A lot of people think that feeling emotionally balanced is a matter of luck…
- Some people just never get very anxious because they don’t have the genes for it
- Some people don’t get down and discouraged very often because they’re naturally optimistic
- Some people never get angry or frustrated because they just happen to have an easy-going personality
Emotional balance is the ability to not get overwhelmed by your emotions. And while it does have something to do with your genetics and temperament, there’s a much deeper truth here…
Being emotionally balanced doesn’t mean you don’t have painful emotions—it means you have a healthy relationship with them.
- Emotional balance doesn’t mean you never get anxious. It means that instead of trying to avoid your anxiety with distractions, you acknowledge it and validate it.
- Emotional balance doesn’t mean you never get sad. It means that when you do get sad, you don’t criticize or judge yourself for being sad. But instead, you remind yourself that sadness is a normal part of being human.
Luckily, a healthier relationship with your emotions is something you can create. And the best way I know how to do it is by cultivating healthy emotional habits.
These four are good ones to start with…
1. Letting go of unhelpful thoughts
Thinking is the engine of emotion:
- If you feel anxious, it’s because you’ve been worrying.
- If you feel angry, it’s because you’ve been ruminating.
- If you feel sad, it’s because you’ve been reflecting on something you’ve lost.
The implication of this is pretty simple—though far from easy to implement:
If you want more balanced emotions you need more balanced thoughts.
Of course, the tricky thing about thoughts is they’re not always under your control…
- Sometimes our minds just throw worries at us
- Sometimes our minds just spit up old memories and regrets
- Sometimes our minds just fall into self-criticism
So how can we be more balanced if our minds just make us think emotionally triggering thoughts?
Here’s the thing you need to realize:
Just because your thoughts are sometimes out of your control doesn’t mean they always are.
In fact, we actually have quite a bit of control over our thoughts. While you often can’t control an initial thought that pops into your mind, you can always control how you think about that thought or how you respond to it.
- If a worry pops into mind, you could elaborate on it with more worries, which will amplify your anxiety.
- If a rumination about some past offense against you pops into mind, you could replay that event over and over again in your mind which will greatly amplify your anger.
On the other hand…
- If you respond to a worried thought by acknowledging it as scary but not necessarily realistic, your anxiety is likely to decrease.
- If you respond to an angry rumination about some past slight against you by reminding yourself that you can’t change the past and refocusing on your work, your anger is a lot less likely to grow and persist.
Emotionally balanced people are experts in letting go of thoughts that amplify their emotions.
Of course, letting go is hard. And like any hard thing, it takes practice and patience to get better at it.
But once you do, it will start to become more automatic and easier—often to the point of being second nature. And when it does, you’ll find that your feelings are much calmer and less volatile.
“The soul becomes dyed with the color of its thoughts.”
― Marcus Aurelius
2. Accepting painful feelings
Of course, no matter how skilled you become at letting go of unhelpful thinking patterns, you will still feel uncomfortable emotions:
- Everybody gets anxious sometimes.
- Everybody gets sad sometimes.
- Everybody gets angry sometimes.
But whether an emotion is difficult and tolerable vs excruciating and overwhelming often comes down to one counterintuitive secret…
What we resist persists.
Understandably, many people make the mistake of assuming that when we feel bad emotionally, something’s wrong. Because hey, in life pain is often a signal of danger or injury, right?
When your arm hurts after fracturing it, that’s a sign that a part of you is literally broken and needs to be fixed!
But here’s the confusing part…
Pain isn’t always a signal of danger. And often it’s a sign of growth!
When your muscles are aching painfully after a good workout, that’s a good thing—it means you’re growing and getting stronger!
Emotional pain isn’t any different:
- Sometimes a painful emotion like anxiety is a sign that you’re in danger because a bear is chasing you!
- But sometimes your anxiety is misinformed—you’re worried about your husband’s plane crashing even though you know rationally that flying across the country is safer than driving to the grocery store.
But even when your emotions are an accurate signal of danger, that doesn’t mean the emotion itself is bad. Pain is just a messenger. And it’s a mistake to confuse the danger with the warning sign…
- When you treat your anxiety like a problem by trying to escape it, you train your brain to think it’s dangerous and make yourself even more anxious.
