4 Habits of Emotionally Strong People

Most people hear the term emotionally strong and assume that it means the ability to ignore your emotions or not feel them. But that’s dead wrong…

Emotional strength isn’t about getting rid of difficult feelings—it means you know how to respond to them in a healthy way.

For example:

  • Being emotionally strong in the face of anxiety means learning to accept your anxious thoughts and feelings rather than constantly running away from them.
  • Being emotionally strong when you’re grieving means being willing to feel your sadness and accept your loss instead of distracting yourself from it.
  • Being emotionally strong when you’re angry means validating that anger rather than denying it or criticizing yourself.

Of course, it’s hard work to cultivate a healthier relationship with your emotions—one that allows you to be resilient and strong in the face of painful feelings instead of fragile.

But it is possible.

And the most effective way to do it is to build consistent habits that promote a more tolerant and accepting relationship with all your feelings—even the painful ones. If you want to become emotionally strong, work to cultivate these 4 habits.


1. Control your attention, not your emotions

Like anything painful, our automatic response to difficult emotions is to try and control them—usually in an attempt to escape them or “fix” them.

And this tendency to control makes sense given how good at exerting control we are in most areas of life:

  • You’re good at exerting control and generating creative solutions at work.
  • You’re good at exerting control and fixing a leaky drain under the sink at home.
  • You’re good at exerting control and asking for help at the grocery store when you can’t find something.

In many areas of our life, it’s helpful and productive to exert control over our problems. But here’s the thing…

Emotions aren’t under our direct control.

Go ahead and try it:

  • I want you to take control of your mood right now and make yourself really happy.
  • Or, if yourself stop feeling anxious, go ahead and just stop feeling so anxious.

Of course, these are ridiculous experiments to run because you don’t have a happiness dial you can just adjust at will. Or an anxiety button you can just turn on and off.

You can only control your emotions indirectly, primarily through how you choose to think and what you choose to pay attention to.

For example:

  • If you’re feeling ashamed about a mistake you made at work, focusing your attention on replaying the details of that mistake over and over again is going to make you feel even more ashamed. On the other hand, if you can switch your attention to correcting the problem or learning from it, you’re likely to start to feel better much faster.

When you try to control things you don’t have control over—like your feelings—you’ll only create more pain and suffering for yourself in the long run.

Emotionally strong people take control over their attention and what they choose to focus on. Instead of letting their mind bounce around according to the whims of instinct, they practice holding their attention on what matters and avoid getting sucked into unhelpful thought patterns like rumination or worry.

If you want to be more emotionally strong, validate your emotions and control your attention.

“Crying does not indicate that you are weak. Since birth, it has always been a sign that you are alive.”

― Charlotte Brontë


2. Practice compassionate self-talk

Most people associate emotional strength with toughness and being hard on themselves.

This makes sense because as children this is what most of us learned: That if you wanted to be strong—a strong student, a strong athlete, a strong musician—you had to be strict and hard on yourself in order to achieve.

Unfortunately, this toughness approach doesn’t work real well with difficult emotions. And in fact, the harder you are on yourself for feeling bad, the worse you’ll end up feeling.

For example:

  • If every time you feel anxious, you start criticizing yourself for being weak and not strong enough, now you feel ashamed in addition to feeling anxious. Which means your overall level of emotional distress is much higher.
  • If every time you feel sad, you judge yourself as selfish or self-centered, well now you’re going to feel guilty on top of feeling sad. This means that dealing with your sadness in a healthy way and moving on from it is going to be much, much harder.

Here’s the bigger point:

When you respond to painful emotions with negative self-talk, you train your brain to be ashamed of feeling bad.

Emotionally strong people realize that it’s actually much more helpful to be compassionate and understanding with yourself when you feel bad. In other words, they practice compassionate self-talk.

Now, if that sounds a little woo-woo or new-agey, it’s not at all. Self-compassion simply means applying the same standard of kindness and support that you would give to a friend who was struggling to yourself.

For example:

  • If a friend was feeling sad for no apparent reason, you wouldn’t tell him to “stop being such a baby and get over it.”
  • If a friend was feeling afraid, you would tell them they were weak and that they should just “stop it.”

True emotional strength comes from gentleness, not criticism.

“Words matter. And the words that matter most are the ones you say to yourself.”

― David Taylor-Klaus


3. Use values, not feelings, to make decisions

Emotionally strong people listen to their emotions but never take orders from them.

