When are we “allowed” to feel angry, or even disappointed, with someone?
It seems like a straightforward question, with a straightforward answer: of course we’re allowed to be angry or disappointed with someone whenever we are, you know, angry or disappointed with someone.
But for many people, it’s not that simple.
Many of us have been taught to attach significant feelings of guilt to getting angry with someone.
Others have been taught that we don’t have the right to feel disappointed in others, given that our own behavior is rarely perfect.
This then leads us to a place where we’re undeniably FEELING certain things, most often “negative” feelings, about our fellow human beings; but we’re also experiencing what Dr. Albert Ellis called “secondary disturbances” ABOUT those feelings we’re having.
That is, we’re feeling bad about feeling bad.
It can turn into a vicious cycle.
What often happens next is a tug-of-war with ourselves, one that can wear on our self-esteem. After all, it’s hard to convince yourself that your feelings and judgments have value— a conviction that is a core component of self-esteem— if we’re constantly second-guessing and feeling bad about those feelings and judgments.
Let’s be clear: you absolutely have the right to feel what you feel, when you feel it.
It’s good we have that right, because you’re GOING to feel, whenever you feel it, regardless of whether you have a “right” to or not. Feelings are emotional reactions that flare up from the limbic system in our brains; they’re not considered responses that come out of reasoned decision making.
So why do so many of us have so many mixed-to-negative feelings about experiencing “bad” feelings?
There are mainly two reasons.
One reason is that many of us have been bombarded for years with messages about what it means to be a “good” person.
We’re often told, directly or indirectly, that being a “good” person is the sum total of not only our behaviors— but our thoughts and feelings as well.
This leads to a distorted expectation that, if we’re to be as virtuous as our parents and religions and culture desire us to be, we shouldn’t only DO good things…we have to automatically, instinctively think and feel good things, too.
Talk about a ridiculous, unfounded expectation.
I’ll ruin the suspense: “good” people think and feel “bad” things. In fact, if Sigmund Freud— who got a lot more right than he got wrong in his work— is to be believed, “good” people think “bad” thoughts an awful lot.
The difference between a “good” and “bad” person is not in how they feel or think— much of that is hard-wired into our neurobiology, especially the “feeling” part.
What makes a person “good” or “ethical” is how they respond to those thoughts and feelings. How they BEHAVE.
The second reason many people experience secondary disturbances about feeling bad is, the culture has overblown the link between feeling and behaving.
Many of us grow up thinking that if they THINK something or FEEL something, the BEHAVIOR that flows from those thoughts and feelings is instantaneous and unavoidable.
This is categorically untrue.
We can think and feel a LOT of things…but not act on them.
Nowhere is this more evident than in addiction treatment.
Addicts spend a lot of time obsessively thinking they want something, and experiencing feelings that would make having that thing really, really nice…but when addicts are in recovery, they break the connection between those thoughts and feelings, and the behavior of picking up their substance of choice.
Thinking “bad” thoughts does NOT lead to “bad” behavior.
It CAN, however…if we don’t clearly understand that while our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors do INFLUENCE each other all the time…they don’t DETERMINE each other.
We have free will when it comes to behavior. It is influenced, but not governed, by our thoughts and feelings.
It may not feel like it all the time, but it’s true.
When we start to get used to the fact that we can have judgmental or angry thoughts and feelings about someone, but not hate them; not want to hurt them; indeed, we can want the best for someone with whom we’re angry or disappointed, even help them…then we start to relax about our “bad” thoughts and feelings.
Be angry. Be disappointed. Feel whatever you feel, whenever you feel it.
You are more than your feeling states.
Subscribe to the Doc’s free weekly email newsletter and never miss a blog or social media post!