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Finding Value in Feelings You Think are Selfish

Instead of diminishing another person's pain, feeling our own pain prepares us to extend compassion.

Sometimes I feel guilty and criticize myself for the way I’m feeling because I don’t think I have a right to feel those emotions. I think that I have no right to be sad when there is always someone who has it worse. No right to a sense of pride in what I’m doing when there is always someone else working harder. No right to be discouraged when there is always someone facing a bigger obstacle. No right to be anxious when there is always someone with a more important problem.

If I really think about it, this sort of reasoning doesn’t make sense. I don’t really think that only the person who has undergone the most devastating experience is allowed to feel sad. Or that only the person who has achieved the greatest accomplishment has any right to pride in a job well done. Fear is not limited to only the person in the most frightening situation.

There are no maximums or quotas or limits in the realm of emotion. There is enough joy and fear and sadness and worry to go around. Last week we talked about how being sad about a change doesn’t mean you’re any less happy. We can be both. Similarly, more than one person can experience an emotion without in any way diminishing the experience of another.

A few weeks before I graduated from high school my dad got really sick. For a while we didn’t know whether he would live, much less what recovery might look like. I didn’t let myself fully acknowledge that I felt sad, angry, and terribly afraid.

It seemed too selfish to feel those things when, even though the situation impacted me deeply, I wasn’t the person most affected. Soon I’d be away at college. It was my mom and sisters who would feel the loss mostly directly in their daily lives if Dad died or never fully recovered. Not me. So what right did I have to diminish their pain by claiming to have my own?

I wish I’d understood then that’s not the way it works. When I wouldn’t acknowledge my own feelings and needs I lost connection with myself. I had a hard time experiencing joy when Dad did recover because I still hadn’t let myself grieve. Shoving down my difficult emotions kept them stuck instead of letting them run their course. I’m still discovering tendrils of them tangled up in other parts of my life.

On top of keeping me stagnant and ashamed, my efforts to avoid those emotions kept me from being fully present in the situation. I was too focused on not letting myself feel things I didn’t think I had a right to feel to really see the people there in front of me. By denying my own feelings I could have pity for their pain, but not true understanding or compassion.

What if instead of diminishing another person’s pain, feeling our own pain prepares us to extend compassion? What if our hard feelings don’t isolate us, but help us connect more deeply?

Think of a time when you’ve criticized yourself for your emotions because they seemed silly or selfish or because someone else had it worse. How would accepting your emotions have changed your experience of the situation? How could that experience and those emotions actually have been preparing you to meet others with empathy and compassion?

(Please note that I’m not saying that having a right to our feelings also gives us the right to express them without any thought to others. It is actually through accepting our feelings that we can take responsibility for expressing them in an appropriate way. This article about the ring theory can be helpful in knowing how to express our feelings in difficult situations).