Feeling Good About Bad Emotions

Feeling Good About Bad Emotions

Excerpt from Imperfect Spirituality , by Polly Campbell

The melanoma on my knee was no bigger than a peppercorn, but the doctors described it as a “deadly form of skin cancer” and I needed surgery to determine whether it had spread. If my lymph nodes were clear, so was I. If cancer was found in them, well then, interferon and a bunch of hope would be required to heal my body. I had the surgery. Then I had two weeks to wait for the results. It was an interesting two weeks.

I wasn’t afraid, though plenty of people were afraid for me, and sent me links to scary malignant mole monster websites to underscore their concern (so not helpful). The mole was already gone, cut out that first day by the doctor, so I figured the cancer was gone too. My thoughts–when I had them–were on good health. Most of the time, I was just trying to keep up with work deadlines and my nine-month-old daughter. I had just enough time in the day to get her fed and dressed and napped and make the calls and write the articles and pay the bills and clean the cat litter. I didn’t have time to worry or think about the what-ifs.

Until 3:21, Thursday morning.

I woke up sweaty, but chilled. My body felt tight. I couldn’t breathe. There was a weight on my chest and in my head and what felt like a plug deep down in my throat that made it hard to swallow. My thoughts–all of them–focused on my sickness and death and what people would say about me at the funeral and how this death thing was going to screw up my whole life. I was petrified all the way through.

It took all the energy I had (and there wasn’t much at 3 a.m. with a baby in the house) just to breathe. Just to push my breath down my throat and into my lungs and back out again

was exhausting. It felt as though I had to will my heart to beat. It lurched and lugged in my chest. Please beat. Please breathe. Breathe again. Beat heart, please.

My daughter is so little, what will she do without me? My husband made jerky last time he tried to cook a round steak. Oh my God, what will they eat? How is this cancer thing going to work? I don’t want to die. These thoughts clicked around my brain like pennies in a dryer, loud and distracting and irrational and loaded with enough ammo to keep me scared and sad and lonely.

The physical pain was potent too. It started in my chest. Sharp shooting pains, snaking through my arms and into my gut. I began crying big fat messy girl tears that ran out of my eyes and back up my nose and into my ears. After a few minutes of this, the pain and tension still pressing against my heart, I came to realize that A.) I was not, in fact, dying in that moment, and B.) I was, I think, experiencing a panic attack.

And, suddenly, instead of fear, I felt fascinated.

I’d written articles about stress and anxiety and I have seen the shows about people debilitated by paralyzing anxiety attacks. But I’d never experienced one nor had I really experienced any deep-seated fear in my life. Sure, there’s been plenty of anxiety and nervousness. But the emotions that came with standing on the edge of a cliff or having a baby (felt like almost the same thing), or starting a business and taking on other big life changes were things that I could work with, manage, move through. Never before had I felt so alone and so immobilized by fear, so at the whim of circumstance.

Now, in the middle of this Scary Melanoma Night, there was nothing to do. I was adrift, panicked, and scared out of my mind. But when I became aware of that, when I noticed all that emotion, the experience changed my life. I’m not saying the panic attack was fun. Nor am I suggesting you should go right on out and let your scary obsessive thoughts hijack your brain until you create your own middleof-the-night freak-out. There are better ways to manage stress. What I am saying, is that usually when the big emotions show

up in our lives, they have something to teach us if only we pay

attention. Thing is, most of us don’t.


Many of us are on this How-To-Be-Happy bandwagon. I’m all for happiness, but there’s something to be said for those funky feeling days too. In fact, the less popular emotions, like anger, sadness, loneliness, boredom, frustration, disappointment, can fuel positive changes and build resilience. Pain is motivating. We are compelled to move out of it. In the process, it offers us clues about where we are and directs us toward where we want to be. From my anxiety-filled night, for example, I learned a little about what others experience. I became more compassionate, grateful, and aware. Jessica Riesenbeck, of Houston, Ohio, felt plenty scared and angry when the company’s new owner cut her benefits at work. But those bad feelings helped her get clear about what she wanted most in life–security for her family–and that set her on a life-changing path for the better.


Too often in this Age of Distraction we find ways to suppress, ignore, and avoid our uncomfortable feelings. We log on, turn on, tune out with Facebook and iPads and iPods and Blackberries and reality television and trips to the mall. We do anything to move from our discomfort to something that feels better without even stopping to examine why we’re feeling bad in the first place.

To constantly shift from bad to better, without noticing what is behind the emotion to begin with, is to limit your life experience, jeopardize your potential, and totally annoy your friends. Often the habits and behaviors we use to distract ourselves also keep us from being genuine and authentic. Sometimes they lead us to addiction and other mind-numbing behaviors that end up hurting us further and dragging down

those around us. Then, aside from our bad feelings, we also have our bad behavior to deal with.

When you cut yourself off from the difficult feelings, you become trapped in an image of the ideal and you spend more time projecting and doing and spending and avoiding than being present and engaged in what is. You stay clueless and disconnected from real life–the harmony and disharmony–and it becomes harder to hear your spirit speak, says Judith Wright, author and personal development expert. Ultimately, by suppressing

your bad feelings, you mute your experience of the good ones too.

The power of emotions is in the contrast. You cannot see light, without recognizing the darkness. There is no music without the space between notes. No happiness, without sadness. It’s only when you are brave and bold enough to experience the negative that you are also free to experience the beauty and power of love and peace and joy.

Only by feeling bad, can you really know how to feel good.


When you make room for whatever it is you are feeling–even if it’s fear or rage or confusion–and look on them with curiosity and awareness, then those powerful feelings can be useful, illuminating, and even motivating.

“That’s why I don’t like to call them ‘negative,’ because emotions are all good even if they don’t ‘feel’ good,” Wright says. “They have vast information and wisdom to guide us.”

It isn’t always comfortable. It is easier, some days, to distract ourselves, to make a Target run, or eat the ice cream, instead of sitting still with our big feelings. If you can recognize

what it is you are feeling, though, before you begin dulling the discomfort, then you can choose behaviors and activities that will elevate your entire experience. In this way, emotions become a source of information and inspiration rather than a punishment to avoid.

Once I understood that my middle-of-the-night panic attack had something more to offer–compassion, knowledge–than just night sweats and stress, I became curious. The fear couldn’t overwhelm me anymore. It became just an aspect of an experience I’d never had before.


Emotions are your own personal guidance system. They are energy. It’s the judgment you assign to them that causes trouble or pain. What if you viewed emotions only as a tool, a

source of data and information? This way, even the bad ones can feel better.

If you’re feeling bored, or impatient, for example, those feelings could be telling you that you’ve strayed too far from your passions or values. Are you quick to snap in anger? Maybe the hostility is hiding a hurt you need to heal before moving forward. Uncomfortable feelings reveal us to ourselves, this is healing and enlightening, whether you like it or not.

by Polly Campbell
Polly Campbell is a writer and speaker specializing in personal development and spiritual topics. Her work appears regularly in national publications and she blogs at ImperfectSpirituality.com, Psychology Today, and she is a course contributor on DailyOm. For more than two decades, Polly has studied and applied the techniques she writes and speaks about to her own life. She lives in Beaverton, OR.