- When you judge yourself for feeling sad, you end up feeling angry and guilty on top of your sadness.
When you resist painful emotions by judging them, avoiding them, or trying to “fix” them, you only intensify them.
If you want calmer emotions, try treating them like friends instead of enemies.
- When you feel sad, remind yourself that it’s okay and normal to feel sad and doesn’t mean you’re weak.
- When you feel angry, remind yourself that there’s nothing wrong with feeling angry. And then focus on controlling your urge to be aggressive or rude.
- When you feel afraid, remind yourself that everybody feels afraid. And just because your mind thinks something’s dangerous, doesn’t mean it’s right.
When you lean into your painful emotions by acknowledging them and accepting them, you allow them to run their course and dissipate.
But when you start attacking or running away from your painful emotions, you intensify and prolong them.
“Anything you accept fully…. will take you into peace. This is the miracle of surrender”
― Eckhart Tolle
3. Setting (and enforcing) healthy boundaries
For better or worse, human beings are incredibly social creatures.
While it might seem unlikely if you watch the news regularly, human beings have survived and thrived as a species over hundreds of thousands of years because we’re remarkably good at cooperating and working together.
And one of the reasons we’re so good at working together is that we’re extremely attuned to one another:
- We can read and interpret subtle facial cues or body language.
- We can use language to convey complex ideas to each other.
- We can even use our imaginations to put ourselves inside the heads of others and imagine life through their eyes.
Given all this, one simple fact of human nature should not be the least bit surprising:
We tend to care a lot about what other people think of us!
I mean, of course we do, right?! Complex social hierarchies and cooperative arrangements would never have been possible if we weren’t wired to think about our relationship with others almost constantly.
Of course, like anything, caring about how other people perceive us can be taken too far….
- You can care too much about what your manager thinks of you to the point of crippling social anxiety at work.
- You can care too much about the approval of your parents to the point of self-loathing and depression.
- You can care too much about other people’s emotional states to the point of never asking anyone else for what you want and always deferring to their needs.
Intense unbalanced emotional reactions almost always involve other people in some way. And whether it’s because you care too much about how people perceive you or someone made a nasty comment about you and you can’t stop dwelling on it, the solution is the same…
If you want more emotional balance you must be able to communicate your wants and needs assertively and set healthy boundaries.
Assertive communication means that you are confident asking for what you want (or don’t want) in a way that’s honest and respectful.
Setting healthy boundaries means that you’re willing to let people know what you won’t tolerate. And importantly, that you’re willing to enforce that boundary with actual behavior and consequences.
If you set a boundary with your boss at work that you will not take work home on the weekends, but then routinely give in and do it anyway, you’re communicating that your wants and needs don’t really matter to you. And this makes it more likely in the future that those boundaries get violated and your emotions get disturbed.
There’s no point in setting healthy boundaries if you’re not willing to enforce them.
But if you can get in the habit of setting (and enforcing) better boundaries, and speaking up for yourself assertively, you’ll find that your emotions are much less volatile and overwhelming.
“If people keep stepping on you, wear a pointy hat.”
― Joyce Rachelle
4. Prioritizing self-care
As much as we like to draw distinctions between the brain and the body, your brain IS your body.
This means your brain’s capacity to function well—including to regulate and manage difficult situations and the emotions that result—depends on your body functioning well.
Here’s a simple example:
- Who’s more likely to self-reflect and validate their anger rather than lashing out aggressively in frustration or irritability: The person who gets 4-5 hours of fitful sleep each night or the person who consistently gets 7-8 hours of good sleep each night?
It’s hard to NOT be constantly irritable and emotionally erratic if you’re not getting good sleep!
And you can make a good case that the same thing applies to other parts of our health and wellbeing:
- Exercise. If your body is fit and strong and healthy, your ability to keep your moods and emotions balanced is going to be easier.
- Diet. If you consistently eat well and maintain a healthy diet, you’re going to have much more clarity and energy to stay handle emotionally difficult situations gracefully.
- Social life. If you’re regularly spending time with high-quality friends and nurturing healthy relationships, you’re going to be much more likely to nurture a similarly healthy relationship with yourself and your own emotions.
