Good or Bad
Happy or Sad
Fight or Flight
Republican or Democrat
Rich or Poor
Hard or Easy
Naughty or Nice
“I’m fine” is my go to response when asked how I am doing. Fine, meaning “OK-not sad, not angry, not lonely”. When my face tells a different story, when tears are in my eyes, or deep sighs emerge from my mouth, “I’m a little off” becomes the preferred descriptor.
I have made a career from professing that labels hurt. I remind people that assigning labels to children often creates a determination of a destiny. “You’re smart” may make a child feel as though everything will naturally come easily because of their identity trait of being smart. “You’re funny” may make a child feel as though she is supposed to be the class clown. Labels can limit, but often that’s because our labels are limited.
In schools, we often describe learning in binary terms. “Got it/ Don’t got it”; “Thumbs up/Thumbs down”; “Proficient/Not-Proficient”, “Right/Wrong”, but we know this isn’t how learning truly manifests itself. Everything we know, everything we don’t know, fits into a continuum. It’s all part of a process. Learning accumulates and gathers towards mastery. Counting leads to addition, which leads to subtraction, leading to multiplication and division, etc… Learning the alphabet leads to phonemic awareness, which leads to fluency, which leads to comprehension.
Learning to roll over, leads to crawling, which leads to standing, then to walking and running. Everything we know today exists on a spectrum. We haven’t learned everything there is to learn about anything. We are still going and still growing. This is true for our feelings as much as it is our thinking.
When asked if I am a republican or democrat, I used to say, “I’m fiscally conservative but socially liberal.” When asked what my favorite color is, I wouldn’t say “red” or “blue”. My response was that I love the Crayola color Sunset Orange a unique blend of orange, red, and yellow. My favorite food is created by combining ingredients. My favorite movies have dynamic characters, unique settings, and intriguing plots. The songs I listen to on repeat have catchy beats, powerful lyrics, and engaging melodies. Everything in my life is complex. Everything is unique, subtle, and dynamic. Everything except for how I describe my feelings.
When I say “I’m fine” what I mean is that I am not feeling any extreme emotions. Things are stable and I am not aware of anything that may be causing me to feel…anything. In terms of a bell curve, “I’m fine” is my way of saying I am within one standard deviation of the mean. I’m average. “I’m feeling a little off” is my way of saying I am feeling different than what I do most of the time. Sometimes this is triggered by being alone. Sometimes it is a result of being hurt. Sometimes I am angry. Sometimes I am sad. “A little off” means I don’t like how I am feeling and I am trying to say that I don’t want to keep feeling this way. “Off” however, also implies that I do not think these feelings are a part of the normal human experience. “Off” implies irregularities and a problem, when the reality is, “Off” is simply a part of the process.
My feelings are not binary. They are not white or black. They are not good or bad, normal or abnormal. My feelings are real. My feelings are complex. My feelings are a part of my existence. My attempt to categorize all that I feel into two big buckets makes life easier but makes thriving that much more challenging.
Today, am I feeling hope, or am I feeling certain? Am I feeling jealous or am I feeling angry? Am I hurt or am I scared? Am I excited or am I content? Human emotions are like elements on the periodic table. Each has unique characteristics but each can also be combined with others to create new experiences and states of being. Sure, there is value in knowing that there are solids, liquids, and gasses, but limiting our understanding of the world to what we can easily sort means we don’t get to experience the joys of Jello and Play-Doh. When we begin to realize that our days are not always good or bad we are able to look at each moment and the uniqueness of each experience.
Learning how to accurately describe our feelings puts us in a position to seek support and celebration. When I am “fine” others don’t know how to build upon that feeling and bring me joy. I am not able to describe how my sense of contentment was established nor how I should behave to extend its existence. When I am “off” I am unable to share how I was hurt or why I was scared. I am unable to determine whether I need help or if I should be left alone. Each of my feelings exists in isolation yet each works in concert with others.
A few years ago I entered therapy. I realized things were not as I wanted them to be, but I wasn’t sure how to fix them. I’ve never been one to freely share my feelings, but always said what I thought others needed to hear. I felt like my words could impact how others felt, often limiting that mindset to, “I can make others feel good or bad.” As a child, I never shared my fears, my passions, or my desires. I kept my head down, did the work, and left feelings for others. As I entered therapy, I found myself continuing with the same mindset. I just had to sit on the leather couch and tell the shrink what they needed to hear. Often, what was said in the safe confines of the therapist’s office yielded little. What happened in my mind between meetings left me overwhelmed and confused. Being inside my own head and experiencing a range of emotions was new and novel. I didn’t like it and I often blamed everyone but me. It was easier that way. I went through multiple therapists in my first year as I tried to find the one who conformed to my pre-existing thought processes and told me what I wanted to hear and what I already knew.
At the expense of contradicting myself, I need to be clear that not all counselors are “good”. Not being good however does not make one “bad”. In my quest for the right fit, I, unfortunately, sought out guidance that repeatedly gave me advice that would have been “easy”. I don’t think it was wrong. I don’t think it was right. I think I was being guided by the popular belief to just chase my simplistic feeling of temporary happiness. A feeling that is fleeting and often leads to long-term pain. I was told that I deserved to be happy and that I should do whatever I needed to feel happy. I stated that I was sad. I was so much more than that. I was something I didn’t know how to describe. They wanted me to scratch the surface of my emotions, the simplistic emotions I chose to describe, and respond to them before diving deep and learning more.
Please don’t misunderstand me. I don’t think any of these professionals were bad or had negative intent. Nor do I believe that anyone who follows similar advice is wrong or flawed. What I believe is they each tried to convince me that my struggles required a new environment. They wanted me to believe that who I was on the surface was good enough and that everyone else should accept it. They fell for the same thinking that so many of us do. Easy=Good; Hard=Bad. Deep inside I disagreed. Although I didn’t know it then, I know it now. The reason I didn’t like that advice was that it was too simplistic. Life is not always Fight or Flight. It’s not good or bad. It’s not happy or sad. It’s not always hard or easy.
Nothing in this world is as simple as we want it to be. The grass is rarely greener on the other side. It may have a slightly different shade than your lawn, but that doesn’t mean it’s better. The other job may bring more pay but may not bring more satisfaction. The person on your Instagram reel may have an amazing smile, but that doesn’t mean she is happier. The tear in your eye does not necessarily mean you are “off”; it may just mean you are alive.
No matter what you may be feeling, please remember the more you are able to describe where you are, the more you are able to describe who you are. As we work to remove labels that limit, let’s also work to recognize the process that describes every part of our existence and learn to be better. You are good. You are amazing. You are as you should be, but you can keep getting better. Your feelings, in all of their complexity, exist to simply help you heal, help you grow, and allow you to thrive.
The more you can define, the more you can describe. The more you can describe the more you can share. Your story, you, all of the details of you, matter. Now do the work and get to know yourself. You may just be shocked, surprised, intrigued, gratified, impressed, and inspired by who you meet.