American Sociological Association

Section on Sociology of Emotions

A publication of the American Sociological AssociationASA News & Events
May/June 2020

Is it Really Okay to Feel Not Okay? Reflections from Three Scholars of Emotion (Sociology of Emotions)

Jessica Collett, University of California-Los Angeles
Lisa Walker, University of North Carolina-Charlotte
Alison Bianchi, University of Iowa

Jessica Collett, University of California-Los Angeles

Interpreting physiological responses is a key part of emotional experience. Imagine a father who tells a child about to start kindergarten that what they describe as feeling sick is actually a sign of nervous excitement—what some call butterflies—and not illness. His emotional vocabulary, combined with an understanding of situational cues, help him interpret his child’s experience (and stops him from searching for the pediatrician’s number). When he labels the emotion and asks what they’re most excited or anxious about and talks through what to expect at school, many negative aspects of the feeling fade.

Now, we are all that kindergartener. We are living in a situation that is new to us and we don’t know what to expect in the days or months ahead. We have physiological and behavioral reactions and know that we feel out of sorts, but we don’t know how to describe it. When someone asks how we are doing, we rely on vague responses that tend to ignore emotions; we are “hanging in there,” “as good as can be expected,” or even, “COVID, you know?”

Affect labeling reduces distress, but many of us don’t have a label for what we feel. Without one, it is more difficult to attend, process, and regulate our emotions. Maybe it’s grief. Maybe it’s fear. Maybe it’s discomfort, or distrust. Maybe it’s guilt, surprise, or uncertainty. Maybe it is all of the above. Maybe it’s a new emotion, one without an available label.

Even if we lack a label, reflecting on our physiological, cognitive, and behavioral experiences of what we are feeling and putting it into words we know can help us acknowledge our emotion and reduce our distress.

Lisa Walker, University of North Carolina-Charlotte

A widely shared recent Harvard Business Review article was titled “That Discomfort You’re Feeling is Grief.” For many of us, that may certainly be true as we navigate the loss of loved ones or jobs. But for many others, what we are feeling is more likely something akin to grief—something that Affect Control Theory might locate near grief in the three-dimensional space of evaluation, potency, and activity, but which is not exactly grief. Others may be feeling something in a completely different location.

I think that the suggestion that we are all feeling the same thing at this time may be problematic. Yes, I think discomfort probably applies to most people right now, as regular routines and other forms of predictability are lost. But discomfort is just a signal that our expectations are not being met. For some, this discomfort may actually be positive—due to the unexpected pleasure of more time with family, for example. And for others, it may truly be grief or something similar.

Those sharing the HBR article on social media (and certainly the author of the piece) were trying to help us make sense of our feelings in the current situation. But if your discomfort is not grief—if it is anger, or fear, or guilt, or even joy—that’s real and true as well.

Alison Bianchi, University of Iowa

To accomplish emotion management, actors negotiate the feeling rules of the situation. However, few of us know the rules for appropriate emotion expression during a global pandemic. As we navigate this unfamiliar interactional terrain, new cultural scripts from social and mass media flood our meaning systems. One popular example is the aphorism “it’s okay not to be okay”—one can find it on Facebook memes and presented by reporters. Purportedly, this feeling rule allows individuals the right to express their otherwise unacceptable emotions, especially those that others may have sanctioned them for during “normal” times.

This neoteric feeling rule could become yet another norm that is unevenly applied to our interactional landscape, a realm already littered with emotion stereotypes and disparate opportunities for authentic emotional presentations. Is it really okay for working mothers to break down in front of their now-at-home-all-day kids? Is it really okay for persons of color who are rightfully angry for what is happening to their communities, or for LGBTQ students, who may be afraid to leave college campuses to live in potentially unsafe places, to not be okay? Might these individuals’ emotions be labeled pejoratively or even dismissed?

Emotion privilege exists, and feeling rules, like other informal accountings, can reveal emotional “haves,” who are indulged with emotion escape values, and emotional “have nots,” who are not given feeling freedoms. In atypical times, it is even more important that we identify the prevailing feeling rules, recognize that standpoint matters for their application, and provide individuals with emotional support despite the rules and their seemingly universal sway.