The Myth of “Bad” Feelings, Morality Isn’t For Emotions, and Soul Gardening

POPULAR MYTH:  Some Feelings are “Bad.”

ACTUAL FACT:  It’s impossible for feelings to be ‘bad.’

Feelings are just feelings.  They aren’t moral.  To moralize something means to decide that it’s an issue of goodness or badness.  If something is a moral issue, it requires you to decide what side it’s on.  Is it good?  Is it evil?  Better get it right!

But feelings aren’t moral.  They just are.  Dogs know this, but it’s something that humans can sure struggle with, especially when they come from communities or families that moralize feelings.  I call that “Good/Badding.”  That’s when you can’t feel anything without having to decide whether that feeling is good or bad.  What a pain in the rump.

We dogs just feel what we feel.  And it’s okay.

Are some feelings uncomfortable or unpleasant?  Of course.

But the feelings aren’t morally wrong.  Because feelings aren’t bad.  Some just aren’t very fun to experience.  That’s quite different from being bad.

Moralizing feelings creates all sorts of problems for humans.  Once you moralize something, you have to act on what you’ve moralized.  If it’s bad, you’d better defend yourself against it (or attack it, or RUN).  This is why the human brain, having decided that some feelings are bad, will then do all sorts of wild things in an attempt to get rid of the “bad” feelings.  Because “bad” is something that you naturally want to protect yourself from.

Examples of the natural protective urges include rage, defensiveness, self-righteousness, silence, sarcasm, stuffing, denial, self-sabotage, condemnation, shame, avoidance, contempt, and so much more.  These are all things that harm our relationships with others and with our own selves.  Ugh.  Interestingly, while these things are all done in order to avoid those big “bad” feelings, the attempts all end up causing even more difficult feelings in the end.

In actuality, the problem isn’t the difficult feeling.

The problem is how the human is relating to the feeling.

If you are alive, then you’ve felt an unpleasant feeling a time or two.  Emotions like sadness, anger, frustration, shame, anxiousness, terror, disgust—those can all be so difficult to experience, especially when they are intense.  But they aren’t bad.  Emotions aren’t right or wrong.  They just are, so please do stop good/badding them.  Why?  Because how we think about our emotions makes a big difference in how we can then choose to handle them.  If you aren’t wasting your energy making an emotion bad (which then makes it a threat to you), you will then have energy to relate to the emotion in a healthy way.

This one time, my human buddy took me to a hockey rink to sit in the stands with her and, I swear, I thought that the bleachers were going to swallow me whole!  She kept telling me that I was safe, but I was having big feelings and they were NOT fun to feel.  My whole body was shaking and I just wanted to run away.

She just kept petting me and reassuring me that I was going to be fine.  That was nice.  I’ve noticed that when humans get mean (or scared) about their unpleasant emotions because they mistakenly think the emotion is bad, they never make it through to the other side of them.  So do try to pet your poor anxious self when you are feeling the feels.  Especially focus around the ears.  Oh, yeah.  That spot right there.

The Holy Book of Animal Wisdom, written into my DNA code, says,

“Be nice to yourself when you are having difficult emotions.”

I do wish humans would read from that book more often.

It can be hard to not be afraid of your unpleasant emotions if no one ever taught you how to be nice to yourself way back when you were a little pup.  But you can still learn how to take care of your feelings now.  It’s never too late.

If you think about this scientifically, emotions are part of our built-in survival network.  That’s not a bad or good thing.  It’s just biological.  I have anxiety about some things for a reason.  My body and brain are wired to keep me safe.  When I encounter a new thing that I don’t yet have information about, such as (big, loud, bright, populated!) hockey rinks, my wonderful and amazing brain logs it as something that might be a threat.  The surge of anxiety it sends helps me stay alert and ready to respond, if needed, to a problem.

That emotional response of anxiety is there to help me to stay safe.  It’s natural.  I don’t create it or think about it or cause it.  It’s a feeling.  It just happens to me.

I don’t have to obey it.  But I also don’t have to discount it, run from it, or stuff it.

I can just notice it.

“Hm.  I’m feeling anxiety.  Would ya look at that…”

My body wasn’t sure if this was safe, so it filled me up with a feeling so that I could be ready to run or fight if needed.  Makes sense.  In this case, though, I was safe.  (Or so my sidekick says.  I’m still working on this one).  She is the soothing voice that helps me learn that it’s okay to be in this bright loud place.  As I slowly learn that the rink is not a threat to me, I can gradually relax and then can adjust my worldview to incorporate hockey rinks as yet one more fun place to spend time with my humans.

I can look at my emotions kindly, with curiosity, just noticing them, and then I can decide what to do with them.

Because I am willing to endure the feelings, walking through my anxiety, I will get to move out to the other side of it and get more of what I want out of my life, which happens to be to accompany my humans EVERYWHERE they go.  Maybe next they will let me try going to that ska-oool place.  It looks amazing.  All those kids just sitting around with no dog to pet.  And so many pencils to chew on.  Mmmmm.

Being sentient beings on this planet means that we will have unpleasant emotions.  Making peace with this is an important part of embracing life.  And learning what in the world to do with the emotions, once we’ve made peace with the fact that they will be there, is where gaining wisdom comes in.

As I mentioned earlier, some people ascribe to the method of getting rid of The “Bad” Feelz.  But when you say no to one sort of emotions, you also say no to all of the other ones.  There is no such thing as only shutting down the “bad” emotions.

