Emotional resilience is the ability to tolerate difficult emotions while still acting on your values.
- Staying attentive and listening carefully to your partner’s criticism despite feeling hurt and wanting to criticize them back.
- Sticking to your commitment to avoid desserts for a month despite feeling incredibly stressed and knowing that a pint of ice cream would really feel good right about now.
- Continuing to focus and finish your work despite feeling anxious after worrying about layoffs.
It’s the opposite of emotional fragility which is when we get hijacked by our painful emotions and end up sabotaging our best intentions:
- Lashing out with a passive-aggressive comment rather than acknowledge and sitting with your anger.
- Getting lost in spirals of worry and catastrophizing as soon as you hear a piece of bad news.
- Falling into self-criticism and judgment after a simple mistake or error.
If you want to be more emotionally resilient, watch out for these three bad habits keeping you emotionally fragile.
1. Running away from painful emotions
Our natural instinct is to avoid things that cause pain.
For example: If you feel your fingertip burning after touching a hot pan, it makes sense to quickly move your finger off the pan to avoid a serious burn.
But the point of moving your hand off the hot pan isn’t to avoid pain. The goal is to avoid danger—tissue damage, in this case.
Pain is just a messenger telling you to watch out for danger. This means you don’t want to avoid pain. I mean, just think of how many serious burns you’d have on your fingers if your hands were incapable of sending pain signals to your brain?
This same principle applies to emotional pain…
Just like the pain you feel in your finger when it’s getting burned, emotional pain like anxiety, guilt, or sadness are uncomfortable but not themselves dangerous.
- You feel fear when a bear is chasing you. Fear is just your brain’s way of trying to help you stay alive and not get mauled to death by the bear. The real danger, of course, is the bear!
Unfortunately, it’s easy to confuse emotional pain for a danger and start treating it like one by running away…
- You feel anxious about a big project you need to work on and immediately distract yourself with lots of minor tasks and to-dos.
- You feel sad and immediately lose yourself in some hilarious Tik-Tok videos.
- Your spouse asks you what’s wrong after a bad day at work, and instead of explaining how afraid you are of losing your job, avoid it altogether by telling them you’re “just a little stressed.”
Here’s the problem:
Running away from emotional pain makes you feel better in the short term, but it makes you feel worse in the long term.
When you habitually avoid something, you’re teaching your brain that that thing is dangerous. This means the next time that thing shows up, you’re going to feel extra afraid.
Now, this is a good thing if what you’re avoiding is actually dangerous—like a bear!
But it’s a huge mistake if the thing you’re avoiding isn’t actually dangerous, just painful—sadness, anxiety, anger, guilt, resentment, or really any painful emotion.
By habitually avoiding painful emotions, you’re teaching your own brain that it’s dangerous to feel bad.
But feeling bad emotionally is a normal and unavoidable part of the human experience. You can’t actually avoid it. But the more you try, the worse your suffering becomes in the end.
Just because it feels bad doesn’t mean it is bad.
Stop running away from painful emotions and learn how to validate them instead.
Learn More: How to Validate Your Emotions in 3 Simple Steps
2. Trusting your thoughts
Your mind is a powerful thing.
In particular, your mind’s ability to tell stories and build beliefs can have a profound effect both on the way you feel and how you act.
Here’s an example:
- I had a client once who started working with me because he was having anger issues at work and was at risk of getting fired if he didn’t figure it out and learn how to get along better with his coworkers.
- His anger tended to show up when his coworkers weren’t getting their work done on time—or at least not as quickly as he would have liked.
- Eventually, he came around to the idea that his standards of timeliness were unrealistically high. But despite acknowledging this intellectually, he still felt that it was somehow wrong for his coworkers to be even the slightest bit tardy with work. And this belief in the wrongness of being late was keeping him feeling angry and irritable at work.
- After a lot of exploration, I learned that this belief that being late was wrong had its origins in a single comment his father had made when he was a kid—something to the effect of “Being late is a form of disrespect to everyone around you.”
- So for 40+ years, this guy’s initial thought when someone was late was that they were being disrespectful, and unsurprisingly, he felt angry as a result.
- What’s wild, though, was that for 40 years he had never questioned or even explored this thought—this story—his mind was telling him.
- And when he did—when he started looking for other less morally reprehensible stories and explanations about why people might be late—his anger and frustration dissipated quickly.
For better or worse, the stories we tell ourselves profoundly affect our feelings and our actions.
My client spent the first half of his life being excessively angry and irritated because of one simple story his mind was telling him—a story he never bothered to question.
So much of his lack of emotional resilience around anger came from the simple habit of accepting this one story without question.
On the other hand, once he learned to be aware of and question his own thoughts, beliefs, and stories, not only did his anger and irritability decrease substantially, but his behavior and performance improved dramatically as well.
Just because it’s a thought doesn’t make it true.
Learn to question your own thoughts and stories and you’ll find yourself far more emotionally resilient than you thought possible.
Learn More: The Complete Guide to Cognitive Restructuring
3. Letting emotions dictate decisions
Remember from point #1 above that no matter how painful they feel, emotions are just trying to help. Which means we should avoid falling into the trap of thinking about emotions as bad or dangerous and immediately trying to avoid them. Like the old saying goes, Don’t shoot the messenger.
But it’s also possible to fall into a trap on the other end of the spectrum—assuming your emotions are always leading you in a helpful direction.
- You’re considering an invitation from a friend to go on safari in Africa, something you’ve always dreamed about doing. But every time you think about it, you start getting nervous—even to the point of panic—when you realize you’ll have to fly on a plane, something you’re terrified of. In the end, you convince yourself that “it’s for the best” if you say no and turn down the invitation. You rationalize all sorts of other reasons why, but at the end of the day, it’s because you’re afraid of feeling afraid on the plane.
Here’s another slightly more ordinary example:
- Your barista at Starbucks hands you your drink. You take a sip as you’re walking out the door and realize it’s the wrong drink—a chai instead of a vanilla latte. You consider going back and asking them to remake the order, but then you imagine how it could be awkward asking for a replacement. Plus you don’t want them to feel bad. So you accept the chai instead of the vanilla latte you’d been looking forward to all morning.
In both cases, you’re allowing an emotion to dictate your decision.
The problem is sometimes your emotions and what they encourage you to do don’t align very well with your values. Which means if you get in the habit of letting your emotions dictate your decisions, you’re going to end up acting contrary to your own values quite a lot (this is the root of self-sabotage, by the way).
Of course, there’s nothing wrong with listening to your emotions and considering them as input. After all, sometimes your emotions align very well with your values!
But if you’re in the habit of simply allowing your emotions to dictate your decisions—especially big life decisions—you’re setting yourself up for a lifetime of regret, low self-esteem, and emotional fragility, all of which are the natural result of compromising your values to satisfy your emotions.
Listen to your emotions, but don’t trust them.
Emotions are just as likely to lead you astray as they are to guide you to fulfillment. So when push comes to shove, use your values to guide your decisions.
All You Need to Know
If you want to become more emotionally resilient, avoid these three bad habits:
- Running away from painful emotions
- Trusting your thoughts
- Letting emotions dictate decisions