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"The wrong emotion", by Elizabeth Gilbert

Elizabeth Gilbert

Dear Ones:

Once I went to visit a therapist because I was afraid I might be a sociopath.

The reason I felt like a sociopath, is because I thought I was feeling THE WRONG EMOTION. Specifically, my story was this: I was a 30 year-old married woman, and I was supposed to want to have a baby — because that’s what married women are supposed to want when they are 30 years old. But I didn’t want to have a baby. The thought of having a baby filled me not with a sense of joy, but with a sense of dread.

So I figured I must be a sociopath — obviously! — and I went to a therapist to confirm this diagnosis. This woman helpfully explained to me the difference between a sociopath and myself. She said, “A sociopath does not feel any human emotion. You, on the other hand, are feeling plenty of human emotion, but the problem is, you believe you are feeling THE WRONG EMOTION. “

That’s why my life was falling apart — not because I couldn’t feel, but because I couldn’t accept my true feelings as legitimate. I was suffering and falling into depression because I still believed that there is a way that we are supposed to feel about every single life event (some sort of industry standard) and if my feelings deviated from that industry standard, then there was something deeply broken and wrong about me.

I do not believe that anymore.

We are not Dell Operating Systems, people.

We are people, people.

And we are complex and unique and perfect and true, and there is no one way to feel.

There is a way that culture teaches you that you are supposed to feel….and then there is what you are actually feeling. And if can’t allow your true feelings to exist, because you’re trying to live within the socially acceptable feeling, then you will suffer, and you will try to cram yourself into the industry standard, or you will try to numb your true feelings with addiction or self-abuse, or you will just stop feeling anything at all (to the point that you almost DO resemble a sociopath.)

Oh, my loves, my loves, my loves…

Have you ever suffered because you believed you were feeling THE WRONG EMOTION?

For years, I have collected so many stories from friends about their experiences with THE WRONG EMOTION.

I have a friend who described her sense of grieving — acute, anguished grieving — on her wedding day. That’s THE WRONG EMOTION! You can’t feel grief about getting married, when 300 guests are waiting to gaze at you in your very expensive Vera Wang wedding gown! WRONG! And the shame she felt about that feeling of grief was so awful that her internal hard drive basically crashed for several years…effectively turning her into a socially-acceptable zombie, because feeling absolutely nothing was preferable to feeling THE WRONG EMOTION.

My friend the writer Ann Patchett recently wrote a brave and gorgeous essay about the tremendous joy she felt when her father finally died. He had suffered from an awful illness for years, and when he passed away, Ann felt not just relief…but joy! Ecstatic joy! And man, did she take some shit from the Internet for saying out loud that she was happy her father was dead, because that is THE WRONG EMOTION. And yet that’s what Ann felt — despite, or perhaps because, of the fact that she had adored her father, and been his caregiver. She felt joy for herself, and joy for him, because they had both reached the end of his suffering. And rather than keeping that WRONG EMOTION under wraps, she brought it out into the daylight and examined it, and talked about it openly, and shared it. Good for her.

I have a friend who finally said, “I hate Christmas, and I’ve always hated Christmas. I’m not doing it anymore.” WHAT?! WRONG EMOTION!

I have a friend who doesn’t feel any regret or sadness or ambivalence about that abortion she had thirty years ago. WHAT?! WRONG EMOTION.

I have a friend who stopped reading the news or being involved in activism and politics because he finally said, “Honestly? I don’t care anymore. I just don’t!” WRONG EMOTION!

I have a friend who stopped being a deacon in her church because she finally had to admit that she couldn’t swallow her church’s teachings anymore: WRONG EMOTION!

I have a friend who told me, “You know that expression about how nobody on their deathbed ever said, ‘I wish I’d spent more time at work’? Because family and friends are supposed to be more important than work? Well, I probably will be the one on my deathbed saying that I wish I’d spent more time at work, because I love working. I’m crazy about my job, and I love it more than anything! I wish I could work even more hours. My work fulfills me completely. I love my job more than I love my friends — and I find my job so much easier to deal with than my crazy family. Work is where I go for joy.” WHAT?! WRONG EMOTION!

I have a friend who thought she was insane because — after her husband left her — all she could feel was relief….after twenty years of a “good marriage”. She had given everything to that marriage, and she had loved him so faithfully, and then he bailed out on her. She should have been weeping! She should have felt bitter! She should have felt shamed and betrayed and enraged! There’s a script for how you are supposed to feel when your husband leaves you after you’ve been such a good wife, but she was deviating from the script, because all she felt was pure elation that he was gone and she was free. Her family was concerned about her for her reaction, because that’s THE WRONG EMOTION. They thought she might need to be medicated.

