Sunday, December 26, 2010

Feeling Good About Feeling Bad

I’m not sure if other people experience this, but something I’ve found to be particularly frustrating about feeling bad is the way it tends to make me bad. What I mean is, I feel bad over something, then it builds on itself, and I feel bad for feeling bad. And on the downward spiral goes.

A typical example would be when I try to remember something that I feel I should know. I’m not sure if it is my imagination, but my memory seems to be a lot worse than it used to be. I don’t have any memory tests to judge it by, but given that I am gradually getting older, have been dealing with depression and anxiety for some time, and didn’t have the greatest memory to begin with, it doesn’t seem a stretch that my memory has gotten worse.

I will try to remember something from the past, sometimes in response to a question, sometimes just because I am trying to recall a name or a fact for myself. I try to remember but can’t. Then I get a bit frustrated. I try to remember. I try to force myself to remember. It generally doesn’t work, and then I often go into a self-hating spiral of thinking, something along the lines of “Why the hell can’t I remember this simple thing? I should be able to! Why do I have such a shit brain?”

The same thing happens in large social situations, where I have always felt uncomfortable. I then feel bad about feeling bad, and sometimes leave feeling exhausted, thinking something like “I’ve been dealing with people my whole life, and I suck at it! I should have figured out how to do this by now! I suck!”

I could go on, but I think you get the picture. The word “should” tends to feature prominently, along with feelings in inadequacy, stupidity, and a general sense of being a total failure.

Although I am not quite at the stage where I am feeling good about feeling bad, I am gradually reaching the stage where feeling bad doesn’t make me feel worse. When I can’t remember something, where I feel awkward in a social situation or say something stupid, I feel the annoyance, but I don’t seem to feel the need to beat myself up about it quite so much anymore.

I think that I am doing the best that I can. I think that we all are. I am increasingly coming to believe that there is no free will that exists magically independent of the million things that have led up to the current moment. I think things are the way they are, and could not be otherwise. That being the case, “should” is meaningless. The psychologist Albert Ellis used to refer to people having unhelpful mental habits of “shoulding all over themselves” or "musterbating" and making themselves feel terrible, and I think he was on to something.

I don't seem to have such a strong need to "should" myself these days. I seem to have less stress and more acceptance of the way things are. I'd like this to continue into the future, and just maybe I'll find a little more peace.


  1. If there is no free will, then there can be no voluntary acceptance of the fact that there is no free will. Some will continue to think that free will exists, and they can not change this fact about themselves anymore than those who think that free will does not exist have the power to change that fact about themselves.

  2. There is this saying you may have heard, "shoulda, coulda, woulda", referring to how people say, "we should have done this instead", or 'this could have been better". I have a family member who deals with Bipolar Disorder and has a very negative outlook on life in general. No matter what the subject is, she will always, without fail, say how it "should have" or "could have" been better. Always. It is such an annoying thing that it bothers the whole family and it ha led me to try to avoid doing the same. But I do have the bad habit of mulling things over and thinking about how I wish I could have done something better than I did, and getting mad at myself because I didn't do as well as I "should" have. It's a bad habit, and I try to avoid doing it, though I am not always successful at that.

  3. I think you're definitely making loads of progress, as long as I've know you anyway. Sure, our memory kind of farts away with age, but one advantage of getting older is that you gradually learn to be kinder to yourself. Screw the 'shoulds'!

  4. Generally I forget most things seconds after I decide to do them. I'll be in the shower, completely oblivious to the fact that before getting in the shower I had decided to bring the laundry downstairs, and before that in the process of thinking about the laundry I forgot to put the lid back on the margarine and put it back in the fridge, its still sitting on the counter. Twice this week I had to turn around and go back home on my way to work because I forgot my smokes and only realize it while I'm trying to light-up while walking. I blame it on the all the weed in my teenage years. Anything really important goes in the notebook so I can't forget.

    No worries though. I read copiously but don't worry about being able to quote passages or anything. Reading only helps us form our own opinions, no need to recite stuff. And I'm probably beyond help in social situations, so as long as I don't smell bad and aren't drooling or something...

