Why You Always Feel Terrible, and How to Stop

People are really good at feeling like crap. As we get older, negative emotions can get twisted from feeling like bullies to baselines states of life. Anxiety can transform from normal worry about the future to a state of being. We get so good at feeling terrible, it feels second nature to us. Chronically feeling bad is a state of mind that can steal the light from our eyes.

We turn to destructive allies to rescue us from these tarpits of despair — allies who cost more than they give, like alcohol, television, social media, and gorging ourselves with food. Everybody has a chosen poison or two that they use to take the edge off. But it usually just sinks us deeper into the emotional hole — down into darkness, one numbing agent at a time.


We’re good at feeling bad because that’s what we spend most of our time doing.

The reason we turn to these costly numbing agents is because we aren’t good at feeling good. We have to outsource the process of feeling good to something else — we turn to addictions to make us feel better the way we turn to a plumber when our pipes burst: “I need you to immediately fix my problem.”

We’re good at feeling bad and numbing bad feelings, because that’s what we spend most of our time doing. Feeling good is harder than feeling bad because we’re practiced at it. We forget what it was like to have a choice in the matter. It’s common for people to come to expect life to feel like crap all day every day.  

We can call this “The Practice Principle.” Humans are prone to do what they’re good at. And every single one of us is the Michael Phelps of feeling like crap. It’s our genetic gift. It’s hardwired into us. It’s in our muscle memory. When we have a knee-jerk feeling, it’s likely a negative, numbing, or muted-positive emotion. Usually, feeling great is short-lived reward at the end of some meaningful striving. Before we try feeling good, we first must come to terms with the fact that it is a skill we must learn, at which we are probably very unskilled.   

Bad is Stronger than Good

This sounds like the opposite of what you need to hear. But it's the truth. Before you face the inner darkness, you have to know your enemy: Psychologically speaking, the darkness is stronger than the light — it's well-known among psychologists: negative thoughts stick to your mind like Velcro, positive bounce right off like Teflon. 


Proof that bad is stronger than good: ‘Trauma’ has no opposite concept.

Positive emotions are like a dream in the night. Negative emotions are the shackles we too often wake up to see — binding us to some cold reality. Positive feelings — like love, joy, thankfulness, peace, security, satisfaction, and joy — how long do they last? A day? A weekend? What about their opposites — like sadness, fear, guilt, regret, lethargy, despair? It’s more and more common for people to experience these emotions for decades.

Andrew Solomon calls depression “The Noonday Demon.” Positive emotions hardly earn these sorts of unbreakably tormenting titles — “my dark passenger,” “my shadow self,” “the rot inside,” all metaphors which imply the exacerbation of their presence. Our language for positivity is fragile — “a warm feeling,” “stillness,” “my safe place,” all metaphors which suggest their immanent entropic demise in the absence of upkeep.[1]

The difference between negative and positive emotions is depicted most elementally by their most fitting representational colors — black and white, respectively. Black obscures beauty and makes surroundings harder to appreciate. Black makes ugliness and chaos harder to identify and eradicate. Black represents pure actuated possibility — the real and present danger looming over and within you. White frames, focuses, and highlights every mark it bears. It maximizes contrast. It represents pure, unbiased possibility. It draws attention to the smallest variance in its presence. It is easily soiled, and represents the ideal of perfection. White is very fragile.  


Avoiding bad feelings isn’t victory over bad feelings, but surrendering psychological territory.

When it comes to emotions, psychologists call this the “positive-negative asymmetry effect,” which has been repeatedly confirmed by psychological research.[2] There was an infamous psychology article published called “Bad Is Stronger Than Good,”[3] which details the data and theories behind this very simple and potent notion — darkness is a far stronger psychological power than light.[4]

One psychological theory suggests the opposite of this — avoidance theory. One article in particular postulates that humans, by nature, avoid negativity. This should theoretically contradict the notion that bad events have a stronger effect upon the mind than positive events.[5] So, which is stronger — bad or good? Bad is still stronger. It turns out that avoidance behavior is actually a feature of the badness.

