Everyone feels bad at times. What about feeling bad about feeling bad? A recent study, published in Washington Post, shows that feeling bad about feeling bad can make us feel worse.

A study found that people who feel bad about feeling bad — that is, people who get sad about their own negativities and judge themselves harshly for having them — wind up with even more mental stress than people who learn to accept their emotions and thoughts, writes Valerie Strauss in The Washington Post.

The study was conducted at the University of California at Berkeley and funded by the National Institute on Aging. Brett Ford, a University of Toronto assistant professor of psychology; Iris Mauss, a UC-Berkeley associate psychology professor; Oliver John, a UC-Berkeley psychology professor; and graduate student Phoebe Lam of Northwestern University were involved in the study.

Published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, the study, looked at more than 1,300 adults test the connection between their acceptance of their own emotions and their psychological health. Ford says: “It turns out that how we approach our own negative emotional reactions is really important for our overall well-being. People who accept these emotions without judging or trying to change them are able to cope with their stress more successfully.”

The research was conducted scientifically. First, more than 1,000 people filled out surveys with relevant questions, such as how they react to statements such as, “I tell myself I shouldn’t be feeling the way that I’m feeling.” Next, more than 150 participants came to a laboratory and were asked to give a three-minute videotaped speech — with only two minutes to prepare — to a panel of judges as part of a mock job application and afterward rate their own performance. Those who thought they did poorly were more stressed. And finally, more than 200 people chronicled in journals what they described as difficult recent experiences.

Mauss concludes: “Maybe if you have an accepting attitude toward negative emotions, you’re not giving them as much attention. And perhaps, if you're constantly judging your emotions, the negativity can pile up.” The research can help people who keep judging themselves understand that there is an emotional cost to doing so.

Honestly, we need to acknowledge the banal truth at times we feel bad and at times we feel good. When we want to feel good all the time, things cannot balance out. So too when we feel bad and feel bad about feeling bad, the situation can become more involved!

It can be applied to the spiritual realm. We are both good and bad. There are traces of sin and goodness in each of us. But if we focus only on the evil and go on harbouring the thought of evil, we make our own lives more miserable. This leads to entertaining evil further.

Thus the sane advice is to recognise both the good and evil in our lives. We can try to reduce the evil in our heart, but only to some extent. We cannot afford to become paranoid about wiping out every evil in our heart and in the society. Such paranoia makes the situation still more evil! That is the paradox of evil. The more we fight evil, the worse it becomes. 

So the advice of the spiritual masters is not to be too overly preoccupied with evil in our lives. A realistic recognition of evil is healthy. That is why saints recognise the evil, much more than normal people, but they do not become paranoid about it. The recognition of evil — in our hearts and in the human society — should enable us to surrender to the Absolute Goodness.

 (The writer is professor of science, religion and philosophy and author of Gratefully and Gracefully)

Kuruvilla Pandikattu