    Couple of philosophy gems I'm grappling with now:

    Freedom is the lack of necessity.

    Society determines consciousness.

    Wonder if depression is a only a symptom of a larger social problem, or is just DNA/chemical imbalances, etc.?

    And does it manifest itself more, or less in higher developed countries?

  5. I would beat myself up over and over when I was younger and thought I couldn't do something that was expected of me. The same happened when I interacted with people. Even if I often had negative feelings toward them, like anger, I would never be able to voice it, let alone admit it even to myself. I was literally feeling bad about feeling bad. As I was reading this post, however, I began to think that I seem to be slowly able to tell myself that it's OK to feel my feelings no matter how ugly they seem at times.

    There was a time when I was fanatically reading some books by Albert Ellis and David Burns. Although there were many things in the books I wanted to apply in my everyday life, I always ended up just repeating the contents to myself like a mantra. When my depression caused the fatal and final break of my relationship with my family, however, something dramatically changed in me. I'm not sure how I put this state of mind into words, but I think I'm slowly taking steps to accepting that things are the way they are.

    Today is New Year's Day, and I was feeling a little angry and sad because some flashbacks from the past appeared out of nowhere. Yet, I didn't feel so bad about feeling bad - This is probably what you call "feeling good about feeling bad." I'm scared of the future, especially when I think about work. I just hope I can continue to allow myself to feel what I feel and achieve all the resolutions for this year. I hope you're enjoying your day, and I look forward to continuing to read your blog!

  6. Hello all, thanks for coming by and commenting. I hope that everyone had a Christmas/New Year holiday that came and went without too much pain.

    Snowbrush - yes, you are right. I don’t think that I voluntary accepted that there is no free will – of course there would be a contradiction there. I didn’t control the fact that I used to believe in free will, or the fact that I no longer believe in it. But my lack of belief in it does seem to be bringing me some relief.

    Jen - yep, I think we are all prone to “shoulda woulda coulda”-ing all over ourselves. But as with so many things, witnessing other people doing something counterproductive it can be really helpful in changing our own tendency to do the same thing.

    Rach - It’s good to hear you think I’m making progress. I hope you are too. I’m not there yet, but I am getting there. I never really liked Marilyn Manson, but there was a lyric of his that has always stuck with me “It’s a long hard road out of hell.”

    Anonymous – I’m glad to hear that I’m not the only one whose memory has more holes than Swiss cheese. I would love to be able to recall more, but I can only do what I can do.

    As for what depression is, entire books can be (and have been) devoted to this topic. For myself, I don’t really know. Of course there are genetic factors, levels of different chemicals in the brain, etc. But do low serotonin levels cause depression? Or does depression cause low serotonin levels? I think the answer is a complex one, probably one that is too complex for me to understand. The best I can hope for is to have the best working knowledge of how it impacts me, so I can minimize the harm.

    Many people seem to say that the more developed a society the more issues like depression crop up. There are many problems with the kind of modern societies that we live in, but I don’t think that we can just go back to nature like Rousseau or his admirers would like to think. I think nature is a bit more Hobbesian than that, and the reason we developed this technological society was ultimately because nature was always trying to kill us, and the millions of adaptive responses we made have led us to the current state of affairs. I think we are more-or-less stuck with the way things are, which means we all need to do the best we can to make them a little bit better. From each according to his ability, as the man said.

    Takashi - I think the journey towards being healthy and functional is a very long and tiring one. And we can’t do it all at once. Even if we read a book full of good ideas, if we read it at a time when we barely have enough energy to keep putting one foot in front of the other, we won’t be able to make the best use of it. But it is still worth doing. Sometimes I think it is just as important to be trying to get better as to actually be getting better, if that makes any sense.

    What I mean is, I think getting better, or taking care of ourselves, is a skill. We have to learn it. And while we can pick up some hints or ideas from others who have been down similar roads before, everyone is different, and in the end we have to do it for ourselves. I firmly believe that any condition where we are depending on someone or something to hold us up is a fools paradise, because sooner or later that person or that thing will be found wanting. We have to be able to find the strength within ourselves.