Thursday, October 23, 2014

What To Do with Bad Feelings

Feeling bad is not necessarily a bad thing. Some studies have suggested that bad feelings can be a good thing… as long as you do not take them personally.

Coming after (or before) a post on how to induce positive feelings, this idea must feel slightly incongruent. That is all the more reason to include it here.

Of course, the therapy culture has long since believed that we should take our bad feelings personally. It has declared them to be meaningful indications of some unresolved psychic wound. If such is the case they need to be resolved through an extensive analysis of our upbringing and our repressed fantasies.

Such an introspective approach sends us into our minds, the better to insulate us from reality. Thus, it teaches us to take bad feelings personally and makes it more difficult to resolve them or to use them effectively.

Obviously, some bad feelings are bad for you and for those around you. If you are hostile, withdrawn, contentious or demoralized, your attitude is not going to do you or anyone else any good.

And yet, feeling too positive, being too optimistic might just make you careless. In some situations, this means that you are out of touch with the reality of the situation.

Anna North describes some of the research in the New York Times:

Dr. Kashdan and Dr. Biswas-Diener cite air-traffic control (ATC) as one profession in which worry can be especially helpful:

“Pushing tin, as ATC work is sometimes irreverently called, requires an eye for detail; those little blips on the radar screen are actually airplanes, each with its own call number, altitude, speed, and flight plan. Negative emotions like anxiety and suspiciousness can act like an attentional funnel that narrows the mind’s eye to important details. There is no room in ATC for good enough.”

If you are cavalier about your job as air traffic controller you are detached from the reality of the situation, distracted by phantoms and less likely to concentrate on the situation at hand.

In that situation, failing to feel anxious means that you do not understand what is going on.

Of course, it can happen that you become so anxious that you will be unable to function. Too much anxiety is no better than too little.

As Aristotle suggested, emotional extremes need to be overcome in favor of emotions that are tempered, that is, are appropriate to the situation at hand.

But, if your anxiety surpasses the situation at hand, doesn’t that prove the point that therapists have been trying to make: your excessive anxiety is really a throw-back to, for example, an unresolved prior trauma.

And yet, when an individual believes that his anxiety can only be resolved by introspection, the thought might well cause him to withdraw from reality. Retreat in the face of danger makes the danger more formidable and the anxiety more acute.

It is also possible that an individual will feel more anxious when faced with an unfamiliar set of circumstances. A neophyte air traffic controller would be expected to feel more anxious than would a veteran. To solve this level of anxiety, one should lean on the wisdom and guidance of someone older and more experienced.

Those who do not take their bad feelings personally will have the confidence and the courage to ask what those feelings are trying to say. Emotions often signal a situation that we are ignoring. They might be telling us that we are, unbeknownst to ourselves, in danger or are being demeaned.

If we do not take the emotion personally we will look around us, evaluate our current situation and try to understand what the emotion might be saying. Then we will act accordingly.

North offers an example:

Bad feelings (her team looked specifically at “distress, irritation, boredom, tension, upset and hostility”) can make you “think there’s something wrong,” Dr. [Rebecca] Mitchell told Op-Talk, “and so you tend to look for external information to support your argument, to be much more rigorous about questioning your own presumptions and other people’s perspectives, much more reliant on objective data.” All of these tendencies can be especially helpful in a work environment “where everybody’s agreeing, and everybody’s being super-cooperative, and everybody’s trying really hard not to rock the boat” — where people “don’t want to engage in any sort of conflict or challenge.”…

In a workplace where everyone has taken a few too many congeniality pills, a negative emotion is signaling a danger that everyone is ignoring.

It is a call to action, not an occasion for rumination.

1 comment:

Ares Olympus said...

I remember my mens group had an idea called an "Awareness wheel" that went from Observation, judgement, feeling, action, and the idea was to separate these components clearly in your mind to avoid unconscious reactivity.

It's almost a bit counter-intuitive, at least you might think that feelings are the first step, but they often don't exist until you are aware of something, and make a judgment about it, and your judgments may or may not represent reality.

Observation: Jimmy's Christmas present is bigger than mine.
Judgement: People must like Timmy better than me
Feelings: Envy, rage, sadness, despair?
Action: ?

So if "Bad feelings" come from judgements, rather than facts, then you're actually in greater control of your feelings than you know, simply by withholding judgment, and delaying judgement.

The above example is an objectively innocent one, and where "not taking feelings personally" would help, and no action is needed. I can say to myself "I feel envy" and accept that feeling in a greater context of other feelings.

A harder case is when you really are being treated unfairly.

Observation: I was harrassed by the police yesterday, again!
Judgement: I wasn't doing anything wrong.
Feeling: Oppressed, disrespected, angry
Action: ?

Marshall Rosenberg's Nonviolent communication is a similar response I've seen to the Awareness wheel.

On my quick police exaple above, Marshall would try to clarify my observations. He'd ask "What specific behavior did the police have that I label as harrassing?" He's also say "oppressed" and disrespected aren't feelings, but "moralistic judgement".

In fact, I see he skills judgments all together:
Rosenberg invites NVC practitioners to focus attention on four components:
1. Observation
2. Feelings
3. Needs
4. Request

Either framework can seem as "too much", since it takes time, and if you have 200 interactions per day, you can't be evaluating them all so carefully to clarify them, and its questionable how much can be done openly versus how much can be done internally.

Myself, if I could I'd "debrief" myself privately to all personal/social interactions that bother me in someway, and clear out 90% as my problem, or that I can handle alone.

I don't know if introspection encourages a retreat from reality, but I can see there's a large freedom to explore in introspection without any need for courage, so the gap can seem too large, to assert a point of view that you know others won't like.

I copied a quote I saw recently. The biggest need for courage may be the willingness expose some of your bad thinking for all the world to see, and if you wait until you can perfectly express yourself without causing any new "bad feelings" in others, you'll never say a thing out loud.

May Angelou: "Without courage we cannot practice any other virtue with consistency. We can't be kind, true, merciful, generous or honest."