In my work as a psychologist, I’ve found that one simple mistake is at the heart of nearly every emotional struggle from anxiety and panic to depression and procrastination…
Just because an emotion feels bad doesn’t mean it is bad.
When you believe painful emotions are bad or dangerous, you tend to treat them like enemies to be avoided or eliminated. Unfortunately, this fight or flight reaction to painful emotions trains your brain to see them as threats, which makes them increasingly painful and frequent over time.
If you want to start building a healthier, less painful relationship with your emotions, you must learn to see the patterns of avoidance and aggression with your own emotions.
You’ve got to recognize the many ways in which — consciously or not — you treat your emotions like enemies. And then start treating them like friends instead. (Or at least like a roommate you don’t particularly love but tolerate civilly).
No matter how painful, emotions are messengers to be listened to, not threats to be eliminated.
What follows are 3 signs that you have an unhealthy relationship with your emotions.
If you can learn to identify the ones at play in your own life, you can start to correct them and build a healthier, more mature, and ultimately less painful relationship with your emotions.
1. Constant Busyness
We all have different energy levels and preferences for how much activity feels good to us. Some of us enjoy being quite active and on the move, while others prefer a more low-key approach to life.
But whatever your baseline preference for activity and movement, being constantly busy — always preoccupied with one thing or another and never really present in the moment — is often a sign of a conflicted relationship with your emotions.
We use busyness as a distraction from painful feelings.
Which makes sense, if you think about it… When your to-do list is constantly throwing appointment after appointment at you, task after task, meeting after meeting, you don’t have the space to catch your breath much less reflect on seriously painful lingering emotions:
- Maybe you never grieved the death of your mother and business is a distraction from that pain.
- Maybe you’re miserable in your job/marriage/living situation/etc. but because you can’t see a viable alternative, busyness keeps your mind off the anxiety of making a big decision.
- Maybe you experienced a bout of serious depression twenty years ago and, over time, you’ve kept yourself constantly preoccupied because you hope that your busyness will ward off the return of your depression.
- Maybe you feel guilty about your broken relationship with your sister and staying busy keeps the guilt at bay.
There are as many reasons to use busyness as a distraction as there are people suffering.
But just because busyness works to keep you distracted, that doesn’t mean it’s a good idea. Just because you manage to keep those scary emotions at bay, that doesn’t mean it’s healthy, or productive, or in your best interest. It doesn’t even mean it’s easier or less painful.
Most people who have developed the habit of keeping themselves constantly busy have been doing it for so long that it’s almost a part of their personality, which makes it hard to even imagine what it would be like to not be so busy.
But no matter what your situation, here’s the unavoidable truth:
You can’t outrun your emotions. Distraction is at best a temporary relief, never a cure.
Plus, when we sweep our emotional struggles under the rug with constant busyness, it’s like taking out a loan: Sure, you get a little breathing room for a while, but you’re paying interest. And the interest rate on emotional loans is far higher than most people realize:
- How many relationships suffer because one person is so busy and preoccupied that they can’t be truly present and available for their partner?
- How many physical ailments are made worse by the wear and tear and constant stress that comes from always being busy?
- How many genuinely exciting and interesting experiences are given up because we’re too afraid of giving up control over our tightly manage schedule that prevents any alone time with our own thoughts and feelings?
Here’s the real tragedy for people who get in the habit of using busyness to distract themselves from their own thoughts and feelings: They miss out on life.
They spend their entire lives playing defence against an imaginary opponent — the opportunity cost of which is that they have no time or energy to play offence, to really go after the things they truly love.
Take it from a therapist who spends every day witnessing this tragedy…
Your mind is not as scary a place as you imagine it to be.
Yes, it contains frightening thoughts and difficult feelings, but you’re underestimating your capacity to deal with those difficulties head one.
Stop running and take your life back. It’s worth it.
“Being still does not mean don’t move. It means move in peace.” — E’yen Gardner
2. Intellectualizing Your Feelings
Suppose you show up to work a few minutes late, eyes red and puffy after another tearful argument with your husband, and a co-worker stops and asks you how you’re doing. What do you say?
If you’re a typical American adult, you probably say something along the lines of:
- Oh, I’m fine, thanks.
- I just had kind of a stressful morning.
- I’m a mess but I’ll be okay, thanks.
Each of these is an example of intellectualization. It’s when you describe how you feel emotionally in terms of conceptual ideas or metaphors rather than plain emotional words:
- Instead of saying “I’m sad” you say “I’m upset.”
