Most people assume that the solution to their emotional struggles is to do more:
- I’m feeling anxious, so I need to do some kind of coping skill like deep breathing or mindfulness meditation to calm myself down.
- I’m feeling angry at the memory of the abuse I suffered as a child so I need to try and understand and analyze why they did that to me.
- I’m feeling sad that my daughter has left and gone away to college so I should probably call her.
But here’s the problem…
Emotions are like sleep and sex: The harder you try the worse they get.
Take sadness, for example:
- If every time you feel sad, you immediately try to get rid of it by doing something, you’re teaching your brain that it’s bad to feel sad.
- This means the next time you feel sad, you’re going to feel fear and shame on top of the sadness.
The more you do to try and get rid of emotions directly, the stronger they’ll get.
The solution is to develop emotional anti-skills.
A skill is when you learn how to do something in order to achieve a positive outcome; an anti-skill is learning how to not do something in order to achieve a positive outcome.
For example, let’s say the outcome you want to achieve is having a better relationship with your partner:
- A skill that might help you achieve that outcome is complimenting your partner more often.
- An anti-skill might be that you resist making that sarcastic comment after you feel criticized by them.
If you want to become emotionally strong, what you’re able to not do is at least as important as what you’re able to do. These three emotional anti-skill will help you build emotional strength, confidence, and resilience in any area of life.
1. Embrace uncertainty
It’s totally normal to want to minimize or avoid uncertainty.
And for good reason: When things are uncertain, they could turn out badly…
- If your girlfriend hasn’t called since arriving at her conference, it’s possible that it’s because she’s cheating on you and that your relationship is doomed to break up.
- If you haven’t heard back from that new job you applied for after 24 hours, it’s possible that it’s because they hated you and definitely aren’t going to give you the job.
- If you decide to get on an airplane, it’s possible that the engine will explode and the plane will crash.
Of course, the problem here is that uncertainty often leads to perfectly good or neutral things as well:
- Maybe your girlfriend is just really busy and having fun catching up with old friends.
- Maybe it’s normal for this company to take a few days to get back to applicants even though they say it’s possible they could respond in one.
- Maybe the odds of your plane crashing are insanely low relative to all sorts of other activities you do on a regular basis without flinching.
Emotionally speaking, people tend to get into trouble with uncertainty when they become afraid of uncertainty itself, not just the potential bad outcomes.
Because uncertainty is pervasive in our lives, if the mere appearance of uncertainty at all makes you anxious, well, that’s a hard way to go through life…
- For one thing, you’re just going to feel really stressed and anxious all the time—which is pretty miserable and exhausting.
- But you’re also going to end up missing out on a lot of things in an attempt to avoid uncertainty and the anxiety that goes with it (taking new trips, meeting new people, changing careers, learning new skills, etc.)
Fear of uncertainty is a setup for emotional fragility, chronic stress, and ultimately, a disappointing life.
Like any excessive fear, the antidote to fear of uncertainty is to stop avoiding it and learn to embrace it.
Think about it:
- How do you get over your fear of public speaking? Start speaking more in public despite your fear!
- How do you get over your fear of first dates? Try some speed dating!
- How do you get over your fear of people judging your artwork? Publish more of your work!
The same principle applies to fear of uncertainty: You have to start approaching it and welcoming it even though it makes you uncomfortable.
A couple tips:
- Start small. Practice embracing uncertainty and tolerating the anxiety that comes with it in small things or for short durations of time. Then, once your tolerance and confidence build a bit, try something a little harder.
- Remind yourself that just because it feels bad doesn’t mean it is bad. Emotional pain can’t hurt you. It’s like hunger—it’s uncomfortable, but nothing terrible is going to happen if you feel hungry for a couple hours. Similarly, it’s uncomfortable, but simply feeling anxious for a while isn’t dangerous.
Emotionally strong people have a healthy relationship with uncertainty. And like any relationship, it only becomes strong and healthy when you stop avoiding it and make time for it.
2. Let go of expectations
Here’s the thing about expectations: it’s very easy to end up using them as psychological defense mechanisms.
That sounds complicated, so let me unpack it a bit:
- A defense mechanism is something you do to avoid emotional pain. For example: Rather than confronting the fact that you’re in an unhappy marriage, you perpetuate the fantasy that “everything’s fine” by living in denial.
