The phrase rolled off my tongue with an eerie familiarity. After a quick Google search, I knew why. While I had no recollection of the 1968 film by the same name, watching the first ten minutes gave me a quirky, 60‘s cultural context for “What’s so bad about feeling good?”
The movie portrayed the “true intellectuals” of the day, Beatniks, living in New York City’s East Village. They had found the true meaning of life; there was no meaning to anything; and the world was going to end.
The farfetched plot featured a disease-carrying toucan bird. People, once bitten, found themselves infected with a severe case of happiness. Commonly held beliefs of “normal” and “sick” became juxtaposed. Sick people couldn’t help but be nice. Normal folks maintained predictable mean and ruthless attitudes toward each other. In the movie, this plague of niceness threatened humanity!
For 15 years, as a clinical social worker in private practice, I have watched clients struggle to cross the threshold from negative into positive thinking. I have been quite curious about why it is so hard for people to remember the good stuff and so easy for them to hold on to the bad.
The reason most people decide to go for counseling support is because they want to feel good, enjoy life more. Many try to embrace positive thinking, only to feel like they are “failures at therapy!” The bad thoughts are like habits, hard to break.
Why does negativity have such a powerful pull? People have a strong instinct for emotional—as well as physical—survival. I call it our “Soldier Part.” A soldier is on guard, always, protecting us from harm. We do things for a reason. Negative thinking, worry, and fear serve us well. Being on high alert, especially when we are trying not to get hurt, keeps us from getting hurt. Right?
Yes and no. Internal conflicts, talking showdowns in our heads, are common struggles. The battles are between the parts of us that want to enjoy life and the parts that don’t want to get hurt.
In 2014, as a much more evolved practitioner, I “meet people where they are.” Negativity is often the place. I don’t get too many calls when things are going well. I invite the people I work with to explore how they came to think the way they think. I ask them to have curiosity about the people who and the experiences that have taught them how to think. Together, we contemplate their life experiences, viewing them as our valuable teachers. Understandably, our minds reflect back to childhood, where it all began.
When I first meet a client, I take out a blank piece of paper and draw a straight line. After scribbling a childlike stick figure on the left, I write the word “NOW” on the right. Then, I draw two taller stick figures, placing them beside the “child” and call them “the big people.” I point out, as kids, we have no filter, no voice, and no mobility! It all gets in!
A child’s developing mind is like a sponge, impressionable to messages from others, especially parents and other adults. These messages teach a child how to view himself or herself and the world around them. I ask my client to take a moment to consider this suggestion: “Parents raise their children in their own images, to fit into a world the way they see it.”
Curiosity is natural in childhood, but often (directly and indirectly) discouraged by authority figures. I create a safe place for each client to think about things they have rarely questioned.
I ask everyone to take a minute, look at their timeline, reflect upon their journey, and just notice what thoughts come to mind. “Our work begins with awareness. We owe it to ourselves to know why we think what we think.” Unlike when you are a child, as an adult, you now have choice. If you don’t like how you think, you may choose to think differently.”
So, what’s so bad about feeling good? Nothing—feeling good is the goal of counseling for many, but it is important to appreciate the protective value of feeling bad. This is a great place to begin.