Feeling without judgment

Victoria Helmer, Columnist

The point of this article is to try and convince you that your feelings are valid. There are lots of reasons to feel bad right now, and as much as you deserve to feel good, you also deserve to allow yourself to feel bad. Feeling good is great, but for everyone to constantly be okay is an unspoken, unrealistic ideal that correlates with a pervasive pressure that can ultimately do more harm than good. 

As Alain de Botton puts it, “There is such pressure on us to be cheerful. And yet, in order properly to be content, we need to learn sometimes the art of being constructively in touch with our sadder, more melancholy feelings.” In other words, “In order to be calm and at ease with ourselves, we need regular periods where we do something rather strange sounding: process our emotions.” 

Mainstream American culture tends to over-valorize joy and deprecate sadness, thereby restricting many of us from experiencing a full spectrum of feelings. In turn, we are taught to suppress, rather than process. Our dominant attitudes towards emotions are conducive to further harm in the form of denial, self-castigation, shame and force suppression techniques, like yelling “Stop!” at your pain. 

And yet, in the words of Toni Bernhard, “You can’t order your mind not to think or feel a certain way.” Some of us just don’t like being told what to do to begin with, and our minds can be exceptionally fickle, squeamish things. 

When suppression techniques fail, secondary emotions — such as frustration over sadness or worry from anxiety — can creep in. As such, labeling uncomfortable feelings as “wrong,” or even labeling yourself as such, can turn what might be temporary pain into prolonged, ruminative suffering. 

But feeling bad is valid. As the saying goes, it’s okay not to be okay, and compassionately allowing yourself to process uncomfortable emotions can be remarkably healing. 

In fact, a recent study on participants with generalized anxiety disorder suggests that the best predictor of faring well with the disorder is not one’s severity of symptoms but rather a habit of “nonjudging” and “labeling” sensations. In the authors’ words, “Our findings demonstrate that it is particularly higher levels of nonjudging of inner experience…and describing (noting or mentally labeling these stimuli with words) that contribute to lower disability above and beyond anxiety symptom severity, suggesting that they are protective in the presence of anxiety symptoms.” 

As Emily Nagoski puts it, “It’s not about how you feel. It’s about how you feel about how you feel.”

And when bad things happen, feeling bad makes sense. Even if you can’t crisply identify a source of distress, that’s okay, too. If you feel like shit for no perceptible reason, this website, dearly titled “You feel like shit,” may help because it offers an interactive flow chart that guides you through reading internal signs.

We all deserve to feel good, but for those who are struggling, a great first step to feeling okay is allowing yourself the space to feel bad. As Adriene Mishler describes emotional pain, “Sometimes, we must come closer to it and really feel it with a tenderness and an openness, so that we can process and find what feels good.” 

I also urge you to see yourself as resilient for persisting; contrary to what you may have learned to believe, you are neither defective nor weak for feeling bad. Having emotions is an inevitable part of the human experience.

So, if you’ve made it this far, I encourage you to be gentle with yourself. You, as much as anyone else, are deserving of your own kindness, and you deserve to feel at home in your own mind — even when it hurts.