We don’t like bad feelings. Actually that is why we have bad feelings: so that we will do something different. They are an indication that something in our lives is not working right. Sometimes, though, all we know is that we don’t like how we feel. Sometimes we do not take the time to be reflective about what that feeling is letting us know. We just don’t want to have it. So we try to do something to feel better. Sometimes we address the real problem behind the feeling, but sometimes we just want to feel better and we don’t want to think about it.
We can feel bad for a variety of reasons, but we can categorize most of those reasons as losses: unwanted experiences. They might be losses we have caused or losses that have just happened without our being responsible. Since we don’t want to feel bad, we work at avoiding losses. Sometimes this means trying to control ourselves, and sometimes it means trying to control the outside world. And sometimes we cannot control what happens either inside of us or outside of us, so we try to avoid the experience of the loss.
What can happen, though, is that the means we have of avoiding losses are the means we invented when we were children. They are immature coping skills in a way. And it can happen that those old coping skills end up causing more trouble than the bad feelings or the loss would have in the first place. We are so habituated to trying to avoid feeling bad, we are sometimes not even aware of how we are manipulating our experience.
Avoiding losses can take the form of denying that there is a loss: “Yeah, my girlfriend broke up with me, but I was just about to break up with her anyway.” We can distract ourselves so that we don’t feel bad: We watch television, read a book, exercise. We can even distract ourselves by creating other, distracting losses: We can break a dish, lose our keys, or drop something on our toe. We can use drugs or alcohol to numb ourselves, and we can leave the situation, or talk a lot, and fast, so that we don’t notice the loss.
Sometimes when we feel bad, we need a little break. We need to go see a movie and forget about it for a while. We can still come back to it, reflect on it, and figure out what to do about it. It is when avoiding losses begins to create even bigger losses that it is counterproductive. Life deals us difficult challenges, and we can create other challenges on top of that. There is no glory in pain for no reason. So it makes sense to try to feel better. Ultimately, though, these challenges are puzzles to solve, missteps to correct, or bad experiences to digest. At some point we make a decision to engage with life rather than duck it, and in this process we build ourselves brick by brick. It does get better. Really.