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Why Letting Ourselves Feel Bad Is the Key to Feeling Better

“The more you hide your feelings, the more they show. The more you deny your feelings, the more they grow.” ~Unknown

For as long as I can remember, I have been on a quest to heal myself. From a very young age I can remember feeling different from my peers. I was always painfully shy and paralyzed with insecurity and fear, which left me in a constant state of self-criticism.

Hardships in my young life, including the suicide of my father, left me with the belief that life was just hard.

Unfortunately, I also thought that it wasn’t supposed to be and that something was wrong with me because I had so much pain in my life. My head swirled with shame wondering, “What’s wrong with me? Why can’t I get over this, or that?”

My solution to the pain I felt was to basically wage war on myself and conquer all of the difficult feelings I experienced.  

I truly believed that I just needed to figure out the right formula, accomplishments, and milestones, and then I wouldn’t have these painful feelings and I would finally feel okay in my skin.

Along the way, I hit all of the targets I had identified: I lost weight, I earned degrees, I made money, I did lots of therapy; I created a life for myself where everything looked the way it was supposed to, but I still struggled with fears and insecurity.

This mission I was on to fix myself only added insult to injury, because my primary thought process was that something was seriously wrong with me and if I wanted to be happy, like I thought everyone else was, then I needed to stop having what I had deemed “bad” feelings.  

Rather than giving myself a break, I found the path of greatest resistance.

I was in a constant battle with myself, where every time I had an uncomfortable feeling I jumped on myself for feeling that way and immediately set out to change that feeling. I couldn’t distinguish the difference of “I’m having a ‘bad’ feeling,” from “I am bad.”

When we react negatively to our own negative emotions, treating them as enemies to be overcome, eliminated, and defeated, we get into trouble. Our reactions to unhappiness can transform what might just be a brief, passing sadness into a persistent dissatisfaction and overall unhappiness.

Unfortunately, no matter how hard we try to avoid emotional pain, it follows us everywhere. Difficult emotions, like shame, anger, loneliness, fear, despair, confusion, are a natural part of the human experience. It’s just not possible to avoid feeling bad.

However, we can learn how to deal with difficult emotions in a new, healthier way, by practicing acceptance of our emotions, embracing them fully as they are, moment to moment. For me, this has meant creating space in my life for all of the parts of experience, the ups and the downs.

Unfortunately, in Western culture very few of us have been given the tools to tolerate our own difficult feelings, or those of another person. Not only do we want to avoid feeling pain at all costs, we want to prevent the people we care about from feeling their own pain.

Recently I found myself in a situation where I was confronted with a past loss, and although it has been two years since the loss, I found myself emotionally wrecked, as though it had just happened yesterday.

In my sadness, I reached out to a few friends for comfort and was surprised at how difficult it was for them to tolerate my difficult emotions.

In an effort to help, they wanted to battle the sadness and told me things like I was sitting in self-pity and feeling sorry for myself; that I needed to practice more gratitude in that moment.

Again, they weren’t trying to be hurtful; they were just trying to help me stop feeling sad.

Thankfully, I’ve done enough work on this path to know that that was not what I needed. In that moment, I simply needed to allow myself to feel sad.  

I knew the feeling wasn’t going to last forever and I had a choice, I could either drag it out by waging war on myself, or I could recognize that, for whatever reason, in that moment, I just felt sad.

Again, our reactions to our difficult emotions can transform what may have been just a brief, passing sadness (as was the case for me in this situation) into persistent dissatisfaction and unhappiness (two decades of my life).

By learning to bear witness to our own pain and responding with kindness and understanding, rather than greeting difficult emotions by fighting hard against them, we open ourselves up to genuine healing and a new experience of living; this is self-compassion.

If you’re someone who is used to beating yourself up for feeling sad or lonely, if you hide from the world whenever you make a mistake, or if you endlessly obsess over how you could have prevented the mistake in the first place, self-compassion may seem like an impossible concept. But it is imperative that we embrace this idea if we are to truly live freely.

When we fight against emotional pain, we get trapped in it. Difficult emotions become destructive and break down the mind, body, and spirit. Feelings get stuck, frozen in time, and we get stuck in them.

The happiness we long for in relationships seems to elude us. Satisfaction at work lies just beyond our reach. We drag ourselves through the day, arguing with our physical aches and pains.

Usually we have no idea how many of these daily struggles lie rooted in how we relate to the inevitable discomfort of life. The problem is not the sadness itself, but how our minds react to the sadness.

