Discomfort is there to help
Human emotions are, by nature, morally neutral. It is a natural feature of the human condition to classify emotions that induce pleasure (excitement, joy, amusement) as “good” and those that induce discomfort (sadness, anger, envy) as “bad.” All of these emotions, however, are common threads connecting every human.
While the brain’s reward mechanisms only make certain emotions feel desirable, it behooves us to remove the stigma around “negative” emotions and acknowledge them as real, lived experiences that impart wisdom to the mind and healing to the body.
The discomfort that stems from “negative” emotions is not always limited to the person experiencing them. Seeing an outpouring of these emotions, especially in a loved one, causes an inner tension, as we see our own fragility reflected back at us. Often times, our response is to “cheer up” that person, to encourage them to change their mindset and behavior into something more palatable, presumably for them, but certainly for us. This can be well-intended, but ultimately prioritizes the discomfort of the comforter, not the validity of the other person’s emotional state.
Rather than continue in this unhelpful, unnatural tension that humanity has placed between good and bad emotions, emotions should be returned to their neutral starting place. The discomfort is not an external battle urging us back to happiness from sadness, but rather inherent to the emotions themselves, inside of us. Therein lies the truth: emotions are responses from the body, telling the mind valuable information. Any attempt to downplay an emotion is to ignore vital messages that lead to healing and growth.
Culture at large props up endless images of always-joyful people who act as the ideal. Self-help books line shelves at bookstores promising the path to forever-happiness. While some of these endeavors may be earnest, they miss the piercing truth: sadness and discomfort are a part of the human experience. A vitally important part. The frame needs to be shifted away from the illusory battle between good and bad and instead focus on reality. The reality of emotional pain is far more potent, far more truthful, far more important than insipid attempts to remove the discomfort permanently.
The path back to nature, to reality, is quite simple, but incredibly challenging. It’s living in the present moment, without judgement. It’s mindfulness. A shift of expectation away from “every day will be a good day” to “every day will be a real day.” This is the path to mind-body connection, and the path to true empathy.
Understanding that happiness isn’t the goal allows you to care for someone who is sad in a profound way. Not “you should be this instead” but “you are living in this and learning, it is very hard, and I am sorry that there is discomfort.”
Dispense with the emotional hierarchy and live in the reality that sometimes there will be discomfort. It is there to help.
Edited by Jeremy Harr and Abigail McKay Cherry