We live in a culture where bad feelings are the enemy. From the time we were toddlers, we were shushed, shamed or even punished if we gave voice to our displeasure about something. The curated FaceBook feeds we see show us good times and good friends, not the loneliness, anxiety or despair that research informs us is experienced by about twenty-five percent of the population at any given point in time. There are very few socially-acceptable spaces for our darkness— even tortured creative types can only get away with flopping around in self-pity for so long. We are supposed to be happy, so if we are feeling irritated, sad, jealous, resentful or guilty there must be something wrong with us, right? The attitude towards dark feelings seems to be that if we could only get rid of them, then we’d have all blue skies and nothing but happiness in our lives. So let’s take that anti-depressant and practice our positive affirmations and just close the door on anything that doesn’t feel good.
We put so much energy into denying, disowning, and suppressing our bad feelings that we often miss the easiest strategy for actually feeling genuinely better: Listening to them. I know— it sounds crazy and counterintuitive, but it’s true. (And it’s something that the happiest and most emotionally resilient among us are often quite good at). When you can slow down and “lean in” to the pain you are feeling, you are able to take guidance from it. Your pain becomes inner wisdom that will take you by the hand and lead you to true happiness.
For example, say you touched a hot stove with your hand. You would feel pain, and that pain would inform you to remove your hand from the hot stove because you were being burned. Simple enough, right? But although our emotions often work very similarly, giving us information about our world — what feels good to us and what feels bad — we override them. We assume that the reason we feel bad is because there is something wrong with us, and throw ourselves into bad-feeling situations over and over again. I can’t tell you how many people I’ve talked to who genuinely hate their jobs. Hate them. Get tied up in knots of anxiety on Sunday night dreading their return to work, come home in the evenings feeling stressed out and irritated, and it saps much of the pleasure from their lives. When I gently suggest that perhaps their feelings are telling them that their occupation is not a good fit for them, and that they may be happier in a different situation, it’s like I just told someone that they were switched at birth. They have been so focused on the “wrongness” of their feelings, that it never occurred to them that their feelings might be guiding them to make other choices.
You can insert so many things for “job” in the above anecdote— a draining relationship, the consequences of your lifestyle choices, the presence of unhelpful core beliefs, or a gnawing pain that is telling you that you are living in a way that is fundamentally disconnected from your values. You can transform the bad feeling into meaningful guidance by asking yourself this simple question, “What do I need right now to feel better about this situation?” When you let in the answer, and start turning the wisdom provided into meaningful action, you will feel happier, stop spinning your wheels, and start making positive change happen in your life.