Is It Wrong To Feel This Way? – An Inquiry Into Emotions and Morality

Written by: Jorinde Berben
Image credit: Jorinde Berben

There are plenty of times in our lives in which we get confronted with emotions we don’t want to feel. We can feel upset, angry or sad on a daily basis, but usually, we feel our emotions are pretty justified. My child keeps yelling and I’ve reached my threshold for auditory input so I get angry, very understandable. My cat dies and I feel grief wash over me, also completely acceptable.

There are, however, also times in which our emotions confuse us, times in which we feel one thing when we think we should – or want to – feel something else. I think most of us can give examples of situations like this, in which our feelings just feel ‘wrong’.

Maybe it’s the anger you feel when someone gets something you wanted, falling in love with someone who is married, the sense of relief when someone passes away after a long illness or the affection we feel for someone who mistreats us.

These emotions are not fake. They can feel just as intense and overwhelming as any other feeling. They are, however, also the cause of intense confusion and worry. We all grew up very much aware of what is and isn’t appropriate. No one needed to teach us this directly (though you’ve probably had many explicit lessons on morality in your life). As a species, we are intent on cooperation and group cohesion, and sensing what is and isn’t appropriate is an essential skill for survival in cooperative species. It’s in our nature to care about morality.

It is then all the more alarming when you find yourself feeling something you’re not supposed to feel, at least not according to the moral rules you’ve internalised at an early age. When we are faced with these seemingly inappropriate emotions, we can respond in a few different ways.

Often, we choose to deny these feelings. We push them down, ignore them and pretend they’re not there. We reach for our drug of choice, or go in search of other emotions to overpower the one we don’t want to feel. This is probably by far the most popular approach.

We can project our emotions outwards and see what caused them, who or what we can blame for the way we are feeling. This way, we try to assuage the guilt that accompanies these contradictory feelings and at the same time invalidate them.

Another approach is to see these emotions as proof of our own bad nature. When we already suffer from low self-esteem, having feelings that seem ‘wrong’ can confirm our belief that we’re ‘bad’ people, or in some other way morally compromised. I have feelings that are wrong because I am wrong as a person.

I probably don’t have to tell you that none of the approaches above really helps to deal with the difficult emotions. The thing is, feelings aren’t either good or bad. They can be pleasant or unpleasant, sure, but in the end, a feeling in and of itself does not carry any moral value. You could be ecstatic because your child won a football match, or because you just saw your mistress. In either case, the happiness will feel pleasant. The moral difference doesn’t lie in the feelings, it lies in the actions that caused those feelings and in the results of those actions.

Emotions are nothing more than a signal in our lives, albeit a very powerful one. They signal to us when our needs are met, or when they are not met. And just like emotions, needs are not ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ either. You just need what you need. You need air, food, freedom, excitement and connection. You need rest, play, safety and adventure. When we experience conflicting emotions, they are often at the basis of conflicting needs.

The conflicting emotions we sometimes deal with show us needs that are either met or unmet that we may not yet be aware of. Taking care of someone who is sick for a long time is both physically and emotionally draining. When they pass away, the part of us that desires rest, play and freedom may feel that a load is lifted, while at the same time another part grieves the loss of someone we held very dearly.

The reasons people start affairs, even if they are convinced this is unethical, are also a tell-tale sign of what they are struggling with either in their relationship, in their life or within themselves. Maybe their sexual needs are not met (the most cliché reason though hardly ever the real reason), or they need adventure, or they are looking for a part of themselves that they are missing and that the other person brings out.

When you are confronted with a feeling you don’t want to feel, or that you think you shouldn’t feel, it can be incredibly healing to talk to someone about it, someone who will be able to listen empathetically and won’t judge you for what you are going through. It can also be helpful to look for the needs behind the feeling, so you can reflect bac at yourself with empathy and understanding as well.

Finally, it is worth remembering that just because we feel something, that doesn’t necesarily mean we need to act on those feelings. We still have the freedom to choose which actions we want to take, and there are nearly always several different strategies to meet a particular need.

Feelings are there for a reason. They’re not trying to make our lives miserable, they are trying to tell us something. All we can do is listen to them.

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