Feeling good vs feeling bad… the fundamental equation of our lives.
Seems like a no-brainer. Feeling good is better than feeling bad. Because good is better than bad. See what kind of complicated word-play I used to prove my very sophisticated point? 😉 So we need to avoid feeling bad and try to feel good as much as we can.
We want to feel better, and we want to avoid feeling bad. About ourselves, about the world around us. That’s the fundamental carrot and stick that Nature gave us.
The tricky thing is that feeling bad has its uses. We are not supposed to control our negative emotions. When Nature was devising a plan on how to wire us, I don’t think she considered negative emotion control. What kind of software designer encourages hacking?
But Nature (or evolution) only cares about spreading our genes. We have a few more things to consider. And being able to work with the negative emotions definitely helps.
Before we go on – for the purpose of this article, I will use ‘feeling bad’ and ‘pain’ interchangeably. And by ‘pain’ I mean emotional pain.
Let’s start with the simplest concept. Humans are supposed to feel bad. Feeling bad is as necessary for the healthy psyche as any other things that make a mind healthy. Like feeling secure and social interaction.
Ever notice how new immigrants irritate their relatives back home? ‘Sure, you can’t afford a car. But let me tell you, owning one is a pain. Insurance is a killer.’ The reason for this is that feeling bad has a certain space in our mind. That space can’t stay empty. You can either fill it with worries about finding food, or worries about choosing the colour of your new curtains. You will be just as concerned.
Consider the main character of the classic cult movie American Psycho. One of the biggest concerns of his life seems to be getting good reservations from prestigious restaurants. So much that he wants to kill his assistant once she asks him to take her to a restaurant where he can’t get a table.
Feeling bad is so necessary, that people will start inventing reasons to feel bad if they don’t have any.
Feeling bad is the essential part of growing up. Kids challenge their caretakers. If they do not get resistance and get their wishes granted, then they keep pushing. There is no satisfaction as they have to find a limit somehow. A child who never felt pain at home will start bumping its head against the realities of life. This is what happens when the parents try to cater to the child’s every need, real and imaginary. A tantrum because the parents won’t get that toy is much, much preferable to a tantrum because of a bad grade at school. Best to suffer in controlled conditions, with your parents watching you. Otherwise, the child will have to learn in real life, where the stakes are much higher.
Pain is a part of growth. Muscles pain when they grow. Broken bones get stronger when they heal. Most people going through difficult situations in life say that it made them stronger and their life is better because of it. Hardship in itself doesn’t mean you will get better and stronger. It’s what you do after the difficult situation that matters. But, like a city that had been levelled by an earthquake and re-built, you are much less likely to be affected by the second earthquake in the same way. You’d have learned your lesson by then and become resilient to seismic risk.
Feeling bad about failure is a big reason why people refuse to try or even sabotage themselves. I remember doing an IQ test late at night and drunk – still got a very respectable number. Disadvantaging myself was my defence against getting a bad result. Students don’t prepare properly for exams. Salespeople don’t do background research on potential clients. Lack of preparation is an excuse if things don’t go well. It’s hard to admit you may not be good enough. Much easier to put lack of success down to insufficient preparation. But if you don’t go through the pain of facing the reality, then you won’t have a chance to get better.
Most dating advice for men is as simple as ‘go talk to women’. Men who don’t talk to women don’t want to face the pain of rejection.
So, there are good reasons to go through the pain and carry on. At least when your mind tells you the end result is worth putting in the effort. Pain by itself shouldn’t stop us from doing things that are good for us.
Another thing that people do to avoid pain is limit their sensitivity. People become cynical and stop reacting to things. The ‘I don’t care’ type of attitude. The problem with this approach is that it’s not possible to adjust your sensitivity to just the bad things. Once you become less sensitive, you become less sensitive to both good and bad things. Then you start existing in a chilled/anabiosis state. Essentially becoming half dead and not experiencing life anymore. Is that the price worth paying for avoiding pain?
Substance and alcohol abuse, overeating fall into the same category. Medicating yourself to avoid facing and feeling the pain.
If we take things to the extreme, then suicide can be considered the ultimate way of avoiding pain, instead of facing it.
If pain/feeling bad can be good, then how do we manage to take it? A big part is the resolve itself. Once you accept that you are enduring the pain, not trying to hide it, the pain will become easier to embrace. And it will become less and less every time – in some cases, it may even disappear straight away.
Some good techniques to manage pain:
- Blow the consequences out of proportion. What usually happens is once you exaggerate all the bad things that will happen to you, you see that your fears are unfounded. What’s going to happen if I speak to this girl and she is dismissive in return? I will not have the courage to speak to another girl again in my life and die alone. Hmm, probably not true – I can easily speak to another girl five minutes later.
- Instead of suppressing the pain, embrace it and go through it. If you are feeling bad about something, don’t distract yourself to forget about the pain – concentrate on it, take it in, make yourself feel it properly. Imagine the pain going through you and past you. Once you’ve felt your pain, the part of you that was trying to influence you knows you got the message. So it will stop knocking.
- Time is a healer. Sometimes you just have to take the pain and know that it’s going to pass. Nothing stays the same, and your pain won’t stay the same either. The pain of falling in love and being rejected can drive a teenager to suicide. Ten years later it will be a passing memory.
- Sometimes you will feel bad for no reason. Our body is as external for our brain, as our environment. The brain has to make sense of the information coming in. It doesn’t always do a good job of it. Think of people feeling angry because they are hungry. The feeling of impending disaster and lack of meaning in your life may just be the result of a late night out the day before. So if you are feeling bad and don’t know why just accept that sometimes that happens and carry on.
Sometimes you can even use the unpleasant feelings to your advantage. For example, shame and guilt look like very similar emotions. But feeling shame is generally counterproductive. It doesn’t drive you to improve because it focuses on who you are, and not what you have done. Feeling guilt can be positive in the long turn – because you will want to correct the mistake you’ve made.
Controlled anger can be useful in some situations. Athletes can use anger to push themselves to the limit. It may also help in some cases of dealing with other people. The key here, of course, is ‘controlled’. For example, in some cases it makes sense to play the role of an angry customer. It works well when the person serving you is not competent and trying to cut corners. It will help your performance if the anger you are playing is genuine – you just need to exaggerate it a little.
In conclusion – embrace your pain. Be a human, and feel both good and bad. Learning to feel bad can make your life better. See what I did there? 😉