‘What’s So Bad About Feeling Good?’

A woman soaks in the hot tub at a spa.The phrase rolled off my tongue with an eerie familiarity. After a quick Google search, I knew why. While I had no recollection of the 1968 film by the same name, watching the first ten minutes gave me a quirky, 60‘s cultural context for “What’s so bad about feeling good?”

The movie portrayed the “true intellectuals” of the day, Beatniks, living in New York City’s East Village. They had found the true meaning of life; there was no meaning to anything; and the world was going to end.

The farfetched plot featured a disease-carrying toucan bird. People, once bitten, found themselves infected with a severe case of happiness. Commonly held beliefs of “normal” and “sick” became juxtaposed. Sick people couldn’t help but be nice. Normal folks maintained predictable mean and ruthless attitudes toward each other. In the movie, this plague of niceness threatened humanity!

For 15 years, as a clinical social worker in private practice, I have watched clients struggle to cross the threshold from negative into positive thinking. I have been quite curious about why it is so hard for people to remember the good stuff and so easy for them to hold on to the bad.

The reason most people decide to go for counseling support is because they want to feel good, enjoy life more. Many try to embrace positive thinking, only to feel like they are “failures at therapy!” The bad thoughts are like habits, hard to break.

Why does negativity have such a powerful pull? People have a strong instinct for emotional—as well as physical—survival. I call it our “Soldier Part.” A soldier is on guard, always, protecting us from harm. We do things for a reason. Negative thinking, worry, and fear serve us well. Being on high alert, especially when we are trying not to get hurt, keeps us from getting hurt. Right?

Yes and no. Internal conflicts, talking showdowns in our heads, are common struggles. The battles are between the parts of us that want to enjoy life and the parts that don’t want to get hurt.

In 2014, as a much more evolved practitioner, I “meet people where they are.” Negativity is often the place. I don’t get too many calls when things are going well. I invite the people I work with to explore how they came to think the way they think. I ask them to have curiosity about the people who and the experiences that have taught them how to think. Together, we contemplate their life experiences, viewing them as our valuable teachers. Understandably, our minds reflect back to childhood, where it all began.

When I first meet a client, I take out a blank piece of paper and draw a straight line. After scribbling a childlike stick figure on the left, I write the word “NOW” on the right. Then, I draw two taller stick figures, placing them beside the “child” and call them “the big people.” I point out, as kids, we have no filter, no voice, and no mobility! It all gets in!

A child’s developing mind is like a sponge, impressionable to messages from others, especially parents and other adults. These messages teach a child how to view himself or herself and the world around them. I ask my client to take a moment to consider this suggestion: “Parents raise their children in their own images, to fit into a world the way they see it.”

Curiosity is natural in childhood, but often (directly and indirectly) discouraged by authority figures. I create a safe place for each client to think about things they have rarely questioned.

I ask everyone to take a minute, look at their timeline, reflect upon their journey, and just notice what thoughts come to mind. “Our work begins with awareness. We owe it to ourselves to know why we think what we think.” Unlike when you are a child, as an adult, you now have choice. If you don’t like how you think, you may choose to think differently.”

So, what’s so bad about feeling good? Nothing—feeling good is the goal of counseling for many, but it is important to appreciate the protective value of feeling bad. This is a great place to begin.

© Copyright 2014 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Pandora L. MacLean-Hoover, LICSW, therapist in Newburyport, Massachusetts

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Marina

    Marina

    January 22nd, 2014 at 10:37 AM

    What’s so bad about feeling good?

    Truthfully, I feel bad when I feel good but no one esle in my circle does. And that kinmda brings me down, which I hate but it feels like I am rubbing their faces in it if all of the time I talk about how good things are going for me but none of them are having the same kind of luck in their own lives.

    Why should I feel bad about that? No really sure; I would hope that my own happiness would in some way rub off on them and they would catch a little of it too but instead I think that it just makes them kind of annoyed with me.

  • Pandora MacLean-Hoover

    Pandora MacLean-Hoover

    January 22nd, 2014 at 1:47 PM

    Marina,

    It is wonderful to read that you have many things going well in your life! Enjoy every one of these moments.

