The Good in Feeling Bad

The good in bad feelingsOne of the most misleading and confusing distinctions people often make with emotions is to divide them into two groups: good feelings and bad feelings. Good feelings might include joy, pride, curiosity, warmth, confidence, concern, or trust and bad feelings might include anger, fear, jealousy, guilt, despair, grief, or hate.  While certainly there is wisdom in distinguishing between the pleasant emotions and the unpleasant emotions, calling the unpleasant emotions “bad” is quite incorrect. All of our emotions, and the combinations of emotions that we can experience, have some survival benefit. This point is important: if any of our emotions were hazardous to our survival, then they would not be passed onto future generations.

The fact that so called bad or negative emotions such as pain, fear, grief, sadness, and guilt exist indicates that they are very important for facilitating human survival.  There is a rare genetic disease where a person is born without the ability to feel any physical pain.  The life expectancy of these people is typically only about 20 years.  They often die from serious burns that become gangrenous, and because they don’t feel any pain, they do not realise they have even burned themselves until it is too late for treatment to save them.  Here it becomes clear that having a painless life will in fact also be a short life.  Likewise, a person who never feels guilt will quickly find themselves locked away in prison or hated and scorned by the community, while those who do not feel fear will end up a delicious meal for a bear or in a serious accident because they did not take proper precautions.  There are clear survival benefits for having pain, fear, and guilt.  However, for the emotions of sadness and grief, the link between these emotions and increased chances of survival is a bit more complicated to understand.

Philosophically, I find it hard to distinguish between sadness and grief. I tend to view sadness as the little grief, and grief as the big sadness.  One typically feels sadness over something that had been lost, such as a lost opportunity, possession, or a failed goal.  These are just little griefs effectively, so I will refer to simply grief when explaining the value of these two emotions.

Grief is an important emotion for the development of a conscience, a set of values, and self-responsibility.  When a beloved friend, family member, or pet dies for the first time in one’s life, one is set upon with a feeling of such intense grief it can leave one paralysed for weeks and feeling miserable for months.  What benefits for survival could such intense feelings bring?  When one experiences such grief, one learns something: life is precious.  Protecting your family, friends, pets, and property is important because if you do not, it will hurt deeply and for a long time after losing them.  Grief teaches us to value and treasure what we have because we miss it when it is gone.  A person out of touch with their grief can not fully appreciate the people and things they have in their lives.  The advantage of this is good manners, morality, forethought, empathy, and security; all of these things will improve your chances for survival.

A person born without the capacity to feel grief may actually turn out to be a conniving sociopath, thus the survival of humanity as a species depends on us having the capacity to feel such negative emotions.  By suppressing these negative feelings, one is in fact creating people who have a form of acquired sociopathy where they do not care about the harmful impacts their actions have on themselves and other people, much like the heroin user who will lie, cheat, steal, and bully people to get his next hit because the drug has eliminated his ability to act ethically.  Feelings like grief, pain, fear, and sadness act as natural checks and balances against extreme and harmful behaviours.

As for the emotion of jealousy, the jealousy we sometimes feel towards people with happier relationships, bigger houses, well-paid jobs, better health, and nicer families informs people about what is most important to them and what activities they should best spend their time working on to meet these goals.  If I did not feel jealous of other people, then my motivation to improve myself and work harder may not actually exist.  Jealousy is the emotion of self-improvement and excellence.  If a person working in a competitive environment did not feel any jealousy at all, he would be unable to effectively compete in his field.  In fact, he would probably be content with a low standard of living that bordered on homelessness.

Anger helps us to stand up against abusers and to have courage when afraid, while fear helps to keep us safe from dangerous activities and poor planning decisions.  How vulnerable and small would you feel if you could never feel anger?  How foolish and careless would you be if you did not feel fear?  Every one of these so called bad emotions actually has a useful purpose and function in our lives. Hate is the result of feeling a chronic threat to oneself or one’s environment and overrides the desire for comfort or peace, forcing one to deal with whatever they feel threatened by. It’s a particularly valuable emotion for people who are abused, bullied, or otherwise feel powerless because it provides a strong motivation to address the problem in a decisive manner so as to produce long-lasting solutions. People who cannot hate are easy prey for those wanting to exploit them because they will never fight back.

People who come to me and tell me they have a problem with a “bad” emotion they often will say things along the lines of that they are too scared to do something, they are too angry all the time, they are too jealous, they are too sad, or they feel too much guilt.  They typically mistake feeling the emotion as the problem, when the problem is not the feeling itself, but that they are experiencing too much of a particular emotion. What does not happen, but ideally should, is people coming to see me because they do not feel enough sadness, not enough pain, not enough jealousy, not enough fear, not enough anger, and not enough guilt.  This is why these unpleasant emotions get such a bad rap: because people do not value and appreciate their importance in their lives, certainly not enough to notice when they are not feeling enough of these emotions, only when they experience an excess.

What is important to realise is that people often tend to feel an excess of these emotions because they do not value these emotions enough. Emotions are like young children; if you ignore them, they get louder and more insistent.  When you ignore these unpleasant emotions, they just grow louder and more insistent for your attention.  However, like bad parents, people often just double down on ignoring these bad emotions and then wonder why these emotions grow up to be such trouble makers.  If you value these emotions enough initially, then you can respond to the signals they are telling you before they reach excessive levels.  See a doctor when the wound is fresh, not when it turns dark with an infection.  Likewise, tend to your bad emotions when they are not overwhelming, do not wait until they take over your entire life.

All emotions exist for a purpose, they are all important, and one can trust that they mean well even if their effects may not be desirable.  Making a distinction between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ emotions does not help because you cannot ignore an emotion without suffering serious consequences in the long run.  Emotions have an important job: informing us about our values and needs.  Any and all attempts to ignore the information these emotions are trying convey will be resisted by the body leading to an excess of this emotion that typically brings people to therapy because their unmet emotional needs have gotten so overwhelming, and sometimes to the doctor because they result in physical ailments such as headaches. In that sense, all emotions are good and desirable because they all assist us in making good choices about our lives.

One thought on “The Good in Feeling Bad

  1. Pingback: The Philosophical Case against Anti-Depressants | Philosophical Therapist

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