Think about all of the things that you might feel during a typical day.  There are a lot of emotions happening, aren’t there?  Unpleasant emotions often come all mixed together with enjoyable emotions.  Emotions can be a lot like a big ball of yarn.  Yes, I said that especially for my cat loving fans.  Even if cats are mostly unpleasant.  But I digress.

If you run around moralizing the unpleasant emotions, calling them bad and trying to get rid of them, you will have to throw out the whole ball of yarn and end up missing out on the lovely emotions that were there for you to experience!  What a bummer that would be.  Especially if you have a cat.

Fortunately, there is a simple fix for this.  It’s found in not good/badding your feelings.  Because feelings, in and of themselves, aren’t moral.  They just happen.  You don’t choose them.  They instantly and naturally arise.  They just pop up, like bubbles from the bottom of a spring pond.  It’s what you do with the feelings that can become an issue of good or bad (or healthy versus unhealthy).

Adulting is hard. Frequent naps are recommended.

Though, yes, it’s hard work to handle feelings in a healthy way, especially if you haven’t learned how to do it yet.  It takes some effort and practice (and a lot of compassion for yourself while you’re trying to grow yourself up).

It’s a lot like planting a garden, only this one is in your soul.  You have to dig around a lot in the dirt.  Your back might get sore.  You will probably need to consult books and expert gardeners for help from time to time.  Your fingernails will definitely get gross.  You will put in a huge effort and then it will just look like nothing is happening for awhile.  When (finally!) some evidence of your hard work starts becoming visible, it will be only be in the form of little baby shoots of green.  Tender.  Delicate.  Looking nothing like a mature plant.  Ugh.  You will then have to carefully weed on a regular basis, because unwanted things might try to grow in all that nice fresh soil.  And there still won’t be any actual fruit for a while.  You will have to trust the process.   But it’s worth it.

There is a really nice harvest, for those who are willing to get their hands dirty.

Feelings aren’t bad.  They are part of who you are.  And you aren’t bad.  If you doubt me, consult your Holy Book of Animal Wisdom.  It says that you are precious and definitely worthy of love.  Trust me.  I’m a dog.  I know stuff.

Can Counseling Help Me? Where Do I Start? Because John Wayne Didn’t Go to a Counselor…

Dear Hagrid,

My wife says I should see a counselor for help, unless I’d rather move out.  I’d like to be mad at her for the ultimatum, but, honestly, I can see where she’s coming from.  I always said I’d never be like my dad, but I think I’ve turned into him. I don’t hit her, like my dad did to my mom, but I know I’m a butt when I don’t get my way.

Growing up, we made fun of people who went to counseling.  You were supposed to be John Wayne, I guess, and just figure it out by yourself.  Well, that hasn’t worked.   I know that I can be better than this. And I don’t want to lose my wife.  I love her.  But, counseling?  Can you help me understand how getting a counselor could help?


Dear Ex-John Wayne

Thanks for being real.  Humans tend to like talking in circles, avoiding the truth, and thus never really getting anywhere, whereas in the canine world, our noses are quite adept at scenting baloney.  You smell like a man who is ready to work to make needed changes, despite your anxiety about counseling (and those are elements of John Wayne that are worth keeping).  You also sound like a man who loves his wife.

Counselors are Like Trail Guides

Here’s the thing about going to counseling.  You are still the boss of you.  So don’t worry about losing your ability to make your own decisions about your life.

Some people go to counseling looking for someone to fix them.  Literally.  Like the counselor will have a magic wand to wave and all problems will be solved.  Like, they won’t have to take any actions or make any changes.  But it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to realize that change requires, well, change.

Without my help as a trail-guide, my sidekick would be stuck walking on the boring parts of the path, only staying on the paved trails, and thus missing out on all the best stuff. Thanks to me, she has had to run all over the place…

The counselor or therapist isn’t the one actually living your life.  You are.  It’s your path.  So, for change to happen, change has to be something that you commit to and then you follow that up by actions.  New healthy actions.  Over and over.  Until they become old habits. The most caring or skilled counselor in the world can’t make a dent in your problems unless you are willing to do the work, inside and outside of the counselor’s office.

Seeing a counselor is a partnership, of sorts.  They walk with you on your journey, like a mountaineering guide helping someone through a particularly difficult terrain—one you haven’t been able to get through all by yourself—but  it’s always your journey.  I know a lot about this because I help my human with this all the time. Continue reading Can Counseling Help Me? Where Do I Start? Because John Wayne Didn’t Go to a Counselor…

The Anxiety of “What If”–Finding the Right Path, Getting it Perfect, and the Terror of Change

How do you know that you are on the right path in life?  I’m in college and almost done with my nursing degree, and I’m terrified that I made a really stupid decision that I’m going to be stuck with.  I’m 24 and only getting older. What if I don’t like being a nurse?  I feel like I just wasted four years and I’m panicking.

Dear Nice College Student Person,

Old?  As a 24-year-old human, you aren’t even a 3-year-old dog yet.  Just saying.

As for your almost-completion of nursing school, that’s quite an accomplishment.  Nursing degrees are tougher than most, or so my RN pals tell me, so you clearly have some brains and the ability to use them.  But, I know, that’s not actually what you are asking me about.

Nice Human, you are suffering from a malady that infects most members of your species, and, though I can teach you how to cope with it, I’m not going to be able to cure you of it completely.  This is because, while it is certainly a pain in the ass, it’s also one of the great gifts that comes with having a human brain. Continue reading The Anxiety of “What If”–Finding the Right Path, Getting it Perfect, and the Terror of Change