Why we don’t like negative feelings and what to do about them.
When using a substance we essentially have found a way to instantly make “bad” feelings go away. The problem though is that when the substance’ effect wears off we are left with the withdrawal PLUS the “bad” feeling, solution: take a nother drink or hit or whatever. An addict has spent much time avoiding “bad” feelings and part of getting sober is having to face the reality of dealing with these again… Let me see if I can help.
What are feelings? Why do we have good and bad ones? Can’t we just feel good all the time?
Try to think of a list of positive feelings; “joy, glad, happiness, pleasure, content, glee, cheerful…” These are essentially the same emotion, [happiness].
Now think of a list of negative feelings; “depression, loneliness, doubt, envy, boredom, anger, disgust, guilt, despair, worry, stressed…” a much more extensive list don’t you think.
Why is this, why do we have one good emotion but a whole bucketfull of bad ones.
A quick google search reveals that it takes more facial muscles to frown than to smile.
It is not clear why we have such a range of negative emotions. Some may point to an evolutionary survival mechanism. Maybe negative emotions continue to drive us toward rewarding behavior like seeking food, companionship and a safe dwelling, all to ensure our survival. Without these basic needs met we may certainly die as a species. It feels good to obtain these basic needs, it feels bad without them, therefore we strive toward them. Something strange occurs to the addict who spends most of their time in an artifically created joyful state when using a substance… bad things start happenening!! Can you relate? This implies that if we naturally felt good all the time the same might occur, we wouldn’t have the driving force to continue to meet our basic needs, to work towards goals or to improve our lives.
Another idea is that negative emotions make it possible to have positive emotions. Without the ying and yang of emotions we would just be rocks in the dirt. We need to understand sadness in order to understand happiness. Understanding loneliness teaches us about connection. On a neurochemical level this relates to the amount of dopamine available, the “feel good chemical” in the brain. When seeing a loved one, a good movie or a delishious burger we get a little dopamine release and we feel good. There is only a limited amount of dopamine and once the dopamine is released it gets recycled by your neurons. All of a sudden there is an absence of dopamine and you don’t feel as good. Have you ever opened a bag of potato chips and told yourself “I’m just going to eat a few”? Before you know it, the whole bag is gone and you consider opening a second one? That’s because the release and recycling of dopamine urges you to want to release more.
So are these “negative” emotions necessarily a bad thing? It seems as if they are much needed.
Maybe we shouldn’t view these emotions as “negative” or “positive” but instead something along the lines of a seesaw or a roller coaster going up and down, up and down. Just a natural cyclical way of life. Turn it on its head and look at life through a different lens. Maybe the negative emotions actually are good, in the sense that they prepare our brain to experience a positive emotion. We cannot understand joy without understanding sadness. Thank you sadness. We can’t understand satiety without understanding hunger. Thank you hunger.
The problem with these negative feelings is that we hate them. We don’t like feeling bored, depressed or lonely. The addict has simply found a way to instantly escape them. Ahhh, the relief of taking a drink, a pill, a drug… bye bye boredom. So long loneliness…
The addict has no patience for these awful feelings. The addict needs to get things done.
Hold up. Is it just a factor of time?
Wait a minute. Am I saying that these negative feelings are simply subject to the minute hand on my clock?
That’s right. The problem so many recovering addicts face, is just this. When giving up a substance to escape these feelings, guess what, they come back!! Suddenly we are confronted with a flood of these negative emotions. For so long we have engaged in activities to subvert them, to squash them away. We forgot how to naturally deal with them. We forgot how they feel. We forgot how to feel.
Time is the key my friends. Try this, whenever you feel sad, angry, low energy, bored, just wait a little while, go as far as setting a stop watch. I promise that feeling will fade, fizzle into the wind, crumble into the earth. Time heals people.
Remember this, IT IS NORMAL to feel these feelings, they make you you, they make us human beings.
Now, while you wait for that feeling to pass, go ahead and do something productive, go ahead, clean the house, mow the lawn, make a cup of coffee, call mom to see how she’s doing.
Instead of a human being, become a human doing, and before you know it you will forget about that pesky negative feeling in no time.
With practice you will notice very quickly, within a week or so that you can #1 accept that negative feeling #2 let time take care of it #3 wait for a positive feeling. Usually once you accomplish a small task a little burst of dopamine goes off in your brain, a little feel good chemical.
Another technique is GROUNDING. check back tomorrow about that…