For example, James Pennebaker has become a renowned psychologist for his discovery of the relationship between trauma disclosure and medical health. Pennebaker found that, among survivors of trauma, groups who merely wrote about their experience utilized medical services significantly less than those who did not — and those who utilized psychotherapy saw an even greater effect.[6] In other words, avoidance — manifested as a minimization or “toughing through” the pain — isn’t an example of Good beating Bad, but of Bad becoming larger than life.

Baumeister et al make the interesting point that we have no antonym for the term “trauma.” Trauma refers to the devastating, potentially decades-long consequences an overwhelming event can have upon the psyche. But we don’t have a word for the life-transforming, unstoppable positive effects of an overwhelmingly positive experience, because positive experiences have a far less durable effect.[7]

Cognitive Distortions

All of this is intended to explain a simple fact about human life: we are fundamentally prone to feel like crap. It distort the way we see the world. And we have to actively work against the way that pain and suffering can shape our perceptions of ourselves, and our perceptions of the world. Trauma and pain and suffering make their mark, while happiness, security, and love drown in the sea of darkness. When we wake up in the morning, the only we are going to feel good is if we fight to feel good. In a Jungian sense, we must slay the dragon every single day. Here are 10 tactics our inner-dragon — our ever-present inner-darkness — uses against us.[8]

1. All-or-Nothing Thinking. 

“You see things in black-and-white categories. If your performance falls short of perfect, you see yourself as a total failure.”

2. Overgeneralization.

 “You see a single negative event as a never-ending pattern of defeat.”

3. Mental Filter. 

“You pick out a single negative detail and dwell on it exclusively so that your vision of all reality becomes darkened, like the drop of ink that colors the entire beaker of water.”

4. Disqualifying the Positive. 

“You reject positive experiences by insisting they ‘don’t count’ for some reason or other. In this way you can maintain a negative belief that is contradicted by your everyday experiences.”

5. Jumping to Conclusions. 

“You make a negative interpretation even though there are no definite facts that convincingly support your conclusion.”

a. Mind reading. You arbitrarily conclude that someone is reacting negatively to you, and you don’t bother to check this out.

b. The Fortune Teller Error. You anticipate that things will turn out badly, and you feel convinced that your predictions is an already-established fact.

6. Magnification (Catastrophizing) or Minimization. 

“You exaggerate the importance of things (such as your goof-up or someone else’s achievement), or you inappropriately shrink things until they appear tiny (your own desirable qualities or the other fellow’s imperfections). This is called the ‘binocular trick.’”

7. Emotional Reasoning. 

“You assume that your negative emotions necessarily reflect the way things really are: ‘I feel it, therefore it must be true.’”

8. Should Statements. 

“You try to motivate yourself with should and shouldn’ts, as if you had to be whipped and punished before you could be expected to do anything. ‘Musts’ and ‘oughts’ are also offenders. The emotional consequence is guilt. When you direct should statements toward others, you feel anger, frustration, and resentment.”

9. Labeling and Mislabeling. 

“This is an extreme form of overgeneralization. Instead of describing your error, you attach a negative label to yourself: ‘I’m a loser.’ When someone else’s behavior rubs you the wrong way, you attach a negative label to him: ‘He’s a goddam louse.’ Mislabeling involves describing an event with language that is highly colored and emotionally loaded.”

10. Personalization.

 “You see yourself as the cause of some negative external event which in fact you were not primarily responsible for.”

How to Escape Cognitive Distortions

David Burns rightly comments: “Your thoughts create your emotions; therefore, your emotions cannot prove that your thoughts are accurate.” What's at the root of emotions gone wrong? “At the bottom line, only your own sense of self-worth determines how you feel.”