- While defense mechanisms make you feel better in the short-term, they make you feel worse in the long run because they allow serious problems to grow and fester—and at some point they become so big that they lead to major problems in your life.
- Unrealistic expectations are often a form of fantasy or denial that serves the function of alleviating anxiety. For example, you expect that your coworkers always do everything with the same level of attention to detail as you. This expectation (which years of experience has clearly shown to be unrealistic) persists because it distracts you from facing up to the fact that your “work ethic” is actually a detrimental form of perfectionism that’s bad for you and your work in the long term.
Like all forms of psychological avoidance, unrealistic expectations feel good in the short term but make you miserable (and emotionally fragile) in the long term.
Here’s another example I see a lot:
- I see a lot of parents with extremely high expectations for their kids academically. “You’re smart enough to get As so that’s what we expect” is something I hear variations of all the time.
- Deep down, expectations about the academic achievement of their kids are usually just a way for parents to mask their own (very understandable) anxieties and insecurities about being responsible for raising children.
- The problem is, demanding that little Jonny never get anything less than an A from preschool through med school is going to have a lot of negative side effects that come with the illusion of confidence and certainty that it gives his parents (parent-child conflict, parent-parent-conflict, chronic stress and business, etc.)
The key is to be self-aware about the real motivations behind your expectations.
Do you expect that your children get straight As because you really believe that earning straight As and getting accepted to Harvard is critical for their success and happiness as a person?
Or do you expect straight As because it helps alleviate some anxiety or insecurity about your abilities as a parent?
Being self-aware about your expectations and the motives behind them is difficult because it means facing up to and accepting your own fears and anxieties. But ultimately, that’s the only way to deal with them in a healthy way.
And if you want to be truly emotionally strong, you’re not gonna get there by living in denial. It’s only through confronting our fears that we’re able to master them.
So the next time you notice an expectation bubbling up in your thoughts or behavior, ask yourself what purpose that expectation really serves?
And if you find that it’s mostly an avoidance mechanism—a way to make yourself feel better—find the courage to let it go and face those fears head on.
It’s not easy. But take out from a therapist—it’s a lot easier than having to deal with decades of pent up resentment, conflict, and lost intimacy that comes from holding on to unrealistic expectations.
3. Accept helplessness
One of our least favorite feelings as human beings is helplessness.
You know the feeling…
- Your spouse or partner just lost a family member and is overwhelmed by grief and sadness and you feel powerless to help…
- You just finished up your entrance exam, realized that you made a key mistake, but are now helpless to change it.
- You get a call from your son’s elementary school that he had an “accident” and is crying and upset. But you can’t go pick him up for a couple more hours.
Being faced with something awful and not being able to do anything about it is just the worst!
Actually, not quite…
The worst is when you’re faced with something awful, can’t do anything about it, but then pretend that you can as a way to avoid feeling so helpless.
- The thought pops into your head that your elderly parent might have gotten into a car accident on their way to come visit you.
- So you call them… no answer.
- Your fear and helplessness skyrocket.
- So you start worrying—playing out scenario after scenario of what might have happened and all the terrible things that will result.
Strange as it might seem, your decision to worry is actually a strategy for alleviating helplessness.
See, even though you probably know worrying isn’t actually helpful to your parent, and even though you probably know that worrying leads to a lot of excess stress and anxiety in the long run, you do it because in the short-term it gives you something to do. And feeling like you can do something, temporarily alleviates your helplessness.
Of course, the long term consequences of developing a chronic worry problem far outweigh the pain of accepting your feelings of helplessness in the moment.
But like so many things in life—from carrying a balance on a high-interest credit card to eating a second helping of dessert—long-term consequences are easy to avoid when the short-term benefit is strong.
But if you want to build true emotional strength, you must be able to recognize and resist the temptation to immediately do something to avoid helplessness. Because more often than not, your helplessness-avoidance strategies will only make you more emotionally fragile and overwhelmed in the long-run.
Bad things happen and sometimes there’s nothing we can do about it. Living in denial about this doesn’t help anyone in the long run (and very likely will make things worse).
All You Need to Know
In the long-term, there are definitely positive actions that will help you build emotional strength. But when it comes to managing difficult emotions in the moment, it’s all about what you don’t do—your anti-skills:
- Embrace uncertainty
- Let go of expectations
- Accept helplessness