Most people think about painful emotions as viruses—destructive invaders that should be eliminated as soon as possible…
- Feel anxious? Quick, what’s a coping strategy I can use to make it go away!
- Feel sad? Quick, what’s an activity I can do to keep my mind off it!
- Feel Angry? Quick, what’s a technique I can use to calm down!
The problem is that your emotions—even the really painful ones—are not foreign invaders trying to hurt you. Quite the opposite, in fact: your emotions are part of you and they’re just trying to help!
- You feel anxious because your brain thinks something is dangerous and wants to keep you safe.
- You feel sad because you’ve lost something valuable and your brain thinks you should reflect on that.
- You feel angry because your brain perceives some injustice to have occurred and wants you to rectify it.
Of course, your brain and the emotions it unleashes can be misguided sometimes. In fact, quite a lot of the time our emotions are based on faulty information or reasoning.
But that doesn’t mean they’re bad—enemies out to get you.
Just because an emotion feels bad doesn’t mean it is bad.
But when you get in the habit of treating painful emotions like enemies to be avoided or eliminated, you frequently miss out on the times when they are legitimately helpful and therefore something worth listening to.
In the rest of this article, I’m going to walk through a handful of emotions we often ignore but are worth paying a lot more attention to because they usually have something important to tell us.
“To feel envy is human, to savour schadenfreude is devilish.”
― Arthur Schopenhauer
Envy is one of those emotions that, for whatever reason, people immediately think of as icky or gross. We rarely talk about feeling envious or jealous openly. And when we do, we usually feel a lot of shame or guilt around it.
But at the end of the day, desiring something other people have (or desire) is a pretty normal reaction…
- If your coworker gets a big promotion and raise, it’s natural that you would feel jealous and want one too.
- If your best friends post some amazing videos on Instagram from their trip to Iceland, it’s natural to feel envious of them and their trip.
Like any emotion, envy itself is not bad or dangerous—it’s how you respond to it that matters.
One problematic response to feeling envy is that you become obsessed with the object of your envy and start ruminating on it. In addition to making you feel even more envious (and perhaps resentful eventually), there are the emotional opportunity costs to consider… All the time and mental energy you’ve spent dwelling on what someone else has and how you don’t is all time and energy that could have been productivity invested elsewhere.
But the more problematic response to envy has to do with values. Specifically, if the feeling of envy leads you to confuse other people’s values and goals for your own, you’re in for trouble. When you invest significant financial resources into lavish vacations or a home in the “good” neighborhood simply because that’s what the people you envy are doing, well, it’s not hard to see how that gets problematic.
When you make your decisions based on other people’s values, you end up living someone else’s life.
On the other hand, rather than immediately avoiding the feeling of envy—and keeping yourself in denial about it—what if you used it as a cue to self-reflect about what you really want?
- If you notice yourself feeling jealous of a friend’s amazing Instagram vacation photos, maybe that’s envy trying to tell you something?
- Not that you need to take the exact same trip to Iceland, necessarily. But perhaps that you’re craving more adventure or variety in your life?
- Or maybe that you value spending quality time with your family doing fun things but haven’t really been doing it much lately?
Rather than immediately avoiding envy, judging yourself for it, or acting on it impulsively, try to get curious about it.
Because very often envy is a useful cue for thinking more deeply about your values and the things that matter most.
“All your life, other people will try to take your accomplishments away from you. Don’t you take it away from yourself.”
― Michael Crichton
I’m always surprised at how hard people work to avoid admitting that they’re proud of themselves. It’s as if they’re afraid that the tiniest admission of pride will lead to a hellstorm of fire and brimstone raining down upon them and every important person in their life will immediately cast them out for being too self-centered.
I mean, I get it… A lot of people grew up being told that it’s never okay to express pride in yourself or even actively reprimanded for it. And in some religious circles, anything resembling pride is seen to be sinful and bad.
