As a psychologist, I’ve helped people work through just about every shape and size of difficult emotion.
But across this huge variety of suffering — from panic attacks and depression to anger issues and low self-esteem — there’s one common factor these people all seem to share: an unhealthy relationship with their emotions.
Most of us don’t learn very much about our emotions or how they work when we’re young. So we grow up believing that if an emotion feels bad it is bad.
The trouble is, that’s simply not true:
Your emotions aren’t the problem. It’s your relationship with emotions that’s making you unhappy.
If you want to feel better emotionally you need to build a healthier relationship with your emotions. And the best way to start is by recognizing the signs of an unhealthy relationship with emotions.
Photo: Kirill Balobanov/Unsplash
Here are 5 signs you have a dysfunctional relationship with your emotions:
1. You think there are ‘good’ and ‘bad’ emotions
The fundamental error at the heart of all emotional suffering is the belief that emotions are good or bad.
Thankfully, this is nonsense.
Emotions aren’t good or bad any more than different color traffic lights are good or bad.
You may not like red lights, but that doesn’t mean they’re bad, dangerous, or a problem to be fixed. Similarly, you may not like feeling sad or afraid or ashamed or any other difficult emotion, but that doesn’t mean they are bad, wrong, defective, etc.
Sear this into your brain:
There is no such thing as a good or bad emotion.
Emotions are morally neutral phenomena. Like the weather, the color of your skin, or your preference for coffee ice cream over mint chocolate chip, good or bad has nothing to do with it.
Just because some emotions feel bad, doesn’t mean that they are bad.
When you touch a hot stove and feel pain shooting up your finger, is the pain bad? Of course not! Pain is just a signal telling your muscles to move before your skin gets seriously burned.
Similarly, while grief, trepidation, irritability, melancholy, terror, guilt, frustration, anxiety, shame, panic, or any other difficult emotion may feel bad, that means absolutely nothing about its moral standing or usefulness.
Like it or not, fear is often a lot more useful than happiness.
If you want to start building a better relationship with your emotions, stop judging them as good or bad and start accepting them as they are.
The more one judges, the less one loves.
~ Honore de Balzac.
2. You intellectualize your emotions
Imagine you just got home after a tough day at work — maybe you made an embarrassing mistake during a presentation in front of your entire company.
As you walk through the door of your house, your spouse says:
Hey honey, how was work… Oh gosh, you look terrible. Do you feel okay?
Now, realistically, which of these two options would you be more likely to choose as a reply:
- I’m just really stressed out.
- I feel ashamed and embarrassed.
If you’re like 99% of the adults I know, you’re probably going to pick something much closer to Option 1 than Option 2.
This is interesting because Option 2 is more accurate. Sure, you may feel stressed, but the core of what’s wrong and how you’re feeling is embarrassment and shame.
But here’s the thing:
It’s surprisingly hard to talk about how we feel in plain emotional language.
On the other hand, when we use more conceptual or vague language to describe how we feel — a process called intellectualizing emotions — it feels a little less painful.
But avoiding how you feel emotionally because it hurts isn’t a very good long-term strategy.
Sure, it feels a little less bad at the moment. But long-term, know this:
Avoiding how you feel with vague or overly intellectual language is a subtle avoidance strategy that teaches your brain to be afraid of your own emotions.
And how healthy can your relationship with your emotions be if you’re terrified of them?
Instead, consider this the next time you’re feeling a strong painful emotion:
If I was 5 years old, how would I describe how I’m feeling right now?
Have the courage to use plain emotional language to describe how you feel.
Ripe in wisdom was he, but patient, and simple, and childlike.
~ Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
3. You try to ‘fix’ other people’s emotions
You’re a nice person, right?
You like to help people if you can. If someone is suffering or in pain, you want to help lessen that pain if it’s within your power to do so, right?
Of course, you do! Because most of us are nice, kind people, we empathize when people are suffering and want to help.
But here’s the thing:
Despite our best intentions, we’re not always very smart about helping other people — especially when it comes to emotional suffering.
See, most people have this funny habit of trying to fix problems that aren’t problems — like emotions.
Here’s an example from my own life:
The other day my 3-year-old daughter crashed her bike and scraped her knee. She came running over to me sobbing and I instantly felt bad for her.
Like most parents, I don’t like seeing my kids upset or in pain. This is why it was — and always is — hard to suppress my initial reaction of saying something like Oh it’s okay, honey. It’s not that bad. You’ll feel better soon.
I desperately wanted to say something to reassure her and make her feel better.
But I managed to hold back and said something very different instead: Oh gosh, Bia! That must have been scary to fall off your bike like that.
Now, you might think to yourself:
Well, that’s dumb. For one thing, she already knew that falling off her bike was scary. For another, you’re just drawing more attention to her pain, which is likely to keep her upset even longer, right?
