When does a healthy feeling become unhealthy?

A client struggles with self-doubt. Don’t we all. Yes. Of course we do. In this case, though, the self-doubts were emotionally devastating for her. She asked, “how do I get rid of it, this self-doubt?” Fair question, in light of her present difficulties with it. I pointed out that, like all feelings, self-doubt is a mixed bag, having both beneficial and harmful impacts and influences. Without self-doubt, we might never learn from our mistakes because we’d have little incentive to go over things we’ve done that cause us difficulty when we think about them. Self-doubts force us to do this, which is why it feels uncomfortable. Self-doubt, when taken to a level that is not justified by the circumstances or doesn’t go away for hours or days, can be crippling and unnecessarily painful, keeping us stuck looking at the “rear-view mirror” of our recent or distant past, asking over and over again what we did wrong, what we might have done differently, with no end in sight for this kind of relentless digging at a wound. Sound familiar?

This is not actually a blog post about self-doubt, although it very well could be. What I say here applies equally to self-doubt as it does to the entire range of human emotion. No, the topic here is much more broad. After reminding the client with self-doubt that negative emotions—called this not because they are always negative, but because we think of them in negative terms due to the painful way we experience them—can be “beneficial” or “harmful.” She not surprisingly asked, “how do you know if the self-doubt you are experiencing is good or bad?” The topic of this blog post is an expanded version of the answer I gave to her.

In the book, Firewalking on Jupiter, I wrote a chapter called “The DEA and CIA, making a life plan for yourself.” That chapter started as an outline for a graduation commencement speech I gave at Stillwater Prison (for prisoners who had completed a number of different educational programs). In the chapter (and the speech of course), I layed out a three-pronged approach to determining whether an act (something you might want to do) is “good” or “bad.” Consider: (1) the intention behind the act, (2) the act itself, and (3) the consequences of the act. I won’t go into any detail about all of this since I’ve already written about it elsewhere. If you’re curious, you might want to go take a look at that chapter.  Without intending to do so, the answer I gave to the woman suffering from self-doubt about how to determine whether a feeling is “good” or “bad” has a very strong correlation to my “scheme” for determing whether a proposed action is “good” or “bad.” This was my answer to her question:

When you think about any feeling you might be having, to determine if the feeling is helpful or harmful (“good or bad”), ask yourself these three questions. First, what is the cause of the self-doubt? Second, is the intensity and duration of the self-doubt itself rationally related to its cause? Third, is the feeling leading to other symptoms or impacts that are harmful?

I will take each question in turn and give a little explanation for you to consider.

In virtually everything I do as a therapist, when I am trying to help a client figure out how to address a difficult issue, I go right to asking all kinds of questions about the cause of the issue. Whether it is troubling self-doubts, mistrust of their partner, high levels of anxiety about an upcoming job performance evaluation, or difficulty getting out of bed in the morning, I want to know how the issue might be related to other things. So I ask things like: “Do you remember when (the issue) started and when it started to bother you? What was happening in your life, or in your physical presence when it started (trying to find triggers)? Has this (issue) been a problem in the past (to see if there are causal patterns)? Have others indicated to you what they think about why you have this issue? What attempts have you made to solve it on your own? What do you think might be causing the problem?” I want to look behind or underneath the issue itself to its cause because I am interested in helping clients find solutions they can use, not only for this particular instance of the issue, but solutions they can use down the road if the issue comes up again in different circumstances. Also, by identifying the underlying cause of the issue and focusing on solving that cause, rather than just the issue itself, there is an increased chance that the issue won’t return. To some extent, I discuss this method or approach to problem solving in therapy, in the chapter called “Acknowledging the problem is not enough” in Firewalking on Jupiter.

When you are trying to determine whether a feeling is helpful or harmful, locating the cause of the feeling can be very telling. For instance, if you find yourself stuck in sadness ruminating (asking over and over and over the same questions) about a past relationship that you know is done, gone, and you have already exhausted the reasons for the end of the relationship, you can have a pretty good idea that the sadness you feel is pointless, is not helpful, is only causing you to stay stuck in your grief process, preventing you from accepting the end of the relationship so you can move on. If you generally love your job, but experience lingering doubts about whether you could be doing something “better,” and then you explore the reasons you have these thoughts and find they are related to conversations you’d had with a parent, an older sibling, or some other influential person whose values are not consistent with your own, you can gauge that the cause of the misgivings you are having are not helpful, and in fact take away from your investment in the job, and might even decrease your performance on the job. This could go the other way, though. Let’s say you are having doubts about your job. You like it enough, but wonder if you’d be more satisfied doing something else. You recall that not long ago, an old friend raised the issue, which is what triggers your questions. They asked you if you were using your talents to their fullest, reminding you that you had previously told them you wanted to go back to school to learn how to do something else. This person knows you well, and you respect their thoughts and perspective. Now the misgivings you are having about your job are appropriate and helpful because the cause of those feelings is consistent with who you are, your personal values and the kind of meaning you want in your life.