- Instead of “I feel angry” you say “I’m stressed out right now.”
- Instead of “I’m pretty anxious” you say “I’m just a little wound up.”
‘What’s the problem?’, you say — these are just regular expressions we all use to describe how we feel when we’re struggling emotionally.
The thing is, they’re not.
Upset is not an emotion. It’s a concept, an idea. Stressed is not an emotion either; technically it’s a physiological response. A little wound up is a metaphor, not an emotion.
Many of us are in the habit of using overly intellectual ways to describe how we feel as a defense mechanism.
If you think about it, saying “I feel sad” is much more direct, raw, and painful than saying “I’m kind of overwhelmed.” You have to be vulnerable to describe how you feel with plain emotional language. And because most of us are afraid to be vulnerable with our feelings, we subtly avoid it by intellectualizing how we feel — transforming our emotions into ideas because ideas hurt less.
The problem is when we avoid our emotions — even with the language we use to describe them — we signal to our brains that those emotions are not just painful, but dangerous. Which means we train our brain to be afraid of being emotional.
What’s more, by avoiding being vulnerable about how we actually feel, we make it hard for other people to help and support us because we’re hiding and obscuring how we feel.
The next time you’re experiencing painful emotions and someone asks you how you’re doing, think about it like this: What would an 8-year-old kid say? How would they describe how they feel?
Without the fancy vocabulary and clever social-linguistic skills we adults have, kids tend to just describe how they’re feeling plainly: I’m sad, I’m afraid, I’m angry, etc.
We adults would do well to take a lesson from kids and re-learn how to be honest and direct in describing how we feel emotionally.
“Rather than being your thoughts and emotions, be the awareness behind them.” — Eckhart Tolle
3. Feeling Bad About Feeling Bad
As a psychologist and therapist, I’ve noticed two near-universal truths about every person who walks into my office for therapy:
- They feel bad. Obviously. They’re experiencing one or many very painful emotions, from sadness and loneliness to anxiety or guilt. And they don’t know what to do about it.
- They feel bad about feeling bad. They’re angry at themselves for feeling anxiety and “being weak.” They feel guilty about feeling relieved when a family member with whom they had a difficult relationship passes away. They feel anxious that they might feel depressed again in the future.
Number 1 is inevitable. Feeling emotions — including the uncomfortable ones like sadness and fear — is an inevitable part of being human. You can’t avoid emotional pain. Crap happens and we feel bad. That’s reality and there’s no escaping it.
Number 2 is self-inflicted and — with practice — avoidable. When we observe ourselves feeling bad and then judge ourselves as bad, weak, or immoral for feeling that way, we add a second layer of painful emotion on top of the difficult feelings we are already feeling.
As the great novelist Haruki Murakami said:‘Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional.’
For all sorts of interesting but complicated reasons, our culture instills in us from the youngest age that to feel bad is bad. It’s a subtle distinction but it makes all the difference.
When you touch a hot pan on the stove, pain signals fire through your neurons and you instinctively pull back your hand. The sensation of pain that comes from touching a hot pan undeniably feels bad. But it would be silly to say that the pain itself is bad. In fact, it’s good. Our bodies have pain for a reason — without the pain, you would likely have left your hand burning on the pan for a lot longer, resulting in a much more serious third-degree burn.
The same thing is essentially true for our emotions:
Just because an emotion feels bad doesn’t mean it is bad.
When you operate under the assumption that every painful emotional experience is bad, you get yourself into all sorts of unconscious habits designed to get rid of those painful feelings. But as we’ve talked about in the last couple of points, trying to avoid or get rid of your feelings is a losing battle. And in fact, you’re only increasing their frequency and intensity in the long run.
If you want to develop a happier, healthier relationship with your emotions, remind yourself that just because a particular feeling feels bad that doesn’t mean it is bad or that you experiencing it is a bad sign.
Learn to accept your emotions — even the painful ones. You’ll still feel the pain but you’ll save yourself a lot of suffering.
“To bear trials with a calm mind robs misfortune of its strength and burden.” — Seneca
RELATED: 6 Unhealthy Things You Do Instead Of Expressing Your Real Emotions
Nick Wignall is a psychologist and writer sharing practical advice for emotional health and well-being. He is the founder of The Friendly Minds newsletter.
This article was originally published at Nick Wignall. Reprinted with permission from the author.