Feelings Are Neither Good nor Bad- They Just Are
Every so often I have a client label his/her emotions as “bad”, and I’m struck again at how we treat our feelings. In my way of thinking, feelings are neither good nor bad, they just are. Though, I must admit, if someone forced me to label them, I’d say all feelings are good.
Feelings vs Behaviors
At this point, I feel the need to point out that feelings are separate from our behaviors. If someone does something to us that violates our feelings or values, we might get angry- this is a feeling and it’s great because it serves to tell us that our value is being violated. However, if we then react by hitting the person, (a behavior) that would be assault and not so great. Feelings are all valid, though our responses to them may not be so valid, helpful, or even legal! An important thing to keep in mind.
Another qualifier I’m going to throw in here is when feelings are maladaptive, they are by definition, not helpful. I in no way mean to minimize the emotions experienced by people going through issues such as PTSD, Major Depression, Generalized Anxiety, or Panic Attacks. I don’t think anyone would say the extreme sorts of emotions experienced by these people are helpful or adaptive. This article is not meant to apply to those situations, but rather to people experiencing the feelings inherent in the normal flow of living.
Feelings are Evolved?
Now I understand that not all feelings make us feel good, but I don’t think that’s their purpose. (Heck, whoever said we’re supposed to feel good all the time anyway? Hint: we’re not!) I like to think of feelings as being messengers or teachers, there to give us clues as to what is really going on inside of us. Darwin studied feelings as part of his theory of evolution. He thought that feelings serve to protect us and to make it easier for us to reproduce, thereby perpetuating the species. They are seen as useful and so were passed on to the next generation.
The Purpose of our Feelings
What purpose do our feelings have for us? Well, the first one was briefly addressed above. Feelings can be protective. If you feel fear when you hear a noise at night, it might cause you to hide or to call the police, thus protecting you from a burglar. Feelings can motivate you. Imagine that you feel anxious before an important interview. That anxiety might cause you to prepare more fully and therefore do better on your interview. Feelings have been shown to aid us in decision-making. The exact mechanism for this is not exactly clear, but research shows that people who are unable to access their emotions due to brain damage have increased difficulty making decisions. Also, emotions can help us to make decisions quicker. And lastly, emotions aid us in building quantitatively more and stronger relationships. We relate to people when we see our emotions mirrored in them. We understand people on a deeper level when we share and understand each other’s emotions. And we feel emotions like love and compassion which by their very nature draw us together.
What to Do With Your Emotions
Now that we understand how useful and meaningful all of our emotions are, what is it we should be doing with them? I think the most important thing is to not ignore them. Sometimes emotions are fleeting, or they’re confusing. We rarely feel only one emotion at a time. And they can be inconvenient or embarrassing if they occur at an inopportune time. But if we ignore our emotions, they tend to intensify and become stronger. Also, studies show us that suppressing or bottling up our emotions can lead to health problems including cancer, heart disease, anxiety, depression, stress, high blood pressure, and even an increased risk of death! So acknowledge your emotions. Put a name on them. Use a Feelings Wheel like the one here if you need a little help naming your feelings. Then you can express or process your feelings appropriately. Examples would be talking with a friend or a loved one, writing a journal entry, meditating, doing an art piece, or talking with a professional.
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