My mother once confessed to me that the happiest era of her life began when my sister and I finally grew up and went to college and she had an empty nest. THE WRONG EMOTION! Women are supposed to hate the empty nest! Mothers are supposed to mourn and collapse when their children leave home. But no. My mom wanted to dance a freakin’ jig when she dropped her daughters off at college and realized that she was — at last —done with us. All the other moms were weeping, but all my mother could feel was: “Yahoooo!” But she kept that feeling under wraps, because maternal ambivalence is the single most unacceptable emotion in our culture, and a “good mother” (whatever that even means, God help us) does NOT get to celebrate being free of her children, because: WRONG EMOTION. What would the neighbors say?

And here is the ultimate: A beloved friend of mine, years ago, was diagnosed with a terminal illness. This man, who loved life more than anyone I have ever met, admitted to me that his first thought — when the diagnosis came — was, “Oh, thank God.” And that feeling didn’t go away over time, either, even as his disease worsened. He felt such deep happiness. He felt like, “Phew, I’m done!” He was dying! He “should” have felt sorrow and rage and pain and loss. But all he could think was that there was so much he didn’t have to worry about anymore! He didn’t have to worry about saving for retirement anymore. He didn’t have to figure out how to deal with his most difficult relationships anymore. He didn’t have to worry about terrorism and global warming anymore. He didn’t have to worry about getting the roof on the garage fixed anymore. He didn’t even have to worry about dying anymore, because now he knew how his story would end. He was happy. And he stayed happy, throughout the whole journey toward his death. He told me, “Look, life is hard. Even a good life is hard, and I’ve had a very good life…but it’s hard. I’m excited that I get to leave this dinner party now. It’s been a fun party, but I’m tired. I’m ready to go.” WRONG EMOTION! The doctors told him he was in shock, and kept handing him brochures about grieving. But my friend wasn’t in shock. Shock is when you feel nothing; my friend was feeling something —happiness! The doctors just didn’t like it, because it was THE WRONG EMOTION. Not up to the industry standard. But my friend was standing in his truth – his very own truth — and if sixty years of conscious and openhearted living do not entitle a good man to stand in his own truth and feel his own feelings at the end of his life, then what is life even for?

My friends, listen: I want you to learn how to feel what you are feeling — not what you think you are SUPPOSED to feel, but what you ACTUALLY feel.

And I want you to guide your own life based on that, and only that.

I want you to remove the WRONG EMOTION! button from your internal keyboard forever.

I want you to throw away the idea that there is an emotional industry standard, and that you must not deviate from it. My friend Rob Bell told me that he used to ask his therapist all the time, “Is it normal that I feel this way?”, and the therapist would always reply, “Oh, Rob…we passed normal a long time ago.”

I passed normal a long time ago, too. I will not inflict upon myself anymore the shame and suffering of questioning my own reactions to life, or burying my own true feelings because I am not feeling what I’m allegedly supposed to feel.

If I feel joy, than that joy is right and real…for me.

If I feel grief, than that grief is right and real….for me.

If I love someone, then that love is right and real…for me.

If I feel mistrust or aversion to people I am supposed to trust and admire, then that feeling of mistrust is right and real…for me. And if I feel admiration for people I’m not supposed to admire, than that feeling of admiration is right and real…for me.

Nobody benefits when I try to make myself feel ways that I do not feel, and nobody benefits when I try to make myself NOT feel ways that I do feel…and nobody benefits when you do that, either.

Feel what you feel, allow your emotions to be legitimate, fearlessly examine your own reactions to your own life, and live your absolute truth — there is no other pathway to integrity than that.

Anything short of that is truly WRONG. (For you.)



( 23 comments — Leave a comment )
Aug. 25th, 2016 12:43 pm (UTC)
Blogging this, thanx
Aug. 25th, 2016 12:53 pm (UTC)
Always my pleasure :)
Aug. 25th, 2016 04:13 pm (UTC)
I am particularly grateful for

"And here is the ultimate: A beloved friend of mine, years ago, was diagnosed with a terminal illness. This man, who loved life more than anyone I have ever met, admitted to me that his first thought — when the diagnosis came — was, `Oh, thank God.' And that feeling didn’t go away over time, either, even as his disease worsened. He felt such deep happiness. He felt like, `Phew, I’m done!' He was dying! He `should' have felt sorrow and rage and pain and loss. But all he could think was that there was so much he didn’t have to worry about anymore!"

Because that is exactly what I am hoping to feel when death gets immanent.
Aug. 25th, 2016 09:01 pm (UTC)
Aug. 25th, 2016 05:24 pm (UTC)
Thank you:-)
Aug. 25th, 2016 09:02 pm (UTC)
You are most welcome; she often has good articles.
Aug. 26th, 2016 01:41 am (UTC)
Oooh, I like this. *takes notes*
Aug. 26th, 2016 09:34 pm (UTC)
You are most welcome :)
Aug. 26th, 2016 01:42 am (UTC)
A very interesting article.
Aug. 26th, 2016 09:34 pm (UTC)
Pleased you thought so :)
Aug. 26th, 2016 02:19 am (UTC)
Interesting. I don't truly grok this, and it raises a number of pertinent questions about perceptual differences, and the reasons for them.