It would seem that way… But here’s the thing:
No matter how painful, emotions aren’t dangerous.
This means, that no matter how much they look the part, emotions are not problems — even the really painful ones.
And if emotions aren’t problems, that means treating them as such is misguided at best.
If I had told my daughter not to worry and that everything would be fine, it may well have distracted her from her fear and made her feel better in the moment. But the longer-term consequences would have been much less pleasant.
Namely, by telling her that It’s not that bad… or that You don’t need to cry… I would be implying that it’s not okay for her to feel afraid. That fear and other painful emotions are bad things — problems to be solved and gotten rid of as soon as possible.
Now, what kind of a psychologist would I be if I was teaching my children to be afraid of their emotions?
My point with all this is simple:
When you treat emotions like problems, you teach yourself to think of them as problems.
And the more you think of your emotions as the problems, the more afraid of them you’re going to be.
Look, dealing with difficult feelings is hard enough. But it’s borderline impossible if you’re also afraid of them.
Instead of trying to fix other people’s problems, try validating them instead. Let them know that you care and that you’re there for them.
But most importantly, let them know that it’s perfectly okay to feel whatever they’re feeling, no matter how scary or intense.
Even the very wise cannot see all ends.
~ J.R.R. Tolkien
4. You run away from your emotions
When you feel bad your gut reaction is to do something that makes you feel better as soon a possible:
- Touch a hot stove → Pull your hand back
- See a rattlesnake → Back away
- Break your arm → Take some Tylenol and then go to the doctor
And in situations like these, that pain-avoidance strategy works out well.
But avoiding pain doesn’t always lead to better outcomes. It often makes things worse:
- Feel tired → Watch Netflix instead of working out
- Craving ice cream → Blow off your diet and go nuts
- Lusting after that new iPhone → Forget savings and buy it now
When it comes to painful emotions, avoiding them never works out in the long run:
- Distracting yourself from anxiety only makes you more anxious.
- Numbing out your grief only perpetuates your sadness.
- Venting all your anger only intensifies it.
The reason is pretty straightforward:
When you run away from something, it teaches your brain that it’s dangerous.
Now, in the case of a hot stove or a rattlesnake, those things are dangerous, so reminding your brain of them is a good thing and should help you avoid them in the future.
But here’s the deal: A craving for ice cream isn’t dangerous. It doesn’t feel good, but it’s not going to put your survival at stake.
Similarly, feeling anxious isn’t dangerous. It might be uncomfortable, but anxiety itself isn’t going to hurt you.
But when you get in the habit of instantly avoiding your anxiety by distracting yourself, numbing it out, or trying to fix it by worrying about it, you create a second layer of anxiety. Now you’ve got anxiety about anxiety!
Running away from painful feelings may give you some relief in the short-term but it will always be at the expense of your long-term emotional well-being.
Think carefully before you run.
Life shrinks or expands in proportion to one’s courage.
~ Anaïs Nin
5. You trust your emotions
I like to end with this one because it always throws people for a loop…
I’ve just spent the last 6 minutes of your day trying to convince you that emotions aren’t bad or dangerous. And that you should spend less time avoiding them and more time accepting them.
But, noticeably absent from anything I’ve written is the idea that emotions are some kind of special inner wisdom that you need to constantly tune into and adhere to with religious-like fervor.
I would never say something like that because if you’ve been paying attention to life, it ought to be pretty darn clear that emotions are just as likely to mislead you as they are to guide you.
You get home from work after a long, exhausting day and collapse onto the couch. As you’re reaching for the remote to turn on the TV, an annoying thought crosses your mind: I said I was going to go to the gym today after work…
After a little inner debate with yourself, you settle on the rationalization that I’ll just get up early tomorrow and go to the gym before work. It’s only 9 or 10 hours late.
Consequently, you feel some relief from the anxiety of having promised yourself you’d exercise but feel like watching TV instead.
Now, how wise is that feeling? It’s pushing you to stay on the couch, pour yourself a glass of chardonnay, and watch Netflix. Should you listen to that feeling?
Of course not!
Unless your work involves 8 hours a day of hard manual labor, chances are exercise would be very good for you — physically, emotionally, maybe even spiritually — although you don’t feel like it.
Emotions can be useful. But just because they are sometimes helpful or instructive doesn’t mean they always are.
And just because they can lead you to very good things doesn’t preclude the possibility that they can just as easily lead you to very bad things.
People who have a healthy relationship with their emotions listen to their feelings but rarely trust them. They pay attention to how they feel but don’t necessarily act on their feelings instinctively.
Cultivate a healthy skepticism of your emotions. And when in doubt, verify that your feelings align with your values before you make any decisions.
You’ll feel better for it in the end.
Rather than love, than money, than fame, give me truth.
~ Henry David Thoreau
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 Medium. Reprinted with permission from the author.