Change comes naturally when we open ourselves to emotional pain with uncommon kindness. Instead of blaming, criticizing, and trying to fix ourselves when things go wrong or we feel bad, we can start with self-compassion. This simple, although definitely not easy, shift can make a tremendous difference in your life.

It’s important to remember that embracing your strengths and well-being does not mean ignoring your difficulties. We are measured by our ability to work through our hardships and insecurities, not avoid them.

We are all fighting some sort of battle, and when we accept this truth for ourselves, and others, it becomes a lot easier to say, “I’m struggling right now and that is okay.”

Not being okay all the time is perfectly okay.

About Jennifer Chrisman

Jennifer Chrisman is a Licensed Clinical Psychologist practicing in Los Angeles, where she specializes in using Mindfulness based approaches to help her clients find more meaning in their life.  To learn more, you can check out her website here, or follow her on Facebook or Twitter.

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  • Evelyn

    Very interesting writing, but extremely hard to apply in one’s life.
    I’ve always been so afraid of pain, that I have done almost everything in the
    “handbook” to avoid pain – except for actually letting myself feel
    pain! I don’t think that there’s anything in life that scares me more than
    pain! Whatever kind of pain that may be, I always find ways to do things that
    can reduce pain. And you’d think that I’ve managed to be pain free in life?
    Actually the opposite! Because I’ve been fighting pain – I’ve been hurt more.
    Because I’ve forced myself to convince myself I’m fine, I’ve felt more hurt.
    Not once have I ever let myself feel exactly what is in front of me to feel.
    And all that it has done is to double the pain, and by double I mean, I’ve
    gotten physical pain because of just emotions. I’ve beaten myself so much that
    everything that was just created in my head became of matter of physical
    health. And I think for some or at least me, the fear of the pain is the matter
    of fact rather than just the pain itself. I mean, I know right now I’m dealing
    with heartache, but it’s not the ache itself that’s beating me up, it’s the
    fear of the pain that’s there. The fear of bumping in to this person that broke
    my heart, the fear of facing my pain in front of me, the fear of seeing him
    with someone else, I feel more fear than actually ache, missing this person or
    even wanting him back in my life. I just want complete delete. Is this a messy statement
    or can someone actually agree with me? Can’t be the only one feeling like this?
    I’m not that unique;)

  • Chad

    I think the take away here is basically self awareness. Allowing these feelings to wash over you and then let them go out with the tide. Do not accept them as a indicator of worth, ability, strength or lack there of. However, simply understanding one is human these feelings are a condition of that experience and attempting to fight or evade these feelings is a waste of crucial spiritual energy. Accept them for what they are in the moment you have them, but move past them. Not allowing them to linger or have long term negative effect.

    I agree with Evelyn very difficult to apply in ones life. Especially being mindful in the moment, as we often want to reconcile these emotions immediately. Personally for me I have an over active guilt thyroid, I have a lot of anxiety over things I thought I did wrong. The trouble it will cause me when people find out what it is ive done. Its hard to be rational in the moment, as what we perceive is our reality.

    I suppose the key here is a good nights sleep and some reflection the next day. The sky is still blue, water is still wet, fire and brimstone is not raining down. Its hard not to feel foolish, however puts into perspective and adds to awareness it was just an episode and we are no worse for wear the next day. It almost gives us a sense of strength and comfort when in the throws of grief or agitation to know that this too will pass. Rather than allow ourselves to be come consumed and start making decisions motivated by emotion and fear of the abstract.

  • Stephen Fraser

    Lovely insightful article on the value of just being present with what is. Gratitude lists, helping others, journaling, giving it time, exercise..etc are all good and valuable pieces of working through emotional pain…but the most important consideration is to allow ourselves to feel exactly what we are feeling at any given point…it is a gift to find friends who are able to “bare witness” to our process and “stand with us” at these times…but as you say.. We can always be our own “witness” too. Grief and loss is not a linear path and seems to have a timeframe of its own. It’s over when it decides it’s over.

  • You stated it correctly at the end “Not being okay all the time is perfectly okay.” Being okay all the time means you are doing something wrong … It’s a balance that needs to be sustained. Yin Yang is my theory of how this world works and I think you should read my article The Good And The Bad. It might help you with your loss + your life somehow.

