Feeling Bad Is Overrated

by Gretchen Rubin
Originally Published: 

Recently I posed a question for self-examination: What’s making you “feel bad”? It’s important to understand what’s creating bad feelings. Bad feelings are often important signals that you need to make changes in your life.

Once you’ve identified the sources of bad feelings, it’s time to try to eliminate those sources from your life.

When I asked myself, “What makes me feel bad?” I realized that I was caught in a vicious cycle. Seemingly minor annoyances would make me feel overwhelmed and irritated, so then I’d behave badly, which would make me feel guilty and horrible, so I’d act even worse.

To give a typical, minor example: Each morning, I’d open the coat closet to get out our coats, hats, and mittens for the walk to school. The closet was crowded and messy, and it was hard to find our various items. It made me feel bad to see the chaos.

As a consequence, I was much more likely to snap at the Big Girl and the Little Girl: “Hurry up!” “Why can’t you keep track of your hat?” et cetera—then I’d feel terrible about how I’d acted. Then I’d snap even more.

Mess isn’t a serious problem, but being chronically short-tempered is a very serious problem.

So I started my happiness project on a very basic, un-elevated level. To try to stop myself from feeling irritable, I became much more diligent about:

1. Not letting myself get too hungry

2. Dressing more warmly

3. Taking pain medication whenever I felt a headache or neck pain start up

4. Making sure to turn off the light each night as soon as I felt sleepy

5. Cleaning out clutter and organizing stuff

These steps did, indeed, lower my general level of irritability. And that cut down on the guilt I felt for behaving badly. Mess isn’t a serious problem, but being chronically short-tempered is a very serious problem.

Once you’ve given careful thought to what’s making you feel bad, you can begin to apply the Eighth Commandment (see left column) to “identify the problem.” Why are you feeling angry? Or guilty? Or envious? Or anxious?

Say you’re feeling guilty. Why? Maybe you feel guilty because you think you’re letting your children watch too much television.

Really force yourself to examine your feelings and thoughts. Are they really watching too much TV? Who says? Do you really care, or do you just think you should care? Think through possible solutions. Should you get rid of your TVs altogether? Can you limit them to videos only? Weekends only? Etc., etc. Either decide that, in fact, you don’t really think it’s a problem—or act. Don’t just suffer these pricks of guilt as the years pass.

Also, remember that surprisingly often, it’s possible to “re-frame.” You can turn a complaint into a pleasure, just by changing your attitude. So, for example, I used to feel annoyed by the fact that I pay all the bills. I felt aggrieved and resentful. Then I asked myself, “Would I want the Big Man to pay the bills if he asked to do it?” and I realized—no, I really want to keep that job for myself. I want to see where our money is going. Once I realized that I wouldn’t choose to give up that job, my aggravation lessened considerably.

Either work to fix the situation, or accept it.

Some examples of things I’ve been trying to do to put an end to my own bad feelings: stop gossiping, call and see members of my family more often, clean up the kitchen after I eat, don’t leave clothes strewn around the bedroom, don’t read the newspaper during my time with my children, don’t fire off an email to the Big Man when I’m annoyed, don’t push past elderly people on the street, make playdates for the Little Girl, start thinking about holiday shopping … and on and on.

Another thing that would make me feel bad is the feeling that I wasn’t pushing myself hard enough: I didn’t have a big enough vision, I wasn’t trying new things, I wasn’t networking, blah, blah. One of my resolutions is to push myself, and I’m doing more of that. In a way, it makes me feel bad because it’s uncomfortable, but it also relieves my bad feelings to believe that I’m doing enough.

Some of the most important things I’m trying to do are too private to record here. The trick is to figure out why you are feeling bad and how you can change that feeling. Either work to fix the situation, or accept it.

If you’re feeling bad about yourself, the way to feel better about yourself is—act better! Your self-esteem will rise when you feel more worthy in your own eyes.

To read more by Gretchen Rubin, visit her site.

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