Feelings About Feelings

Some time ago I noticed a common problem, or perhaps I should say problem about problems, that many clients shared– People would be down on themselves for being depressed, or angry with themselves about their anger problems, or would worry too much about their anxiety. This, it seems to me, creates a “chasing your tail” mentality that makes it almost inevitable that you will spiral into the very emotion that is bothering you.

I suppose it’s also equally problematic to worry about depression, or be angry about anxiety,  but my purely unscientific observation has been that people tend to spiral in on a particular emotion.

My suggestion on how to break the spiral has always been to start by accepting the reality of the initial feeling: “I’m depressed. That’s how it is for right now.” This acceptance seems to make it easier to move on to the next feeling, even if the feeling is another negative feeling. We have to admit that sometimes life just plain sucks. Any student of statistics and probability will tell you that pure bad luck can sometimes pile up. But accepting the bad prevents (or at least minimizes) rumination, obsession, and general stuckness. It also, in my opinion, makes it possible to be open to the next positive emotion– perhaps in my time of trouble a friend or family member is supportive, or I take comfort in a little thing, like a beautiful sunset, or the friendship of a pet. Getting off the wheel of self-judgment is what opens us up to the next thing– makes emotional life an open system rather than a closed one.

Does it sound reasonable? Well, now there’s evidence. A study cited by the Center for Greater Good found that people who are better able to accept feeling bad end up having fewer mood disorder symptoms. Remember, we all have moods, ups & downs, and there’s no getting out of having bad days, or even bad months. If I’m struggling financially and it’s due to caring for a family member with a chronic illness, not feeling bad at least some of the time that would be very strange. I might be very resilient, have great family or community support, have a strong spiritual practice– and still feel negative moods. Bad things happen to good people. BUT the thing that, in my opinion, makes me much more likely to have a mood disorder is getting caught up in the spiral. The evidence in the article suggests that people who push away negative emotions (denial?) are also likely to have mood disorder symptoms down the line also. So perhaps it comes down to that old standby, acceptance.

image from http://a1.mzstatic.com


About jamesmatter

Marriage and Family Therapist (MFT) in private practice in San Francisco. I work with adults, adolescents, and couples, with focus on substance use and abuse and co-occurring disorders (having both a mental illness and an addiction).
This entry was posted in Depression, Emotions, Feelings, happiness, mental health, Recovery, Renewal, Sadness, spirituality, Uncategorized and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Feelings About Feelings

  1. Harbans says:

    Fact stands out acceptance is the first step in solving a pestering problem and stepping ahead to solve another one. Your write-up is really enlightening. Regards

    • jamesmatter says:

      Acceptance is a large and worthy topic in itself. The main thing I think about is that many people balk at acceptance because they confuse acceptance with liking, approval, or resignation. It is none of these. When I accept what is, I am simply living in the real world– and possibly working hard to change it! But acceptance does, sometimes, mean that I recognize some things can’t be changed.

      • Harbans says:

        THANKS for visiting and giving your invaluable comments. Acceptance, in whatever connotation one takes, depends on the person concerned. It could be different for every individual for varieties of subjects. But when it comes to natural truths and truth which cannot be altered by our self efforts, it is better for us to accept. Rather changing such things may or may not be in our favour. Your last sentence is relevant here. But those who do not accept such things are doomed to meet disappointments.

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