Angry? Disappointed? Heartbroken? Think twice before calling the feelings police

NNot long ago, one of my best friends was sitting at my kitchen table crying. He and his partner had just separated, and I could feel his desperate grief and the crushing weight of grief over the loss of someone he loved so much. I stood at the counter and felt so helpless. Faced with his suffering, I was desperate to put him out of his misery, to tell him that they would get back together, that everything would be okay. It felt like an emotional emergency, and I wanted to call in the feelings police to lock up his bad feelings.

One of the hardest things I had to do during my training as a psychotherapist was to stop trying to make my patients feel better. Of course, when someone we are with feels bad, it is a very natural reaction to want to make him or her feel good. We feel it in our bones: feeling bad is bad, feeling good is good, and we only want good things for those we care for. Emergency! Shut this thing down!

But what I’ve had to learn as a therapist and as a patient in therapy is that feeling bad isn’t really bad for you. It is part of a full life, and an important one at that. Sadness, sadness, anger, disappointment: we experience all these feelings and more when we do things like grow and develop, allow ourselves to be loved freely, take important risks, and have friends, lovers, children, and adventures. Many patients come to therapy expecting the therapist to take away their grief, but meaningful therapy will, in the words of psychoanalyst Wilfred Bion, “increase the patient’s capacity to suffer.” Yes, it hurts, but feeling bad is an essential part of living a good life.

But it is one thing to know this intellectually, and quite another to experience it emotionally. It’s so ingrained in us in the West that “bad” feelings are harmful, that we can end up feeling anxious and stressed because we feel bad – and chronic stress is really bad for us.

This was explored in a fascinating study called Feeling bad is not always unhealthy by Shinobu Kitayama, professor of psychology at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. He surveyed a group of American and Japanese participants and found that among the Americans, there was a link between the experience of so-called negative emotions such as sadness and increased inflammation – the body’s first line of defense to fight bacterial infections after injury and injury. biological marker of the feeling of being threatened. But this was not the case with the Japanese: there was no evidence that they felt threatened when they felt sad. He understood that this was because in the US, feeling bad is more stressful because it is a “source of threat to self-image,” while in Japanese culture it is seen as “natural and an integral part of life.”

The point of trying to make someone feel better is that what you may be unconsciously communicating to them is: I don’t want to know about your sadness, your depression, your anxiety, your anger. I cannot bear it: please hide it from me and deal with it yourself.

Feeling like your grief is not acceptable to those around you, that the feelings police have been called and that you have to hide your true emotions from those you love is very scary and stressful. What is meant as kindness, trying to brighten and cheer someone’s mood, can be experienced as a kind of cruelty, as emotional neglect.

So what’s the alternative? I think there is an important difference between offering someone comfort and comfort, and trying to cheer them up. It’s the gap between meeting them where they are and listening to them, and trying to pretend you’re all somewhere else.

When my friend was in need, I recognized my desire to call the feelings police, and I said to myself: Moya, just hug him and show him that he is not alone. Eventually, he and his partner found their way back to each other, and I think an important first step was when he allowed himself to experience that pain in all its truth. That he felt so bad was a result of the depth of their love, and I think it helped him recognize that there may still be several ways to mend their relationship instead of letting it break irretrievably.

The hardest thing for me, when I’m at a low point, is to resist calling the police myself. But I know that emotional impoverishment and a barren, dehydrated life are at the root of it. Instead, if we can open our minds and hearts to the full range of human feelings, we can begin to put them into words and listen to what they tell us about our relationships and ourselves.