It’s sometimes tempting to beat yourself up for not feeling sunnier – but there’s good reason to embrace those grumps. Imagine that you’ve just experienced something unpleasant – your friend has forgotten your birthday or you‘ve been rejected for a new job. How would you typically respond to those feelings?
You might try to tell yourself that it doesn’t matter, and not to let it get to you. You might try to avoid thinking about the bad news, and when it does seep into your consciousness, you’ll question why you’re so thin-skinned.
This tendency to screen out and self-punish could be described as “mood shame”: the belief that having bad feelings is a personal failing.
Continually looking on the bright side of life might seem strong, even courageous. But if it’s taken too far, we may beat ourselves up for perfectly reasonable responses to events. While it’s natural that we might prefer to avoid uncomfortable feelings like disappointment, worry, anger, or sadness, recent psychological research supports the idea that they serve useful purposes in our lives. By learning to see that value and accept those feelings without judgement, we may enjoy better physical and mental health.
To be clear, this is not about severe depression, anxiety – or any other chronic mood disorder that needs professional help. There is nothing to be gained from prolonged and unbearable suffering if you need and are able to seek medical treatment and mental health support.
Instead, this is referring to the temporary clouds that may gather over our lives for a few hours or days. Those transient emotions don’t really pose a threat to our long-term wellbeing, but we often act as if they do – and it’s tempting to try to avoid them.
Our attempts to suppress our emotions can simply add layers of “shame” and “fear” to what we are already feeling, alongside an envy of those who appear to be happier in their life. The resulting sentiment, therefore, is even “stronger and more tenacious” than the thing we were trying to avoid.
A series of scientific studies confirm that our “mood shame” can be detrimental to our wellbeing. To get an idea of that research, consider the following questions. On a scale of one (never/very rarely true) to seven (very often/always true), how would you rate these statements?
I tell myself I shouldn’t be feeling the way that I’m feeling
I criticise myself for having irrational or inappropriate emotions
I think some of my emotions are bad or inappropriate and I shouldn’t feel them.
Seeing the good and the bad
In medicine, for instance, we know that people’s interpretations of physical symptoms like pain can alter the way they experience them, and this can even influence our physiological response.
As far as emotions are concerned, disappointment, for example, may feel unpleasant – but you could recognise that the emotion helps us to learn from our mistakes. And by assigning a more positive meaning to the feeling and acknowledging its potential uses – rather than feeling it is somehow “unhealthy” – you might change the brain and the body’s responses to an upset.
A study from the Max Planck Institute for Human Development in Berlin, Germany attempted to show exactly that. The researchers asked their participants to rate various emotions, such as nervousness, anger or feeling downcast, on their unpleasantness. They also asked people about their appropriateness, their utility and their meaningfulness – three dimensions that together captured how much the participants “valued” each feeling.
Overall, the participants who saw a positive value in their “bad” moods tended to fare much better on measures of mental and physical wellbeing, including their risk of illnesses, such as diabetes or cardiovascular disease, and even their muscle strength (which was considered a general indicator of fitness). Indeed, a capacity to see value in unpleasant emotions almost eliminated any link between a participant’s health and the actual number of upsets the person reported experiencing over a three-week period.
Fuel for growth
Consider anxiety. We may assume that anxious feelings wreck our concentration and reduce our performance on difficult tasks – that we can only succeed on an exam or in an interview if we learn to relax. Alternatively, we can see the feelings as a source of energy. Recent scientific studies suggest that this kind of attitude can improve our performance on short-term challenges, such as difficult exams or public speaking. In the long-term, it even reduces the risk of burnout and exhaustion.
A similar expectation effect applies to angry emotions. We may believe that frustration quickly depletes our self-control, but we can alternatively see it as a galvanising emotion that steels our resolve and empowers us to demand what we’re due. Those mindsets will determine your performance in tasks such as negotiations.
When we face a stressor that feels personally threatening, we are more likely to experience exaggerated fluctuations of hormones such as cortisol, and inflammation. Such physiological changes could help to prepare the body for short-term danger, but if they are sustained over a long time they can lead to bodily wear and tear.
If we have the view that each bad mood is inappropriate, shameful or potentially damaging to us, that will compound our sense of vulnerability and isolation, which can exacerbate and prolong the physiological effects. Reappraising our emotions – so that we recognise their inherent value – can remove those additional layers of stress. It could even give us a sense of empowerment and autonomy. This may moderate the physiological response as we come to terms with the feelings, and help us to recover more quickly, with overall less strain on our bodies.
Shades of grey
The start of the new year may be the perfect time for us to put this more nuanced understanding of emotion into practice. For those in the northern hemisphere, it’s colder and wetter, and the return to work can be a painful jolt after a week of festivities. Some of us may find that we’re caught in the January blues while simultaneously yearning for a better life – creating feelings of boredom, frustration and sadness.
Rather than judging yourself harshly for those feelings, you might lean into that bad mood, and allow yourself the self-care you need to get through it. Without fighting the emotions themselves, you could start to question whether those feelings have value. Perhaps they’ll help you to identify an important change you can make in your life, for instance.
We will sometimes experience periods of despair with absolutely no silver lining – and we’ll need all the support we can get to move through them. In general, however, our moods are neither black nor white, neither good nor bad; instead, they come in many shades – and by paying attention to those nuances, we may find it a little easier to weather life’s storms.
Compiled by SG