For a long time, I have subscribed to a basically utilitarian ethics, one that is predicated on harm reduction. When I first started thinking about ethics in any sort of real way, my brain was not in a healthy place, and so I came to the conclusion that if I ever caused harm, what I had done was bad. In particular I never wanted to cause bad feelings in anyone else, especially by bothering them, annoying them, taking up too much of their time, being demanding, or unintentionally stepping on their toes in some fashion. I wanted to take up less space so that I would never inadvertently cause someone to feel bad feelings.
In large part, I attribute this to the fact that my own ability to tolerate distress was complete crap. Nearly every bad feeling I had felt overwhelming, and all I could think about was how much I wanted there to be less of those distressing feelings in the world. I had no idea how to have a “negative” feeling without it ruining my day, and so I assumed that every time I influenced or impacted another person, it meant that they would remember and feel that negativity forever. I was convinced that any time I made a mistake I was actively harming the world around me and making life worse for other people. This very quickly led into a perfectionism predicated on the idea that if I wasn’t perfect then I was seriously hurting people and hurting people in any way was completely unacceptable.
Let’s take a metaphor for a minute (it’s fun, I promise). Say you’re in a crowded room and you bump into someone. You step on their toes a little bit because the crowd was shifting or you lost your balance or you just didn’t quite see them. No big deal. You move and apologize, and for most people that’s the end of it. The person that you stepped on really probably hasn’t had their life impacted in any serious way, and part of being around people is the knowledge that sometimes they’ll be in your bubble. Almost no one in the world would suggest that if there’s a possibility you might step on someone’s toe you should not go out at all. Instead, we take reasonable precautions, like not wearing stilettos in situations where everyone else is barefoot, and trying to keep an eye out around us, and apologizing if we mess up. In terms of quality of life, I would much rather go out and get bumped than stay in for fear of getting bumped.
Most of the time, the little mistakes we make like saying something mildly offensive or accidentally insulting someone are a lot like getting your toes stepped on. It’s annoying and might be mildly painful, but as long as the other person stops and apologizes it really doesn’t matter. Sometimes you have to let people know they’re stepping on your toes (especially if you have sensitive spots that are a little out of the ordinary), and sometimes if you have an especially tender point you have to let someone know that it might look like stepping on toes but for you is jumping on a broken foot (I may be taking this metaphor too far). The point is, most people are more than resilient enough to make it through a few social hiccups without it affecting the overall quality of their life. Even more than that, the benefits of socializing far outweigh the small slip ups that do happen.
This is the secret: bad feelings are not bad. They are not immoral. It is not even immoral to cause them. Sometimes they are entirely healthy, good, and important things to feel, even if they are somewhat unpleasant. Emotions like anger, sadness, frustration, or other so called negative emotions really exist to give us information. Most of the time they’re pretty in tune with what’s happening around us, so if someone violates a boundary, if we lose something we care about, if we cannot reach our goals, or if there’s something else that requires our attention or action, we feel an emotion in response. Good. It’s just like pain letting us know that something is not healthy.
Not all kinds of pain are things that we want to have happen, but some kinds of pain are good and important and necessary. They come from change or trying new things or growing in some fashion. Take a child moving away to college. Both the parent and the child will likely feel some sadness as they are to some extent losing each other. No one would suggest that this is a reason for a child to never leave home. We have these emotions to give us information, but sometimes they give us information we already know or can do nothing about or don’t want to do anything about. So the feeling is just there. And that’s ok. It’s not a bad feeling. It doesn’t ruin someone’s life or even day or week. Just like sometimes I get headaches and that’s annoying, sometimes I get sad and that’s annoying. Sometimes other people are the source of both of those events. In neither case do I think that means whoever caused it is a bad person that I don’t want to be around.
I do still like the idea of minimizing harm, but we also have to recognize that it is impossible to do no harm, and that it’s ok. Other people are more resilient than you might expect. And those moments of sadness or anger? They’re really not all that bad a lot of the time. Negative feelings are an entirely acceptable part of human reality.
Disclaimer: this does not mean that intentionally hurting other people is ok. It also does not mean that feelings that cause serious distress or harm are great and awesome. It means that some negative feelings sometimes are acceptable.