I’m losing track of the times in the past few years that I’ve expressed how I feel about a person or situation and have been told some variation of “you shouldn’t feel that way.” “What an awful thing to say.” “You should let that go.” Etcetera, etcetera.
Tying into my post about authenticity – this is one of those unwritten social rules it seems, and one that I am finished with. We’re raised to stifle our “negative” feelings because it’s unattractive. It makes other people uneasy. Why? Does it force people to look at a darker side of us that they’d rather didn’t exist? Or do we all believe that these thoughts and feelings make us bad people? Maybe they believe that we are “attracting negativity”?
I’m not at all opposed to being happy, but I am opposed to having to feign happiness for others comfort.
I have felt for a long, long time that there’s an unhealthy relationship with emotions in our society. A lot of people seem to feel shame for their “negative” emotions, or apologize for having them, or just stuff them down until they can’t be stuffed anymore and explode out in spectacularly massive overreaction over something minor. That last one was me, for a long time.
Eventually I ended up doing some anger management, and for the first time ever, someone told me that there aren’t any bad emotions. There are just emotions. There are feelings that make us uncomfortable, sure. But they’re all there for a reason. I’ve talked to a lot of people over the years who apologize for their grief of sadness or anger, or who feel that they need to pull it together, and don’t allow themselves to feel what they feel. We need to put on a happy face and pretend we’re okay because that’s what’s expected of us.
I understand doing this in a professional setting. We all do it. I would drag myself to work feeling exhausted and pained, physically and sometimes mentally, and when someone asked “How are you?” I’d smile and say “I’m okay! How about you?” Pleasantries. Because these are passersby, they’re coworkers, clients, customers, suppliers. They don’t really care, it’s just polite to ask. It’s often part of your job description to be friendly. That’s just being a professional.
But why aren’t we allowed to express and feel our ugly feelings and sentiments to those who matter to us? Why do we have to pretend? There’s a person who is hugely unstable in my extended in-laws. This person verbally attacked my son, (my autistic child, by the way), and then picked an hours long screaming fight when they were called on it and told not to do it again, and their spouse fully joined in. My fury over the situation has died down, but that couple is dead to me, not sorry. I don’t really care what happens to them, and in fact spent months wishing I could personally hurt them. I heard a lot of “you need to let that go.” Or recommendations that I forgive, because it’s “only hurting me.” But the truth is, it isn’t. Being able to express those feelings is what is helping me let go. And I’ve said over and over that I’m not sorry for feeling the way I feel – I’m not calling it right or wrong, it just is. This is how I feel right now, I’m not suppressing it, I’m not going to pretend so that people think I’m a better person.
A person who hurt me greatly as a child was killed. I said, “good riddance.” Of course we’re not supposed to be happy when anyone dies, we’re supposed to forget all the wrong that person did and “not speak ill of the dead.” I’ve never understood why people are elevated to sainthood simply because they’re no longer with us. I don’t want that when I die, I want people to remember me as I was. Failings, bitchiness, awkwardness and all. So when this monster died, I felt no sympathy. That’s what he was, frankly, a monster and I feel about as much sorrow over his death as I would any monster. He was not a good person. The world is not worse off because he’s no longer in it. And again, people told me I was wrong for feeling that way. Too harsh. Cruel. A bad person. Does it make me a better person if I pretend those thoughts don’t exist? Am I wrong for feeling this way, or only for saying so? This too, I’m slowly moving past – and all unexpected the anger and stress and upset that came with it. I don’t think I’ll ever feel sorry that he’s gone, but the searing anger that came along with it is fading, the memories, the hate. I’m able to set that aside and leave it in the past again, and I really feel that that’s in large part due to the fact that I let myself feel those thing to the fullest. I didn’t feel sorry, I didn’t feel wrong. I didn’t tell myself that I shouldn’t feel that way. I felt justified.
There are no bad or wrong feelings. We put things like anger, sadness, hate and fear into the “bad” category, while things like happiness, excitement, love and contentedness are “good.” But if you suffer a great loss, happiness is not the expected reaction. There is nothing wrong with us if we feel an all-encompassing sadness. If we are grievously wronged, anger is appropriate. To feel otherwise would be strange. But we see these feelings as something to be resisted. We don’t want to let them overtake us, we don’t want to be weak or annoying or frustrating. Maybe we just don’t want to deal with the pain, or don’t know how to. But the only way to learn to do that, just like anything else, is experience.
There are times when so-called positive and negative emotions exist together, like two sides of a coin. Every parent knows the feeling of loving your kids so much that you are afraid of losing them. Or the rage you feel when someone hurts your child. Or the sadness when you have to watch them suffer something you can’t fix. These “negative” feelings couldn’t exist without the “positive” of love.
But here’s the important piece: there are no bad feelings, there’s only bad behaviour. What you feel is valid, but you still control how you act and whether you let those feelings lead you. In both of my personal examples, I could’ve acted out. I could’ve taken things out on people who I felt deserved it. I could’ve tried to make lives miserable, and frankly I could’ve succeeded – I thought about those things, I carefully considered them, then I told myself I’m better than that. I’ll feel how I feel, how I behave is a whole different ballgame.
When people incessantly focus on only the positive, stuff down the negative, look away from anything uncomfortable… it comes out eventually, and when it does, it’s ugly. Authenticity, as I view it, has to do with how a person manages their own life; their feelings, their thoughts, their opinions. But! I will wholeheartedly disagree with anyone who thinks that they don’t need to change their destructive behaviour because they think that’s just who they are. That’s a cop-out. While I don’t believe we need to pretend, we do need to understand our impact on other people. We need to get back to having community and some semblance of social construct. When people use “being themselves” as an excuse to exist in a vacuum, to only consider themselves and call this individuality, they are nothing but selfish.
I won’t change who I am. I’m not going to change what I like, my hobbies, my personality. But I do try to monitor my behaviour. Behaviour is different from self. It’s different from feelings.
I feel like if more people were honest with themselves and with others, we would see that aren’t alone in how we feel. It takes away that feeling of shame. New moms who haven’t slept more than a two hour stretch in 3 weeks? Yeah, it’s pretty normal to wish you could stuff that baby in a soundproof closet and sleep for 6 hours. It’s normal to feel like maybe you’re not cut out for parenthood. It’s probably even normal to feel like maybe you could sell that baby to a gypsy caravan, if you could find one. I felt these things with my first baby, and I felt terrible for feeling them. Nobody talked about how you could be so angry with a tiny being even while rationally knowing that it’s not their fault. Nobody talked about wishing that you could go back to the times when you only had to work and feed and clothe and house yourself. Everything looked amazeballs with the other moms, and of course I never talked about all of my struggles either. All these years later, I suspect that we were all struggling and felt we couldn’t share the worst of it because nobody else was sharing.
I don’t feel the need to be nice all the time, just for the sake of it, anymore. I don’t feel any desire to put myself and my feelings second. I won’t pretend to like what, or who I don’t, won’t pretend to be unhurt by hurtful things, won’t pretend I’m not angry when it’s called for. I used to disclaimer these things, “I know I shouldn’t feel this way but I kind of do…” and now, I don’t. When people say I shouldn’t say or think things like that, I ask why? Am I not justified? Why do I have to pretend I don’t feel what I feel? Why are my feelings invalid? No, I won’t stuff it down or feel ashamed for how I feel. And I think a lot of people might feel healthier if they did the same.
Acknowledge how you feel. Acknowledge that your feelings aren’t wrong. You might feel better after that, your feelings might change once you accept them – but if they don’t, they don’t. Don’t use it as an excuse to treat anyone poorly, but feel what you feel.
Everyone should be entitled to that.