Horrible People Unite

The young woman speaks earnestly, “I was up all night with a teething baby and then I worked a nine hour day, came home and took care of my other kids and made dinner for the next day. I was so overwhelmed and started snapping at my kids. What kind of person am I? I should just be grateful that I have kids. My friend has been waiting for ten years and my other friend is still not married. I'm such a horrible person"

Or, "my elderly mother called me to help her clean for Pesach. I am busy trying to make Pesach in my own house and help my married kids make Pesach and working full time. I felt like I just didn't want to and I went but felt guilty the whole time that I didn’t want to be there. What kind of person doesn't want to help her elderly mother? This is the woman who changed my diapers!”

Often in therapy I am presented with the argument from people that, “if I was a really good person I wouldn’t feel _____________ (fill in the blank with your negative feeling of choice: angry, sad, frustrated etc.).” Now, I may not be an expert on what really good people feel, but I do know a bit about what humans feel. Humans feel a range of emotion that include all sorts of socially appropriate and socially inappropriate things. Humans get tired and overwhelmed and grumpy and irritated and lazy and sad and nervous and angry. These are not the traits of horrible people; but of all people.

When people get caught in a belief that they shouldn’t be feeling certain negative emotions they then have two problems: the difficult emotion and the reaction to the difficult emotion. It takes considerable energy for people to be constantly suppressing how they feel and trying to eliminate all negative feelings. I’m a therapist; not a math expert. But I do know that most people prefer one problem to two. By eliminating the secondary reaction to how one feels and learning to make room for all feelings, the person is already doing better.

Many people struggle with allowing themselves to feel these “negative” emotions; as if they can choose to live life without ever having to experience negative emotion. However, feeling difficult emotions at times is a part of life. The issue with people not allowing themselves to feel what they feel is that the feeling will still be there, albeit somewhat unacknowledged. The problem with unacknowledged feelings is that people tend to act out on them as a way of them becoming acknowledged.  

Let’s take newly married Tami for example. Tami feels very annoyed at her new husband for leaving his socks on the floor but reminds herself of her kallah teacher’s admonition not to make a big deal out of little things. Unable to allow herself to feel her frustration she convinces herself not to be annoyed and tells herself how lucky she is to be married even while she is gritting her teeth as she picks up the socks day after day. Then one day her dear husband leaves a dish on the table she just can't take it anymore. The man obviously has no regard for her feelings! She grits her teeth and in a voice her kallah teacher certainly wouldn't be proud of, tells him to put his dish away NOW. Her reaction is also to the socks, which she had convinced herself shouldn't bother her. Except that they do. And her poor husband is so confused; he puts the dish away but still can’t figure out why that made Tami so upset. After all, she’s so chilled about the socks!

So maybe really great people aren't affected by sleepless nights and cranky children and sinks full of dirty dishes and dirty socks. I wouldn't know cause I'm not one of them. I’m just human; trying my best to live life right like most humans I know. To be human. To embrace our humanity. To learn to acknowledge the feelings that G-d Himself has made part of our human condition.  I often hear people say, “if I was a good person and really had faith then this challenge wouldn't be so difficult and painful.” To which I reply, “Then it wouldn't be a challenge.” It is possible to have faith AND AT THE SAME TIME to experience something as painful and frustrating and to wish it hadn’t happened.

People struggle with dialectics; they think it’s either one or the other. Black and white are simple. Even a cookie knows black and white. Grey is complicated. It's the color of smog, of dirty snow, of last winter’s scarf, of the cat that never leaves your garbage can. It's a color that requires thought and space and room.

Grey is thinking, "I am so grateful to have children, and right now I feel like I don't want to ever pour another cup of apple juice or wipe another nose."

Grey is, "I love my mother dearly and I have so much going on in my life right now that I don't feel like helping her.”

We choose our actions not our feelings. You may still choose to help your mother or to keep on pouring apple juice, but it's ok to feel like you don't want to. And the irony is, that the more ok you can be with feeling those things, chances are the feelings will pass a lot faster than when you try to force yourself not to feel them. And when you allow yourself space to feel those things you are also less likely to act on those feelings towards your kids or mother or husband or friend. So maybe being human isn’t so bad.

And if you really are a horrible person, well, at least you're in good company.

Tzipora Shub, LCSW works as a supervisor at the JBFCS adolescent clinic in Flatbush and in private practice.