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It’s Okay to Feel Bad For No Reason

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From my teens through my early thirties, I spent a lot of family dinners trying to pretend I felt okay.

It’s not that my family made me miserable, not at all. But throughout those years I just felt inexplicably bad some days, and I couldn’t duck out on plans with my family like I could with my friends, at least not without arousing concern.

This feeling was characterized by pit in the stomach, elevated self-consciousness, and a strong urge to go home and get away from people. Not exactly despair, but a version the sort of wounded feeling you might get after giving a bad speech, or getting reprimanded by your boss.

Looking back, I can’t believe how often I felt like that. Each time, all I knew is that I needed to either act normal, or provide an explanation for my low-spirited state (I stayed up late; I didn’t drink enough water today). 

Internally, I mostly attributed it to a certain ineptitude I felt I had at being an adult—I wasn’t getting enough done, I wasn’t organized enough, I hadn’t done some important thing yet. Once the worst of it passed, I would try to figure out the problem and how I could address it. Often I’d end up with a list of new resolutions or goals that I figured would keep me at even keel. I made hundreds of lists like that.

I don’t have clinical depression. I’ve taken the tests and I don’t fit the symptoms. Same with bi-polar, anxiety disorder, and any common condition with a checklist of symptoms.

I’m a generally happy person. I feel like my life is pretty awesome. Most of the time I feel better than “fine”—I feel genuinely at peace.

But even now, I do sometimes feel quite bad for no discernible reason, and I no longer think there’s anything wrong with that. It isn’t necessarily due to mental illness, poor life choices, or inadequate fluid intake.

I grew up believing you had to have a reason to feel bad. Something had to have happened. You saw a scary movie. Somebody hurt your feelings. You’re coming down with something. You aren’t taking care of yourself.

The assumption seemed to be that human beings normally feel good, or at least fine, and only an affliction of some kind, either short- or long-term, could explain why someone would feel bad.

But we know human moods can fluctuate independent of our circumstances. We’ve all experienced it: your life can seem bright in the morning and bleak that same evening, even if nothing objective has changed.

Some of us fluctuate a lot more wildly than others, which I think is what’s behind much of the confusion. Over the last few years, I’ve (finally) talked more openly with certain friends and family members about this phenomenon, and there seems to be a very wide range of norms. When I’ve shared with these people my repeated experience of quietly dying inside during family dinners or department meetings, some say they have it much worse, and some have no idea what I’m talking about.

You probably know which one you are. It’s so hard to know what the normal “normal” is, because most people don’t want to talk about this stuff, or hear about it. I’m not a psychologist, so don’t take this as a scientific claim, but I’m now convinced that even well-adjusted people can sometimes feel really bad for no reason.

Yet we think we need a reason, so we feel bad about feeling bad, and the snowball effect can be devastating.

My dark moods were probably unavoidable, but they lasted for days because I believed it wasn’t acceptable to feel bad if I couldn’t explain why.

When you believe your mood necessarily means something is wrong, that something can only be you, or the world around you. You feel like have to fix one or both, and of course you don’t know how, so you feel worse.

When you scan for faults in the world or in yourself, you always find plenty, and each can fuel endless rumination. You wind up adopting any number of grim beliefs in order to make the equation make sense:

  • I’m not doing enough
  • I can’t stop screwing up certain vital things
  • The world is mean and dangerous
  • There’s something wrong with my brain

But those depressing explanations for feeling bad aren’t necessary when nobody (yourself included) is demanding a reason.

It’s not that moods and mental states don’t have causes. Presumably there are genetic, neurochemical, and situational factors behind every feeling we have. But those hidden mechanisms don’t always produce a knowable, expressible reason for feeling bad.

And the world does expect reasons. If someone asks you how you’re doing, and you say “Not great,” they will ask why. And you’ll give them an answer, whether you believe it or not.

Or you can just say you’re fine, and know that there will be no further interrogation, because it’s always okay to feel okay.

Sometimes there are discernible reasons for low moods, of course, and it makes sense to act on them. (I don’t have a plan for my consumer debt, and I need one. My relationship is stagnating and I need to address that.) There are also serious, diagnosable mood disorders that need treatment.

But all of us are subject to the entire range of human emotion, and that itself is not a problem that needs to be fixed. I wonder how many interactions we have daily with clerks, cashiers, co-workers, and friends who are, at that moment, doing their best to appear okay.

Those major mood dips don’t happen to me very often anymore, thanks to two godsends: meditation, and friends who are willing to talk about how shitty they (or you) feel. Most people don’t seem to want talk about feeling awful, and I can’t help but wonder if it’s because they also believe they need a reason to feel bad.

I now try to respond to my moods like I do weather. Day-to-day conditions shift and change, emerging from a web of mostly unseen causes. Each of us has to contend with our own local climate, with its particular norms and extremes. Some get San Diego, some get Newfoundland.

Each type of sky has its own benefits and liabilities, but none of them are “wrong.” We no longer assume rain means we’ve displeased the gods. We don’t (usually) shake our fists at the sky in protest.

We acknowledge the conditions, and make adjustments. Put on a sweater, postpone the party, watch a movie. It’s okay to feel bad.

***

Photo by erik witsoe
Rosalina November 13, 2018 at 10:15 am

I think this is much easier to explain for women since there’s almost always a hormonal change going on that we don’t really understand yet makes us feel weird, shaky, or simply bad. But this also happens to men, all of our bodies and brains constantly change and react to stuff we’re not aware of, so this is a reminder to tell yourself “it’s fine, it’ll pass” and “you’re not the only one”. Thanks!

David Cain November 13, 2018 at 10:19 am

Some of my friends have serious hormonal swings and it’s been enlightening to learn about how bad they can be. But like you say, there is a known phenomenon of cyclical hormone shifts for women, so there is an explanation at least. I hope we know more in the future about how hormones and body chemistry affects everyone, because it sure is doing a lot behind the scenes in everyone’s body.

danesh November 13, 2018 at 11:20 am

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