Cognitive distortions that cause depression are usually all rooted in the same thing: The belief that you’re worth nothing. And the solution is not emotional self-discovery. Many people become trapped in therapy for decades uncovering every detail of their past pain and putting it under a microscope, when the reason they went to therapy was to think, feel, and behave differently. Psychological self-discovery can be a helpful tool in self-improvement, but it’s no substitute for action.


If you want to turn emotional “overwhelm” into “underwhelm,” you have to give it a name, a face, a neck to grab.

Instead of fighting back against your internal vacuum of negative self-talk with cathartic self-discovery, get tactical about how to fight back against negative emotions. Yes, negative emotions are important insofar as they have something important to say to us. But they are dangerous in their ability to overwhelm and trap us, so that we are hypnotized by them. Listening to negative emotions is no easy skill. You can’t face a reality that you can’t see. If you want to turn emotional "overwhelm" into "underwhelm," you have to give it a name, a face, a neck to grab.

In order to triple your chances of getting on top of your negative emotions (patients who regularly performed exercises like this were three times more likely to report drastic decrease in depression),[9] use this exercise: When you’re overwhelmed with a negative feeling, write down three things: (1) Your automatic thought, (2) the cognitive distortion beneath the automatic thought, and (3) the rational response to that cognitive distortion.

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Ground your overwhelm in this chart. Don’t let it fester in abstraction. Don’t let it keep you in a chokehold from the unseen. Ground your emotion. Prosecute it with logic. When you make your enemy seen, he looks kind of silly. Here are a list of practical ways to implement this action plan:

1. Fight.

Don’t just accept your thoughts as true. Don’t even accept them as yours. Just like with relationships, you need to set up healthy boundaries with your own emotions. You wouldn’t let someone boss you around and call you a loser. So why do you let your emotions do it?  

2. Examine.

Do you feel bad because of a handful of things? If so, be a good scientist. Tell yourself: “Most of the time, I’m good at this. I’ve just failed a few times.” Or maybe you really are bad at something, but it’s trivial. Maybe you’re often late to things. So what? Does that make you a terrible person? The evidence doesn’t support the hypothesis.

3. Compare.

Examine how to you talk to yourself. Then ask: “Would I talk this way to a little kid?” Would I tell them: “You’re a loser. There’s no hope. You’re worthless. Just give up.” No, you’d be cruel! You’re just as valuable as that little kid! You deserve as much love, hope, and opportunity as anyone else. You haven’t “ruined” your life. You’re just a little further down the road. Hope is not age-specific.

4. Experiment.

Try testing your hypothesis. Poke the thing that makes you the most terrified. Anxiety will always be bigger than your imagination than in year life. Don’t give bad feelings the satisfaction of having more power than they deserve. If they’re going to make you feel terrible, make them work for it. Make them show up and prove their legitimacy. Chances are, they don’t have what it takes.

5. Balance.

Do your emotions often swing between ultimate victory and complete failure? This is a sign that your thoughts are being distorted by an extremist filter. Black-and-white evaluations are a result of lazy self-reflection — if it’s bad, let’s just call it the worst. If it’s good, it’s my savior. Not quite. How might a balanced person — who wasn’t destroyed by every failure and vindicated by every victory — take your situation in stride?

6. Survey.

If you think your anxieties and thoughts about yourself are abnormal, ask a trusted friend if they’ve ever felt that way. Chances are, they have. It’s as simple as reaching out to someone close with a text.

7. Define.

What names are you calling yourself? What names are you calling other people? Define those terms. What is a “loser”? How do you cross the boundary from “non-loser” to “loser”? What’s the difference between being a loser and going through a rough patch? Who decided that? And what do you have to lose by explaining your current experience as a season (“a rough patch”), as opposed to a state of existence (“loser”)?

8. Frame.

Substitute language that is loaded with language that is removed, cold, scientific, neutral. The words that you use can actually change the emotion you feel. Instead of calling a group of “those fucking assholes,” refer to them by their Proper Name, and select adjectives that are descriptive. Instead of calling someone “abuse,” try using balanced descriptions which explain his or her abusiveness —

  • “Good at performance, but bad at empathy.”