The second question about whether a feeling is helpful or harmful is really about whether the experience of the feeling is what it “should be,” depending on the nature of the cause. Above, I used a term from my past as a lawyer that I think fits pretty well. I suggested asking yourself if the experience of the feeling itself is “rationally related” to the cause of the feeling. To be more specific, does the intensity of the feeling (how bad it feels) and the duration of the feeling (how long the feeling persists) make sense in light of what caused the feeling in the first place? A man whose wife dies suddenly and tragically after they’ve been together for many years will understandably be stricken with extreme and long-lasting grief. His grief is “rationally related” to its cause.

A man who breaks up with a woman after six weeks, and then can’t get out of bed for weeks is pretty clearly experiencing a level of grief that is not rationally related to its cause. A woman is laid off from her job, as were dozens of others, when her employer moved its operations to a different state. For months, she is consumed with resentment, anger, and cannot bring herself to look for another job. Again, the anger, resentment, and inability to move on to another job doesn’t seem rationally related to the cause. It is often the case that, when the experience of feelings are much more intense or last much longer than what would normally be expected from the cause of the feelings, what we think is the cause of those feeling is actually not the cause. It might be the immediate trigger, but what it triggers might be a long-standing issue from some other past circumstances.

The third question to determine whether a feeling is helpful or harmful comes down to this: “what are the consequences” of the feeling? Is it momentary, fleeting, or constant? Does it limit our ability to do things we need to do in our lives? Does it cause us to react to others in a way that is destructive to relationships or our goals? Take depression. Depression is sometimes a healthy way for us to slow down, take seriously and consider our best course of action before we act on an issue that is pretty important and about which we might have deservedly grave doubts. If the depression becomes debilitating, preventing us from engaging in our daily lives or if it leads to other symptoms that prevent us from enjoying most things, makes us feel worthless, or leads to suicidal thinking, then the consequences of the depression, even if its cause makes sense and it was initially rationally related to that cause, are problematic and must be addressed. What started as “healthy” depression becomes “depressive disorder” (unhealthy depression). As an example, we can refer to the man whose wife dies suddenly and tragically. He grieves for a few months, feels disoriented, stays home most of the time. So far, although sad and concerning, he needs to reorient his life now that she is gone. This is no small task. Of course he is depressed and feels these things. Now let’s say he quits his job, starts drinking, stops paying his bills, doesn’t return calls or texts, or when he does they are erratic and note his thoughts of harming himself. He only leaves the house to run errands, to buy groceries or more liquor. We have entered into the territory of a feeling, depression, that started out necessary, even healthy, which has slid into something that is very troubling and unhealthy, due to its consequences.

Before I conclude, I suppose I should point out that everything I have said here about “negative” feelings (like sadness, grief, fear, self-doubt) also applies to “positive” feelings (like happiness, bliss, joy, comfort). A simple example should suffice: alcohol. If you found yourself having difficulty obtaining “a warm glow” of contentment, happiness, or let’s say just comfort in a social setting or by yourself, but you were able to obtain that positive state when you drink alcohol, you can pretty much guess that is not a healthy route to positive feelings—it is an unhealthy cause. If you had a pattern of moving in and out of relationships in order to maintain your positive feelings of adequacy about your desirability, the cause of your positive feelings (relying solely on validation from others) is problematic, and so likely are the outcomes or consequences problematic, at least for the people who might end up feeling used in the wake of your relationship hopping. See what I mean? Looking at the cause, the feeling itself, and the consequences is a good way of examining whether your “positive” and “negative” emotional experiences are healthy or unhealthy, beneficial or harmful.

I know that asking about the causes, the nature of the experience of a feeling, and the consequences of a feeling or set of feelings, doesn’t actually tell us anything about how to “get rid of the feeling.” That’s okay. We need to have a sense of whether the feeling is helpful or harmful before knowing whether we should even be trying “to get rid of it.” Sometimes, when a feeling, despite its painful experience, has a healthy cause, a healthy response, and healthy consequences, the best thing to do is not try to get rid of it, but listen to it, pay attention to what it might be telling you that you need to know. When you’ve determined that an emotional experience you are having has an unhealthy cause, is an unhealthy experience, or has unhealthy consequences, then by all means begin the process  to try to address the issue and remove it from your life. If you are not able to do this on your own, by all means consider contacting a professional if you are not already in therapy.


Copyright, Michael Kinzer. Blog entries and other materials available on Jupiter Center’s website are only intended to stimulate thoughts and conversations and to supplement therapy work with Jupiter Center clients already in therapy. If you or someone you know suffers from a mental illness, you are strongly encouraged to seek help from a mental health professional. For further information about this blog, or Jupiter Center, contact Michael Kinzer at 612-701-0064 or michael(at)jupitercenter.com.