  • Peace Within

    I think you are right. I think you have to deal with your emotions and feel them out. That is the healthiest way to get them out. That is sad that your friends were not there for you. You are a very understanding person for knowing why they couldn’t. That takes strength. I do think that our western society runs away from emotions and that is why so many of us have a hard time dealing with them.

  • Linda Thompson Whidby

    Jennifer, what an insightful piece. I love this quote: “By learning to bear witness to our own pain and responding with kindness and understanding, rather than greeting difficult emotions by fighting hard against them, we open ourselves up to genuine healing and a new experience of living; this is self-compassion.” I couldn’t agree more. Thank you for sharing!

  • Héctor M. Romero

    Thank you for this awsome post!

  • Leanne_Regalla

    Great post, Jennifer! So important for people to realize this – learning to allow myself to feel everything was key, and it changed my life to be 100 times better.

    For those who are afraid to feel the bad or painful things, your dread is often much worse than the experience itself.

    Allow the feelings, don’t judge them, and they will pass. It’s very healing. And freeing.

  • lv2terp

    Awesome post!!!! Thank you for shedding such a beautiful light on the need for self compassion!!! I really like when you said “When we fight against emotional pain, we get trapped in it. Difficult
    emotions become destructive and break down the mind, body, and spirit.
    Feelings get stuck, frozen in time, and we get stuck in them.” Thank you for the reminder of accepting, and being with the emotion instead of trying to “drag it” out, and fix/change it like I do all too often! hmmm, appreciate this post! 🙂

  • I like this. Of course it’s easier said than done, but I have begun to practice mindfulness by not only accepting the good emotions but accepting the ones I am more uncomfortable with too. For years I thought that I wasn’t allowed to be sad or mad or angry or upset. I wasn’t allowed to cry or show emotions that would be considered otherwise negative. When they surfaced I would push them away telling myself no. It’s funny how we all do this in our lives and in the end the emotions we try to push away rear their ugly heads even more. Thank you for sharing this. It’s definitely something we all need to practice more for a more well rounded and happier life

  • Jenn Chrisman

    Hi Evelyn~ thank you for such an honest comment. Heartbreak can be so painful but I think you’re probably right, the fear of the pain is probably causing more hurt for you. At least when you allow yourself to feel it you also allow yourself to nurture the part of you that needs a little extra TLC right now, which you deserve!

  • Jenn Chrisman

    Hi Chad~ yes, definitely, self-awareness is absolutely critical. Very well said and thank you for your comment.

  • Jenn Chrisman

    Thank you, Linda 🙂

  • Jenn Chrisman

    Thanks Hector!

  • Em J

    how did you know how I was feeling and put it into words? Thank you!!!

  • Matthew

    Thanks for this. I had an epiphany from reading it:

    Feeling sorry for yourself is actually meditative when you do it in isolation. You’re completely free from judgment and criticism. You’re free from your relief being dependent on whether or not you get sympathy or support from someone else. You’re also free from the feeling that you need to justify why you’re feeling the way you do.

    There’s a lot less potential to unnaturally attach yourself to your feelings when there’s nothing for you to gain or lose by experiencing them.

  • Pema

    Brilliant! So glad I popped on to to Tiny Buddha this morning as I have just had this experience once again. Being a ‘budding Buddhist’ and mindfulness practitioner (as in I practice every single day!!) I couldn’t get over why I couldn’t get over this weird bad mood I was in. I was beating myself up for not being all calm and holy without even knowing it really. I, as well as many others no doubt, struggle to remember what self compassion feel like when actually in the moment so thank you – this brought me back to centre.

  • Jennifer~Lovely post. What you are saying is so powerful because when we sink into difficult feelings and move through them, we can learn the lessons that they bring. I am reminded of Carl Jung’s concept of finding the gold in the shadow. By pushing away our emotional experience we also push away deep parts of ourselves that hold unmined gifts and potentials that need integration.

  • Jiggy Martini

    Thank you for sharing :-)There is something I have noticed in friends, coworkers and clients in regards these lingering unfavorable emotions. There is this tendency to not only “get trapped” in the negative emotion but there is this desire to “skip in the emotion”. For example instead of being stuck in misery or grief people want to skip over the pain, distract themselves or even operate in denial. They become “busybodies” to avoid confronting the issues and the emotions that come with the challenge. I’ve seen a friend do this for many years and it is unbearable to watch because “crash” always catches her off guard but it ALWAYS hits.