- Passions and hobbies. When you’ve cultivated genuine interests and hobbies that get you excited and passionate, it’s going to be far easier to redirect your mind off of unhelpful emotions and thought patterns because you have a whole slew of interesting alternatives.
- Margin and downtime. If you make sure that you always have some time to unwind and genuinely relax, you’re going to have more of a buffer against the inevitable stressors of life and the difficult emotions that follow.
Your ability to take care of difficult emotions depends on your ability to take care of yourself.
Emotionally balanced people don’t experience fewer or less intense emotions than the rest of us. Instead, they’re better equipped to handle whatever emotions they find themselves with.
And a big reason why is that they prioritize self-care in their life.
That doesn’t mean they go to the spa once a quarter or take the day off work to veg and watch Netflix because they’re exhausted.
Self-care doesn’t mean the occasional one-off act of self-indulgence.
Self-care means committing to a constant regimen of healthy habits—habits that keep you clear-headed, strong, and energized.
Fundamentally, emotional balance comes from having a healthy relationship with your emotions.
But the health of your relationship with yourself depends, like any relationship, on making time to take care of and nurture it.
That’s why self-care matters.
“Just when you feel you have no time to relax, know that this is the moment you most need to make time to relax.”
― Matt Haig
All You Need to Know
Emotional balance is the ability to not get overwhelmed by painful feelings. And it comes from cultivating a healthy relationship with your emotions.
If you want to feel more emotionally balanced, work to build these habits into your life:
- Let go of unhelpful thoughts.
- Accept painful feelings.
- Set healthy boundaries.
- Prioritize self-care.
26 CommentsAdd Yours
This article is with explanation and chock-full of healthy steps toward self-care. Thank you!
You’re welcome, Sue!
Great article! Gets right to the heart of the matter and is spot on.
Thank you, Larissa 🙂
This message is very interesting and helpful to me i always battling with my negative fear of thinking trying to stop it but it is still come back now i think what i need to do is to put it into practice all time.
Thank very much Nick
Glad it was helpful, Wany!
Nick, as always, content is great. What is significant also is the logical/visual organization of your material – contributes to easier retention/retrieval of the content. Wish podcasters would auditorily do the same. Bapa
Thanks Bapa 🙂
Nick – reading this article is like hearing a good sermon or homily and being amazed how the minister KNEW what your current challenge was. Likewise I wonder how you are so familiar with my inner environment. You describe it so well and your suggestions for managing the unhelpful are targeted and so valuable in a keep it simple way. Thank you.
That’s high praise, Christopher — Thank you!
Thanks Laura 🙂
Good Article, I like how you explain underlying messages that the hard emotions convey. Love the categories for self care!
Thank you, PG!
Your article is so amazing and helpful as always Dr.Wignall.
I truly loved “Pain isn’t a signal of danger. And often it’s a sign of growth”
Yes, so important! Thanks Lisa 🙂
I love the idea of being at one with your own emotions. Accepting your emotions and dealing with them in a healthy way really helps in life stresses. Accepting that it’s ok to feel how you feeling and let yourself feel instead of fighting it is such a good way of dealing with your emotions. Really enjoyed reading this article
I’m so glad it resonated, Emma 🙂
Love it, exactly what I need. Thanks so much Dr. Wignall.
Glad it was helpful, Bonnie!
I loved this article! It provided me with so much wisdom combined with practical, real life application. I especially appreciate the reminder that so many of life’s challenges involve moving through, not avoiding. Thank you, Nick!
Your work is truly a blessing. Exactly what I need to learn and grow.
Nick,great advice.I could relate to it totaly.Thanks!
I look forward to your articles. Like so many others, it seems that you know exactly what I need at the moment to continue my lifelong search for spiritual peace and better relationships. It’s like you’re speaking to me. I wonder where you get such wisdom and clarity. It is truly a blessing. You’re the best therapist I ever had. Thank you Dr. Wignall.
I’m working on practicing boundaries and more self care. This was a great reminder to keep going at those things! Thanks Nick!
I would really like to read an article on overcoming apathy. I didn’t find much information on it online. I know this can interfere with self care.
Thank you. I get so much out of your postings. You’re my favorite psychologist!