  • “Peaceable, but harmfully neglectful.”

  • “Well-meaning, but hurtful.”

When your critical vocabulary is balanced with a positive evaluation, it gives more weight to the criticism. When all your words are critical, it cheapens what you’re trying to communicate. Frame your negative concern within a canvas of neutral and positive evaluation. Nobody is Satan incarnate. Couch your point of concern in a   

9. Attribute.

Don’t just assume “I’m the worst.” Examine how the negative situation came to pass and how you can fix it. Don’t fixate on the feeling — direct that energy toward a solution.

10. Cost-benefit.

Define the positive and negative consequences of your emotion. You can also use a cost-benefit analysis to modify self-defeating beliefs like “I must always be perfect.”

Conclusion

Feeling good is like learning a martial art. It doesn’t come naturally to anybody. You have to learn not only the active skill of fighting, but how to engage defensively with all other kinds of attacks, internal and external. Philosopher Ellen Charry puts it this way: “People become lighter as they become stronger. As great artists perform with seeming effortlessness and can enjoy the beauty of their own artistry, people become happier as they love more supplely … This joy is the pinnacle of human happiness …. It may not be linear or steady progress, yet it cannot be nullified, even by adversity.”[10]

Make this a goal of your life — to become a blackbelt in feeling good. If you do, life will still be hard — but it’s better to be a warrior in a garden than a gardener at war. Become an emotional warrior — not against yourself, but on behalf of yourself.

FOOTNOTES

[1] See Zoltán Kövesces, “Metaphor and Emotion” in The Cambridge Handbook of Metaphor and Thought, ed. Raymond W. Gibbs, Jr. (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008), 380-396.

[2] Most notably, in N. H. Anderson, “Averaging Versus Adding as a Stimulus-Combination Rule in Impression Formation,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 2 (1965): 1-9; G. Peeters and J. Czapinski, “Positive-Negative Asymmetry in Evaluations: The Distinction Between Affective and Informational Negativity Effects,” European Review of Social Psychology, ed. W. Stroebe and M. Hewstone (New York: Wiley, 1990), 33-60; J. J. Skowronski and D. E. Carlson, “Negativity and Extremity Biases in Impression Formation: A Review of Explanation,” Psychological Review 105 (1989): 131-142.

[3] R. F. Baumeister, E. Bratslavsky, C. Finkenhauer, and Kathleen D. Vohs, “Bad Is Stronger Than Good,” Review of General Psychology 5 (2001): 323-370.

[4] The researchers define bad as “undesirable, harmful, or unpleasant.” Baumeister et al., 325.

[5] See S. E. Taylor, “Asymmetrical Effects of Positive and Negative Events: The Mobilization-Minimization Hypothesis,” Psychological Bulletin 110 (1991): 67-85.

[6] James W. Pennebaker and Joan R. Susman, “Disclosure of Traumas and Psychosomatic Processes,” Social Science & Medicine 26, no. 3 (1988): 327-332.

[7]  “In a sense, trauma has no true opposite concept. A single traumatic experience can have long-term effects on the person’s health, well-being, attitudes, self-esteem, anxiety, and behavior; many such effects have been documented. In contrast, there is little evidence that single positive experiences can have equally influential consequences.” R. F. Baumeister, E. Bratslavsky, C. Finkenhauer, and Kathleen D. Vohs, “Bad Is Stronger Than Good,” Review of General Psychology 5 (2001): 327-328 [323-370]. See Roy Baumeister and John Tierney, Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength (New York: Penguin, 2011).

[8] David Burns, Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy (New York: Harper, 2008), 42-43.

[9] L. R. Conklin and D. R. Strunk, “A session-to-session examination of homework engagement in cognitive therapy for depression: Do patients experience immediate benefits?” Behavior Research and Therapy 72 (2015): 56-62.

[10] Ellen Charry, God and the Art of Happiness (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2010), 277



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