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Expanding Our Emotions Beyond “Good” and “Bad”

Why can the glass only be half-full or half-empty?
Why can the glass only be half-full or half-empty? (Image from Manki Kim from Unsplash)

"Always view the glass as half full,” I was told.

Or, “Just look for the positives!”

But I’ve always felt like these sayings couldn’t always apply, that they weren’t necessarily the best way to look at my situation. Especially if they were forced.

What if I was told to just view the glass as half full, but I am standing in a crowd of people holding glasses that are filled to the brim, unlike mine? What if I’m holding a glass half-full, but I’m surrounded by full glasses just out of my reach? What if I am longing for water, and half a glass just isn’t enough?

In those uncomfortable, isolating situations, am I expected to be content with my glass half full? Should I suppress my need for more water? In other words, are we expected to suppress all our “ugly” emotions and put on a mask of positivity, just for the sake of seeing the glass as half-full? As someone who considers herself an optimist, is it okay for me to admit that I can’t always just “think positive”?

This is something that I’ve struggled with for a long time: letting myself just feel my emotions without forcing myself into positive thinking. I’m scared that if I don’t think positively, I’ll be shadowed with negativity, a place that I don’t want to go to either. But I think that’s because of the narrowed path of processing we often take when it comes to feeling our feelings.

We love to sort things into binaries.

There is happiness, and there is sadness.

There is excitement, and there is boredom.

We’ve learned to view these feelings as opposites. If we’re not happy, we’re sad. If we’re not excited, we’re bored. Black and white, pro and con. We neglect the intricacies of our emotions.

Here’s the catch: not everything is that simple. Not everything is that binary. When I look at my life and career path, I cannot confidently say that I’m feeling happy at where I am today. I still have a long way to go before I can reach the life of freedom and happiness that I desire. However, that doesn’t mean I’m feeling sad or discouraged either. While the future feels like it’s looming over my shoulder, I’m eagerly reaching my hand forward to see what lies in store. While both highs and lows that I fear stand in my path, I’m willing to move forward to see how far I can take myself. There are so many more ways I want to describe my future and my emotions, and the clear-cut binary of “good” and “bad” doesn’t come close to encompassing my feelings.

If we only allow ourselves to think of emotion as being binary, with one good and bad side, we’ll inevitably be scared of the bad side. But I don’t want to fear my own emotions anymore.

The glass should not be limited to “half-empty” and “half-full.” Our emotions should not be limited to “good” and “bad.” We let ourselves get in the habit of trying to put our emotions into these two neat little boxes out of convenience, when in reality, our emotions are so much more than that. We as human beings are so much more than that.

It’s time we expand how we describe our emotions.

As an optimist, here’s the one conclusion I came to regarding this emotional problem: it’s okay not to view the glass as half-full all the time. Just give yourself the freedom to feel. And the first step to giving ourselves that freedom is expanding our emotional vocabulary.

For example: next time someone asks you “Hey, how are you?”, try not to let yourself respond with the reflexive “I’m good.” Actually take the time to think about and identify your emotions, because as much as we use the phrase “I’m good,” most of the time, that sentence does not encompass what we are truly feeling.

I would like to leave you with something that I heard a few months ago that has really stuck with me:

“Instead of identifying feelings as “bad” or “good,” identify why you’re feeling that way, and whether it’s good for you, what it’s doing for you.” -Max B. Wu, PhD.

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