  • Jeevan/Mirthu/Gupt

    “If you’re someone that is used to beating yourself up for feeling sad or
    lonely, if you hide from the world whenever you make a mistake, or if
    you endlessly obsess over how you could have prevented the mistake in
    the first place, self-compassion may seem like an impossible
    concept. But it is imperative that we embrace this idea if we are to
    truly live freely….” This is something I have struggled in my life for a very long time & continue to do so at times; this blog really resonated with me….thank you sharing this…really appreciate your authenticity & vulnerability…:-)

  • It seems to me that this is a very important thing to remember in order to enjoy life. Far too often we try to hide and bottle up the things we feel because we are either scared of what others will think, or we think we shouldn’t be feeling that way. We think that our emotions are “wrong” in some strange way that doesn’t really make sense when you ask why. We need to feel these so-called “negative” emotions, they help us grow. By letting ourselves experience them we can learn.
    I have struggled with this by worrying about worrying. I know I shouldn’t worry and then when I do I would start worrying about it because that was my habit. I realized to achieve a stress free state I had to just let go. As hard as it was and still is, I am so much happier now. I can now step back and observe my emotions rather than letting them control me.

  • I would consider comparing emotional distress with a symptom like physical pain… Is feeling pain from a knife wound ok? Well, at least, it means you are not dead yet! However, letting the wound fester creates more problems. So, get a professional to take a look and help you out. And after s/he is done, figure out how to best avoid wounds like that in the future 😉

  • Arianit

    Sometimes the negative emotions are a result from our physical needs. For example sometimes the triger to youre negative emotion is being thirsty or just hungry, and we dont realize that and as a result we keep diving in despair and waste precious energy. Overall I liked this post and It is a true relfection.

  • Andrea Ulrich

    i totally agree with this. i also think that we should appreciate our negative emotions so that we can use them as fuel for art, poetry, etc. i think that love and pain are the two most efficient tools for inspiration.

  • Love this article. Spot on.

  • Bamboo

    this helped me

  • Jag

    I show to others I’m very strong but I’m getting weak and weaker day by day it’s 4 year I try to control my emotions feeling Chang my self but I m not happy from inside I’m loosing hope and strength feeling down .this is not me I was very happy and brave

  • Lark

    Hi Jennifer and all! I JUST finally realized this a few days ago. I’ve been trying to find that ‘perfect formula’ to get rid of the pain. And finally, I came to the conclusion that allowing myself to feel my emotions- regardless of where they fall on the spectrum- without dismissing or judging them is a heck of a lot easier than trying to fight or fix them. And doing so feels so much more loving towards myself. This realization came with an understanding of the shame I was taught as a child. I too haven’t understood the difference between being ‘bad’ and doing ‘bad’ things. I read something recently about how being on a quest to heal yourself is based in the belief that something is wrong with you and needs fixing. And that helped unlock this understanding within me. I tried meditating my pain away, reasoning it away, running from it, transforming it in various ways..etc. etc. But I understand now that I’m all my parts. I’m all my feelings. I’m all of my experiences. And self-love means accepting my human-ness and my pain.

  • Linda

    It can be easy in this failing economy to get depressed. One of the things that sometimes gets to me is that I don’t have a high paying career but I got a lot of education. So I tell myself this: I’m NOT in debt, I have lots of money saved up, and I have options. Today I was in such a rut, but now I see the wonderful world of opportunities. And about my education.. I may not need an MA to get into a public school, but it will help when I start my business!

    One thing I recommend is if you have a negative thought, try to counter it with a positive one.

  • Julia Reckermann

    thank you. that was helpful to hear that the dread is worse than the feeling itself!

  • Lola Jones

    My problem is that I constantly don’t feel okay though, most of my time is spent in depression, and I’m sick of trying to accept it. Though I do go to therapy, take meds etc. I just have no idea what to do.

  • StephenCataldo

    Yeah. I try to divide my approach. My brain chemistry or wiring or whatever leaves me feeling not-ok more often than makes sense, and most of the time I think it’s best to fight it rather than accept it. I’ve found it helpful to have weekly therapy and/or setting aside a chunk of time to be the time I welcome myself to feel bad. Basically, if someone is content 95% of the time, and reading facebook every day where almost everyone puts on happy faces, then this blog is great advice. If I’m too often unhappy, then maybe setting aside 5% of my time to really dig in and feel sad like is suggested here, and know at other times that that moment is not the time to let unwelcome depressive thoughts in, set them aside rather than try to squash them. I want to give myself permission to feel bad and also permission to feel good.