A patient came into my office the other day upset because she'd just learned that her ex-husband's father (and her daughter's grandfather) died after a long bout with cancer. She'd been able to "keep it together" in front of her two year old daughter, she explained; after dropping her daughter off at the babysitter's she burst into tears. "He was always so nice to me," she said. "Even after the divorce he hugged me and said, 'We still love you.'"
She went to work and must have seemed distracted because her supervisor pulled her aside and asked her if everything was ok. When she told her supervisor why she was upset she told her to take the rest of the day off. She came to see me that afternoon. She felt guilty about being given the day off. "Company policy says you get time off for the death of immediate family," she explained. "He's not my family anymore. Do I even have the right to feel sad?"
What a question! Of course I told her she had the right to feel sad -- she did have the right! But she certainly didn't need my permission, or anyone else's for that matter. Why? Because no one can give another person the "right to feel," nor can they take it away.
If we as a society were to appoint certain people responsible for granting or revoking the right to feel, who would we put in charge of such a task? What knowledge, skills, or innate qualities would a person need in order to be qualified to render such judgments? And what criteria would a given individual need to meet in order to earn the right to feel? Would only certain feelings be permissible or would specific feelings be deemed appropriate for specific situations?
Even if you were able to sort all of this out it wouldn't matter. Regardless of what restrictions one might attempt to place on emotions (his own or someone else's), most people typically have little control over the feelings they experience. People are able to exercise control over how they express (or don't express) their feelings, but for most of us we feel (experience) whatever emotions arise, whether we want to or not. Think about it. Have you ever felt a certain way (maybe depressed, hurt, or angry) but didn't want to feel that way and wished you felt differently? Maybe you remember the first time someone broke your heart? You felt hurt and miserable and would have given anything to just feel better. Did you stop hurting just because you wanted to? Probably not.
And that's the thing; our feelings don't really do what we want them to. Feelings do what feelings do; it's just the way things are. So to me, it's completely unreasonable for someone to try to tell another person how he should or should not feel. Yet it happens all the time: "You have no right to be angry!" "There's no reason for you to feel sad; you have everything you could possibly want in life." Or even, "Cheer up!"
It's also unreasonable for us to tell ourselves we should or should not feel a certain way. We probably didn't ask to feel what we're feeling. Telling ourselves we're wrong for feeling that way just makes us feel guilty, on top of whatever negative thing we're already feeling. That doesn't mean that we can't recognize when our emotions have been triggered by our own insecurities or when our feelings have no basis in the reality of a particular situation. By allowing ourselves to feel whatever it is we feel it makes us better able to see where that emotion is coming from. If the emotion is somewhat misguided we are far more likely to recognize that if we acknowledge it than if we try to suppress it because we believe we "shouldn't" feel that way and feel guilty about it.
The fact is, we all have the right to feel; all we have to do is give ourselves permission to exercise it.