You can’t tell people what to feel

These days, I’m reminded of this important lesson from my counseling training: You can’t tell people how they ought to feel.
Emotion is neither good nor bad. Emotion is part of how we respond to the world around us. Emotion is information about our internal states. If someone feels joyful, that is part of their internal state. If someone feels sad, that is part of their internal state. In many ways, emotion happens spontaneously. We hear some news or experience an event and feel a gut response.
Whatever a person is feeling, I am not in a position to say, “You shouldn’t be feeling that way”.
What I can do is have a conversation about the ideas underlying that emotion. For example, I like the grocery store chain Trader Joe’s; I appreciate that there’s a Trader Joe’s near my apartment. I could hear that Trader Joe’s is closing all of their stores, and feel really sad. If someone came to me and said, “You shouldn’t be sad that Trader Joe’s is closing down”, I would respond by saying, “Who are you to tell me how I should feel? Trader Joe’s meant a lot to me and my family. Maybe it seems silly to you, but it was important to me, so leave me alone.”
But the person can say to me “Hey, Trader Joe’s is not actually closing down”, and then I won’t be sad anymore. The helpful person is not challenging my emotion, but providing new information and challenging the ideas that undergird the emotion.
Some may disagree. Some may say that I should tell people how they ought to feel, that I should tell people “Be joyful, not sad!” or “Don’t be happy, be upset!” I would like to ask those folks a simple question: How is that working out for you? When you tell people that they are experiencing the wrong emotions, do they listen to you? And if they listen to you, what do they say in response?
We can talk about the ideas undergirding emotions. We can talk about how to respond to our emotions. We can talk about how to channel our emotions, and not be ruled by our emotional lives. But I, at least, think that’s a bad idea to tell people to deny that their emotions exist or what they are feeling.
So for those who feel the need to mourn, let them mourn. For those who feel the need to rejoice, let them rejoice. Maybe the two groups should give each other some space, because trying to have a wedding and a funeral in the same venue is awkward. And then maybe we can come back and work on things together.

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