    You are raising an interesting point about having a circle of friends whose lives aren’t going as well. In particular, you mention they appear to be “annoyed” with your happiness. It certainly makes logical sense that their moods be raised by yours.

    There are reasons your friends are stuck in their unhappiness. I don’t know them. Therefore, I cannot say why. However, we do things for a reason or we wouldn’t. I strongly suspect their attitude toward your happiness is not about you. It may be helpful to acknowledge their affect, “Clearly you are uncomfortable when I talk about… .” Hopefully, this will show you to be a caring friend who cares enough to notice. It will also help you remain positive about the good things that are happening for you.

  • Marina

    Marina

    January 23rd, 2014 at 3:40 AM

    Thanks for the suggestions!
    I don’t want to lose friends over this but at the same time I don’t think that I should have to diminish my own life and feelings for theirs.
    Take care!

  • Pandora MacLean-Hoover

    Pandora MacLean-Hoover

    January 24th, 2014 at 1:48 PM

    You are quite welcome.
    Thank you for reading the article and leaving thoughtful comments.

  • kaley

    kaley

    January 23rd, 2014 at 3:29 PM

    Wouldn’t you say that most of us are really scared of embracing the bad thoughts that we could be having so instead we set up this falseness of only good in life. Life can’t always be this way but I think that some people would much rather live a lie than face the truth.

  • Pandora MacLean-Hoover

    Pandora MacLean-Hoover

    January 24th, 2014 at 1:39 PM

    Good point Kaley!
    Former U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt said, “The only thing to fear is fear itself.”
    I remind clients that, “Fear creates a roadblock to the information highway, keeping us from valuable insight about ourselves and others. Without acknowledging fear, how will we know to run?” This is only one example, but it gets people thinking.
    Denial, often referred to as “kidding ourselves,” is a protective coping mechanism. It works…until it doesn’t.
    Thanks for your interest in the article and for leaving a comment.

  • Daniel

    Daniel

    January 24th, 2014 at 3:44 AM

    You may have the desire to truly change your life but the pull of that negativity can be quite strong, and like you said, a habit that is hard to break if this is all that you have ever known.

  • Pandora MacLean-Hoover

    Pandora MacLean-Hoover

    January 24th, 2014 at 1:47 PM

    Yes, indeed Daniel!
    As a Therapist, I am very sensitive to the shame, guilt and harsh judgment many clients experience (about themselves) when a part of them sincerely wants to change and another part doesn’t. These are internal conflicts. Each part works for the same “self,” but the pull can be like a tug-of-war.
    Thank you for reading my piece and for taking the time to write a comment.

  • bianca

    bianca

    January 25th, 2014 at 4:39 AM

    For the most part I think that society looks down on feeling bad, like this isn’t supposed to be a part of life anymore and that we should instead strive for this sense of false perfection that makes us all feel better.

    Why not instead of this take some of this and really check out what is making us feel so bad and work on honestly changing that, and learning that it is okay form time to time to feel a little down. Life is not always going to be a bed of roses, I don’t think that there is anything to learn when things always go 100% right all the time.

    The only time we learn is through making a few mistakes every now and then and then determining how to turn that into something that we can learn and grow from.

  • Pandora MacLean-Hoover

    Pandora MacLean-Hoover

    January 25th, 2014 at 2:12 PM

    Bianca,
    I agree.
    I refer to the “need for building a tolerance (or comfort level) for a full range of emotions, especially the uncomfortable ones.”
    A large percentage of my work is devoted to teaching my clients how to be “healthy mad or sad.” It is better than ignoring these feelings or pretending they aren’t real.
    Thanks for reading the blog. It takes time to comment. I appreciate your effort. It keeps the subject alive and the ideas flowing.

  • Penelope

    Penelope

    January 27th, 2014 at 3:44 AM

    In some ways we have been brainwashed by tv, books, etc that it is bad to feel bad. How are we supposed to know what feeling good is really all about if we don’t also allow ourselves to experience the opposite end of the spectrum as well? If we try to mute those feelings too much then I think that in the end feeling good becomes meaningless as well, something that we take for granted and stop appreciating.

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