Revaluing “bad” emotions

August 11th, 2012 by Briana Cummings

As author Taylor Clark argues in a recent Slate article, Americans have a cultural intolerance for bad emotions. “We vilify our aversive emotions and fight them.” Psychologist Steven Hayes says we’ve fallen victim to “feel-goodism,” the false idea that “bad” feelings ought to be eradicated with medication.

This attitude not only ignores the fact that negative emotions are an indelible part of the human condition, but also that negative emotions can be ennobling (when they are unavoidable) — not necessarily a reason to feel shame — and, when we take time to understand them, educational. 

The first noble truth of the Buddha is that when we feel suffering, it doesn’t mean something is wrong. – Pema Chödrön

Fear, pain — the emotions that Americans too often treat as “bad” — can be our greatest gifts. Fear, says Buddhist nun Pema Chödrön, introduces us to all the teaching we’ve ever had. “When things fall apart,” when we lose the security we seek, we can use that moment “either to wake ourselves up or put ourselves to sleep.”

That is, we can use moments of disintegration as opportunities for growth and meaning, to get to know the root of our restlessness and fear and all those things that express themselves in behaviors like aggression or defensiveness or rigidity. Or, we can simply try to numb away our unpleasant feelings by immediately reaching for the closest source of entertainment, distraction, or medication. If we do the latter, we fail to grow.

Only to the extent that we expose ourselves over and over to annihilation can that which is indestructible be found in us.

Because suffering is unavoidable, the quest for everlasting pleasure (what Buddhists call samsara) is a “hopeless cycle that goes round and round endlessly and causes us to suffer greatly.”

The short-term pleasure of addiction is a source of misery that leads to long-term hell.

Rather than try to fight, escape, or distract themselves from unpleasant emotions, Buddhists try to be fully present with them — to move closer to the feeling, just be there with it, become familiar with it. Zen master Kobun Chino describes his relationship with fear: “I agree. I agree.”

2 Responses to “Revaluing “bad” emotions”

  1. August 16, 2012 at 4:22 pm, The Tempest Within | Law School Disrupt said:

    […] pain — the emotions that Americans too often treat as “bad” — can be our greatest gifts. Share this:EmailPrintMoreDigg Pin ItShare on TumblrLike […]


  2. September 21, 2012 at 4:18 am, If you’re anxious, some cultural forces may be at play | Law School Disrupt said:

    […] ← Revaluing “bad” emotions Academic superstars or superstar conformists: Is the race to the top a threat to our […]


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