I just want to feel happy all the time, what's wrong with that?
So many people ask me, "what's the point of feeling sad?" It's actually a great question. For many people feeling or expressing "negative" emotions like sadness, anger or fear have only led to more negative experiences. It makes sense to ask what's the point of feeling emotions if they only lead to bad experiences. It doesn't have to be this way though - feeling emotions, even negative ones, can have a positive outcome. The way that we learn how to feel and manage both wanted and unwanted emotions can have a huge impact on our mental health and overall well-being.
What's the point of feeling emotions? Emotions have an important role in social connection, stress management and boundaries
When we talk about managing emotions, many people think this means pushing away certain emotions so that we don’t feel them. And while this can work for a time, it has some challenges as a long-term plan. Why is that? Emotions, like everything else in our body, have a purpose. Our emotional system is just as important as our circulatory system or skeletal system.
Emotions do the following things:
Create a sense of aliveness and connection
Communicate our feelings and needs to ourselves and others
Discharge the energy of stressful experiences from our nervous system
Defend the boundaries of ourselves and others
When we’re ok with experiencing a range of emotions, they can be like weather systems that come and go. Some days are sunny, some rainy. There are seasons when it’s cold and other seasons when it’s warm. Sometimes there will be the occasional storm. All of those weather systems are needed in order to support life on earth - without the rain, there would be no water to drink or bathe in, and if we are unable to feel sadness, we may end up living in a way that feels emotionally dry, empty or brittle.
Why we might avoid or suppress emotions
If emotions were seen as neutral, we would have less need to avoid or suppress them. Unfortunately, in many cultures and families they’re not. Emotions are often labelled as weak, vulnerable or a liability. At some point we get mocked or teased for being a crybaby, told that big boys don’t cry, or that it’s not nice for girls to be angry. Or worse, we feel sad and nobody cares or even notices.
There’s a whole other conversation that could be had here about patriarchy and its role in associating emotion with femininity, both of which are seen as less-than. But in one way or another, most of us get the message growing up that certain emotions are embarrassing, shameful, overwhelming or even dangerous, and we learn how to shut them down to stay safe.
What can happen when we avoid emotions
While avoiding emotions can be necessary in some situations, it comes at a cost over the long term. Any time we push something out of awareness, either consciously or unconsciously, it takes a little bit of energy to hold it there, which can be exhausting over time. With emotion blocked, we could feel empty, meaningless, disconnected or lonely. We might also feel anxious, on edge or unable to relax, as stress builds up with no way to release it.
Another common outcome of avoiding emotion is that it becomes really hard to make decisions. Emotion tells us how we feel about something - what we want or don’t want. Without access to that internal compass, we end up making decisions based solely on logic, or what other people tell us is important. This can end up with us living lives that look great on the outside but feel terrible on the inside, or getting stuck in decision paralysis when there is no clear answer to what we should do.
Fully experiencing emotions brings us from black and white into colour
Blocking one emotion blocks it all - happy and sad, excited and scared. Allowing yourself to feel sad when sad things happen also opens up more access to feeling happy, connected and fully alive the rest of the time. Our brains are able to learn, grow and change throughout our lifespan, and it's never too late to begin learning how to feel and regulate your emotions in a different way.
Learning how to feel emotions again is something that can take some time, space, nuance and individual support. However, even beginning to have some curiosity and appreciation of our emotional system and the important role it plays in our overall well-being is a great place to start.