But let’s take a step back and reconsider the emotion of pride…
Just because you admit some amount of pride and positive feelings about your accomplishments doesn’t mean you’re a completely self-centered narcissist. It’s a spectrum. And the slope isn’t that slippery.
In fact, in my experience, the extreme avoidance of pride is actually more problematic. For one thing, it’s hard to have genuinely close relationships with people if you’re so self-effacing that you can’t accept a compliment or acknowledge someone’s praise for you. It’s also hard to maintain healthy self-esteem if you’re constantly devaluing your accomplishments out of fear of being too prideful.
Being allergic to pride is just as bad as being addicted to it.
Like so many things in life, feeling pride falls on a spectrum. And while overdoing it can be problematic, that’s probably not a good reason to simply avoid it altogether.
What’s more, people who have an unhealthy relationship with pride often conflate feeling pride vs acting prideful. It doesn’t make a lot of sense to claim the feeling of pride is bad if it’s not something you have control over (and we don’t have direct control over any of our emotions).
So go ahead and pump the brakes on acting arrogantly, ignoring other people and making everything about you, bragging about insignificant accomplishments, and the like if that’s really something you struggle with.
But simply acknowledging your own accomplishments and feeling good about yourself for them is a very different thing.
Pride is just your mind’s way of communicating to you that you’ve done something worthwhile and important. And just like we make a point to congratulate other people on a job well done, why not extend the same courtesy to yourself?
Remember: your successes and accomplishments are just as much a part of you as your failures and imperfections.
“Do not scorn pity that is the gift of a gentle heart”
― J.R.R. Tolkien
Pity is another one of those emotions that people seem weirdly avoidant of.
Sure, you often hear people say things like: Don’t pity me! But honestly, so what?
First of all, pity is an emotion, not a behavior. It’s not something you do—it’s something you feel. So the request/demand to not pity someone doesn’t make a ton of sense. It’s kind of like telling someone: Don’t sad me! Don’t angry me! Don’t happy me!
But also, why should someone else get to decide whether you feel pity or not?
It’s not about them—it’s your emotion. You can do whatever you want with it. They might not want you to feel pity or sadness in response to their situation. And that’s fine—they can want and say anything they like. But how you feel emotionally isn’t really up to them.
The other reason we tend to avoid pity, I think, is because like most forms of sadness it makes us feel helpless too.
You see someone experience pain or misfortune and often there isn’t much you can do to help. This leads to feeling powerless, helpless, even inadequate. Think about your kid feeling sad after being teased at school. Or your spouse feeling sad after their sibling suddenly passed away.
We don’t like feeling sad. But that doesn’t mean feeling sad is bad. Similarly, we often feel sad for other people who are feeling sad (that’s pity). But that doesn’t mean feeling pity is bad. It just is.
- You feel afraid when something’s scary.
- You feel angry when an injustice has happened.
- You feel guilty when you’ve done something wrong.
- You feel pride when you’ve done something well.
- And you feel pity when someone you love or care about is struggling.
What’s the big deal?! Emotions like sadness and pity are completely normal.
But in addition to being normal and natural, pity can also be extremely helpful—if you pay attention to it instead of immediately avoiding it. Here’s one big reason why:
It’s hard to be compassionate if you never feel pity.
Compassion is the mental act of putting yourself into someone else’s shoes and seeing the world through their eyes, which then often leads to acts of charity, kindness, forgiveness, and the like.
And while it’s always technically possible to be compassionate regardless of how you feel, it’s a lot easier to be compassionate if you allow yourself to feel pity. But if you habitually ignore or repress your feelings of pity, it’s going to be harder to act compassionately.
So, the next time you feel something like pity for someone, remind yourself that A) It’s a perfectly normal and valid feeling, and B) It’s an opportunity to practice a little compassion.
Want to build a healthier relationship with your emotions?
I teach a six-week course called Mood Mastery that’s all about building mental strength and resilience by cultivating a healthier relationship with your emotions. Learn more here →