Within each of us there exists a censor, a judge, an authority who is ready at any moment to tell us ‘you shouldn’t feel that’. Something taboo turned you on, someone falling over made you laugh, a friend said something stupid that drove you into a fit of rage; and each time you say to yourself, ‘what I’m feeling is wrong’. Perhaps you said ‘I am disgusting for being turned on’, ‘I am dishonourable for wanting to laugh’, or ‘I am petty for becoming angry’. At the end of the day, you are still censoring yourself and the message in these reflections is: it is wrong to feel this way.
But truly, is it? Feelings don’t arise out of nowhere. They are not conjured out of will. Feelings are always a result of something. If you have been bullied and begin feeling like you are worthless, the feeling itself is not wrong, the bullying was. If you spent your life being ignored or abused by your mother and begin feeling like you would rather her dead, the feeling is not wrong, but how you were treated was. The cause of a feeling can be wrong, but not the feeling itself.
There might not be wrong feelings, but there can be wrong actions. If you feel like hurting someone, there is nothing wrong with that. That feeling is expressing something deep about you, something that should, with care and compassion, be investigated. However, acting on that feeling and hurting someone, that can be wrong.
In a more philosophical sense, the entire notion of speaking about feelings as right or wrong rests on a misunderstanding. A thought, idea, or statement can be wrong because they belong to the realm of ‘true or false’. A thought: thinking to yourself ‘this food is yuck’; an idea: running will help cardiovascular health; a statement: ‘it is raining.’ These all belong to the realm of true or false because each can be verified, respectively, by how you enjoy the taste of your food, your resting heart rate, or looking at the sky. Each is propositional and therefore belongs to the realm of ‘true or false’. Feelings, however, do not. They are not propositions, they simply are and therefore, it makes no sense to regard them as correct or incorrect, right or wrong.
Taking a sideways step, there might not be wrong feelings, but there can certainly be wrongly reported feelings. After a long work week, your friend might ask you how you feel and you say, ‘I’m tired’ rather than, ‘my job drains me and makes me want to shut off from the world’. Or, when seeing a particular act, you say ‘that’s disgusting’ rather than ‘that’s strangely arousing’. Our ‘feelings’ here are not wrong, our statements about them are, because these statements fail to conform to the ‘true’ state of our emotional landscape.
The only thing that is ever wrong with our feelings is how out of touch with them we often are. We do not deal with our sadness, so it bursts forth in paroxysms of rage. We do not address our need for love, so it turns into a hatred of intimacy. We do not tackle our insecurities, so we become pompous and proud. Again, it is entirely appropriate to feel rage, hate and pride, but it is unfortunate. Feelings we fail to address do not disappear, they just move around and come out in different forms.
We need to provide ourselves a space where we can observe our feelings. It might be writing them down in a journal, sitting quietly and meditating, or paying a visit to a counsellor, psychologist, or good friend. What matters is creating a safe space where feelings can be expressed, observed, and allowed to exist. When we allow our feelings (no matter how horrible or uncomfortable they might be) a space to appear, peace with ourselves becomes a possibility. We have acknowledged a part of ourselves that needed to be heard and that is the beginning of philosophy: knowing yourself.