, how can you start to give up control of your feelings and start accepting the temporary and fluctuating feeling states you have? Here are a few ideas:

1. Practice observing your feelings without trying to get rid of them. This is easier said than done, but before you immediately try to shut down the yucky, squirmy feeling, take a deep breath, mentally take a step back from your body, and just look at what is going on. Exactly what parts of your body feel weird? Does this feeling morph or move around your body? What thoughts pop in and how fast? Do you get any weird memories or random associations while you are noticing all this chaos?

As you’re doing this, you likely aren’t struggling against the big feelings. It might not feel good, but it’s missing that added “suffering” enhancement of struggling with the feeling for just that moment. It wasn’t all that bad, right? Maybe you could do it for another moment too?

Unsplash/ K Mitch Hodge
Source: Unsplash/ K Mitch Hodge

2. Recognize that your feelings will change. Everything changes. Wonderful turns into wonky, and terrible eventually becomes terrific if we just wait long enough. You have never felt one feeling forever, no matter how bad or how good that feeling was. This feeling is no different, but you have to trust yourself and your experience that it will pass!

3. Strong feelings don’t always express what we want. “Always trust your gut” is incomplete advice. “Trust your gut, and consider what you typically think and feel when you aren’t an emotional wreck before making decisions” is a little bit better, albeit a mouthful. We naturally flow through highs and lows of emotion, as well as the hot and cold of emotions. Before assuming the winds have changed forever, wait it out and see if cooler heads prevail after the storm passes.

4. You can continue to live your life while feeling big feelings. Feeling overwhelmed with big feelings does not mean we have to put life on hold or avoid our life’s responsibilities. In fact, we can, and in many ways should, continue to live life and carry on with our duties and agreements despite feeling big feelings.

Based on your past experience, if you knew this feeling was going to go away in a few minutes, hours, or weeks even if you didn’t do anything about it, would you want to continue wasting time with all the unhelpful worry, distress, or compulsive effort that only left you feeling worse? Instead, if you were going to feel bad anyway, and if it would help even a little, would you be willing to go try and do something fun or meaningful in the meantime?

To find a therapist, please visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.

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