There are two conflicting premises: both have merit, and both have deficits:

"What I feel is true, no matter what anyone else tells me."

"What I have been told is true, regardless of what I feel."

... what's needed is a way to sort out 'what I feel' and 'what I've been told' from 'what has solid evidence and non-fallacious logic to support it'. Lucky for us, we have the Scientific Method, specifically designed for that purpose.

I don't think I've ever perceived myself as feeling a 'wrong emotion'. I certainly knew that many of the things I thought and felt were considered heresy, treason, gender-treason, etc. by those whose agendas I opposed. However, since I regarded those agendas themselves as wrong, I had no moral qualms about opposing them.

Edited at 2016-08-26 02:20 am (UTC)
Aug. 26th, 2016 09:35 pm (UTC)
So you come to this from a different point of view, which I appreciate your explaining :)

I can't say I recall ever considering what I felt "wrong", but I know some people have mentioned something along these lines to me, hence my sharing the article.
Aug. 26th, 2016 06:16 am (UTC)
This is beautiful, thank you. I wish I had the courage to be true to myself, whatever that is.
Aug. 26th, 2016 09:36 pm (UTC)
It is often difficult to define what being true to oneself is, and, moreover, one should only be true to one's _best_ self, in my opinion :)

You are most welcome!
Aug. 26th, 2016 08:56 am (UTC)
Thank you, this is very true!
Aug. 26th, 2016 05:38 pm (UTC)
Thank you for sharing this. I'm forwarding to my mother, whose mum is going to visit her for the next three months and she has been suffering for the last six weeks, dreading the visit, my grandmother and life altogether.

"She's my mother, I should be so happy...how can I be such a horrible person?"

Needless to say that my grandma is really quite a difficult person but even if she wasn't, I find the message in this post quite honest and helpful- so thank you again
Aug. 26th, 2016 09:37 pm (UTC)
You are most welcome, and yes, family, esp. close family, interactions are often the most difficult.

Hope the visit goes as smoothly as possible!
Aug. 27th, 2016 05:36 pm (UTC)
Oh this resonates so strongly for me. Thank-you so much.
Aug. 27th, 2016 07:11 pm (UTC)
You are most welcome! I am pleased you found it useful :)

(also, love your icon ;))
Aug. 31st, 2016 10:47 pm (UTC)
But there are right and wrong emotions, or at least, correct and incorrect responses to things; see, for example, The Abolition of Man or the work of any virtue ethicist, such as Phillipa Foot.
Aug. 31st, 2016 11:44 pm (UTC)
Emotions? No; actions--absolutely.

"...We can none of us help what we are, only what we do and how often."
Sep. 1st, 2016 05:16 pm (UTC)
But it's emotions that motivate actions, and that there are right and wrong actions also shows there are right and wrong emotional responses: the right emotional responses are the ones we ought to let guide us, the wrong emotional responses are the ones we ought to suppress.

I mean, take anger. There are times when it is appropriate to feel anger, when anger is the right emotion, and where we should act on that anger: when we become aware of someone behaving unjustly, for example, we ought to feel angry and act on it (for example by reporting them to the authorities and bringing them to justice). But then there are times when anger is an inappropriate, wrong response, such as, well, maybe if you're the kind of person who gets angry any time they see their spouse talking to another member of the opposite sex. That would be a wrong emotion and it would be wrong to act on it by, say, punching the spouse.

The actions are the manifestations of the emotions, yes, but the real problem is that that is not an appropriate thing to get angry about: the anger is the wrong emotion, and that is why it would be wrong to let the anger direct our actions (as opposed to situations like seeing injustice where it would be right to let the anger direct our actions).

Training our emotions so that we react in the right way to things is the most important part of moral education.

From the first chapter of The Abolition of Man:

'Without the aid of trained emotions the intellect is powerless against the animal organism. I had sooner play cards against a man who was quite sceptical about ethics, but brought up to believe that 'a gentleman does not cheat', than against an irreproachable moral philosopher who had been brought up among sharpers.


We were told it all long ago by Plato. As the king governs by his executive, so Reason in man must rule the mere appetites by means of the 'spirited element'. The head rules the belly through the chest – the seat, as Alanus tells us, of Magnanimity, of emotions organised by trained habit into stable sentiments. The Chest – Magnanimity – Sentiment – these are the indispensable liaison officers between cerebral man and visceral man. It may even be said that it is by this middle element that man is man; for by his intellect he is mere spirit and by his appetite mere animal.'
Sep. 1st, 2016 08:26 pm (UTC)
Certainly it would be wrong to _act_ upon this emotion.

We seem to be talking at cross-purposes.

Btw, would you like to introduce yourself, anon? :)
( 23 comments — Leave a comment )

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