Clean Versus Muddy Emotions

I’m guessing this isn’t news, but being human includes having feelings. All of them. Including anxiety. Emotions serve a purpose. Feel anxious before a job interview? Of course you do. It’s normal, and sends your body the signal “This is something I care about. Prepare.” Get nervous before interacting with new people? Connecting with others is meaningful to you, and your body is letting you know. These are clean emotions, feelings that are natural, human, and worth accepting in order to live a value driven life.

Humans are drawn to challenge, to risky things, and our bodies are designed to produce anxiety when risky things are around. So accept and embrace these emotions.

But I bet you’re thinking “But I feel too much anxiety, way more than most.”  Well, this is possible, and we’ll get to what creates more anxiety in a moment. But also consider you do not know what others feel. I encourage you to resist judging people’s insides by their outsides. You just can’t tell.


Back to what makes anxiety manageable versus overwhelming, clean versus muddy. Clean emotions can be intensely felt, but if left alone, they tend to be fleeting. They deliver their message and then either dissipate or come and go. Muddy emotions, on the other hand, can feel sticky and overwhelming. For example, you might muddy your emotions by judging yourself for having that feeling, telling yourself there’s something wrong with you, or to stop feeling anxiety, you shouldn’t feel anxiety. Now you’ve got not only the clean emotion to contend with, you’ve also got the muddiness that makes the anxiety bigger and frankly more confusing. Muddiness also happens when you start drifting your attention to other time periods. So it’s clean if you’re noticing the anxiety in the context of the here and now– e.g., I’m nervous about talking with this person I’m attracted to. It’s muddy if you start time traveling– e.g., I’m always going to look like a social moron or this is just like that time I talked to that girl freshman year and she shot be down and laughed because I was sweating up a storm.

What to do instead? Well, first step is to notice it in the moment. Get curious about the details of these experiences, the thoughts and the feelings. Track it in writing. Use a thought record. Then get curious about the emotions. Categorize the clean parts, the muddy parts. Just bring your awareness to it at first. Then start practicing acceptance of clean emotions, literally say “hello, welcome” when you notice them. If you let them be there, they tend to pass on their own. And catch that moment when clean turns muddy and bring your attention to something in the present rather than feed those muddy emotions.