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How to feel bad

An idea strikes

Walking into Impact Hub Phnom Penh, the co-working space that I go to, a workshop on the blackboard noticeboard caught my eye. It was called ‘How to Feel Good’. I don’t know what the contents are, but it probably something to do with mindsets and techniques to increase positive affect in our lives - the feeling of having a positive mood.

Which is awesome. I practice and teach these things too. As someone who has to manage his depression, learning and using these techniques were a godsend. Things like taking a walk in nature, playing with animals (not really mine), partying, listening to music, exercise, catching up with friends, making love. These are all activities that have been shown to improve positive affect.

As I read that advert on the notice board, though, an idea came to me. If ideas have energies, this one was mischievous and fun - a trickster energy. The side of me that doesn’t get shown all that often. It whispered in my mind’s ear,

“Joey, what if you created a workshop titled, ‘How to Feel Bad’”?

“Joey, what if you created a workshop titled, ‘How to Feel Bad’”?​

I fell in love with the idea instantly. It was subversive. I agreed at once to manifest this idea somehow.


Looking back, it resonated with my experience attending my brother's old church in London, after he died. I remember noticing how so happy clappy they were, and how they made no room, in any significant or meaningful way, for the darkness. Yet I could see so clearly that there was darkness in them - of course there were - and this darkness was not being spoken about or addressed.

I remember thinking how ridiculous this was, everyone dealing with their own darkness but not speaking about it, and pretending that it wasn't there. Moreover, I recognised how dangerous this was. Following my brother's death, I pored over his texts and messages to understand him better. I was struck by one huge theme - he was dealing with a certain darkness, and he was not able to share it with those closest to him. Not me nor the church that was supposed to be supporting and protecting him.

In my life too, I carried darkness inside of me for many years. So much. And kept hidden and pushed down, it festered and ate away at my soul. Each time it arose, I'd ignore it and pretended like it wasn't there. That it was a one-off. But like an untreated wound the infection grew until a part of me died.

Bring balance to the force

There is a balance to be struck, though. What I don’t want to encourage is endless moping and feeling sorry for yourself, which is the opposite end of the spectrum to that of my brother's old church. To be honest, I see a lot of this on Facebook, and more so since I moved to Cambodia.

So what, then, are we aiming for? I am reminded of Paulo, a Brazilian paediatrician that I met at a gathering that I was speaking at in Bucharest earlier this month.

One of the activities of the gathering was a hike up Buceni mountain near Sinaia. On the day of the hike, Paolo made it clear to everyone in no uncertain terms that he was not in a good mood. He was feeling grumpy. He (like all of us) had to wake up at 5am and he got a rough night’s sleep. He made his feelings known.

I remember being struck at how grown up that seemed. I'd say that he was childlike but not childish. He acknowledged that he was in a bad mood. He fully embraced that petulant side of him that was showing up in that moment. He didn’t sit there and mope. He trudged on, trusting that the hike was something he had wanted to do and that he still wanted to do. He was just feeling shit at that moment. He wasn’t thinking the whole world was against him - he didn’t want any special treatment. I feel shit guys. Don’t expect me to be all happy clappy. Don't expect me to be chatty. Let’s just get on with it.

A few hours later, as we looked down from the top of the mountain, Paolo was in much better spirits. He felt bad, but he didn't let it ruin his day or anyone else's.

A rubbish way of feeling bad would have been if he whined and complained about it, made everyone else feel miserable or given into that momentary feeling of not wanting to hike. He'd have felt crap about missing out on the incredible views and the sense of achievement at having completed the challenge. He could have moaned about it on social media and added to the giant mass of negativity that's often found on there. But Paolo was a man who'd learned through his life experience how to feel bad,

Cat poo

Feeling good is good. Thinking that you have to feel good all the time, or even to chase that ideal is not good. It’s damn right unhealthy. Sometimes you feel bad. And ignoring that part of life is ignoring a part of life. It is diminishing your experience of the now. You are depriving yourself of the human experience.

But as we can see in Paolo's example, there are healthy ways to feel bad and unhelpful ways.

And yes, bad feelings don’t feel very good (that sounds like a stupid sentence), but we also know it’s often necessary to feel it. In order to heal. For example, if you experience a bereavement, you have to experience grief. You have to experience every ounce of bad feeling, because the pain and suffering doesn’t just go away by itself if you ignore it. It’s like cat poo.

We recently got a kitten. She poops at least twice a day. We scoop up the shit from the litter box and throw it away. But sometimes we get lazy or we just miss a bit. The shit remains. It doesn’t go away magically. Cleaning away shit isn’t very fun. It doesn’t feel good. Hell, the cat screams at us whenever we do it (ungrateful little cutie). We might decide to not do it, because it doesn’t feel good. But do you know what happens? The shit piles up. And it stinks up the house.

How to feel bad

I believe that other "bad feelings" are also like grief. That (a) they need to be felt and acknowledged, and (b) that we can choose to respond to those feelings in ways that serve us rather than harm us and those around us.

I want to explore how to feel bad, both for the heavy topics of grief, depression or loss, and also for the less heavy ones such as a friend or partner hurting your feelings. I hope to draw from the fields of neuroscience, psychology and coaching, as well as the life experience of myself and others, to design a course that teaches people how to feel bad.

I'd love to hear from you about your experiences and what's been helpful for you in your lives. Please leave a comment below or send me an email if you'd like to contribute to the discussion!