Unfortunately, our cultural attitude toward emotions tends to be one of extremes… Most people see emotions either as silly and to be ignored or gotten rid of or that they are quasi-mystical experiences guiding us toward truth and ultimate enlightenment.

In reality, emotions are much more mundane. They’re a survival mechanism that adapted over hundreds of thousands of years. And while they’re quite useful in some situations, they’re just as often unhelpful in others.

For example:

  • If you’re walking across the street, hear a super loud noise, and fear causes you to quickly look and notice a car that’s about to hit you, that’s a very useful instance of an emotion.
  • But if you’re sitting in a meeting wanting to share a creative idea but then fear of other people thinking your idea will be stupid pops up and causes you to hold back, that’s not so useful.

The point is simply this:

Your emotions will lead you astray just as often as they will guide you.

Emotionally strong people know that in the face of difficult decisions, it’s best to listen to their emotions. But ultimately, they use their values and reason to guide their decisions, not the emotional whims of the moment.

Think about it:

  • How often would you exercise if you only listened to your emotions and how you felt in the moment and ignored your values and commitments to health and wellbeing?
  • How many creative projects would you actually produce and finish if you only listened to your emotions and how you happened to feel about creating and ignored your values and commitment to creativity?
  • How many incredible relationships would you pass up if you listened to your fearful feelings about asking someone out and ignored your values and commitment to put yourself out there more to find a satisfying relationship?

Listen to all your emotions but don’t blindly take orders from them.

Emotionally strong people are able to resist the pull of unhelpful emotions because they’ve spent time discovering and clarifying their values. As a result, they’re able to make decisions that are good for them in the long-term rather than just impulsively acting on whatever feels easy in the moment.

“Motivation often comes after starting, not before. Action produces momentum.”

— James Clear


4. Set (and enforce) healthy boundaries

It’s hard to set and enforce healthy boundaries…

  • It feels scary to tell your manager that you won’t stay late again to take care of someone else’s work.
  • It feels awkward and embarrassing to ask your partner for something different in your sex life.
  • It feels sad to say no to your family member who always asks for money (and never repays you).

But it’s even harder to live without good boundaries…

  • The chronic stress and burnout that come from always taking on extra work and staying late
  • The persistent low-level dissatisfaction and lack of intimacy that come from doing the same old thing in sex year after year, decade after decade
  • The habitual frustration, conflict, and resentment that come from reinforcing an unhealthy habit in a family member and then constantly expecting them to change.

Emotionally strong people know that you can’t be emotionally healthy if you never stand up for yourself and your own wants and needs.

Unfortunately, setting and enforcing healthy boundaries is a classic short-term/long-term problem: Like eating a healthy diet, studying in school, or investing your money instead of spending it wastefully, what feels easy in the short-term doesn’t usually lead to great results in the long run. And what feels difficult in the short term often leads to much better outcomes in the end.

So too with setting and enforcing healthy boundaries…

  • It’s hard to ask for what you really want.
  • It’s difficult to say no to people and enforce those boundaries.

But here’s the thing…

Just because it feels bad doesn’t mean it is bad.

Saying no to an overbearing manager or manipulative family member feels bad in the moment. But don’t mistake the fact that it feels bad for whether it’s a good decision or not.

If you want to become more emotionally strong, practice communicating your wants and needs assertively and having the courage to set (and enforce) healthy boundaries.

“”No” is a complete sentence.”

― Annie Lamott


All You Need to Know

If you want to become emotionally strong, work to build these 4 habits:

  1. Control your attention, not your emotions
  2. Practice compassionate self-talk
  3. Use values, not feelings, to make decisions
  4. Set (and enforce) healthy boundaries

7 Comments

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I loved this article. The quotes were great. Reading this is like receiving years of counseling! I will try these methods today!

Thank you for another valuable article, Nick! I always find timely and valuable information in your writing.
The quotes in this one have disturbed my literary-nerd soul, however, so here comes some nit-picking.
I’m almost certain that quote about crying must be a misattribution. The wording, tone, and sentiment seem jarringly unlike anything in Charlotte Bronte’s writing.
Also, in the final quote, that author’s name is Anne Lamott, not Annie.
Thank you again for all you do, Nick. I have added more than one piece of your advice into my efforts to take small mindful action on a daily basis.

The utility of much of what I read from you, Nick, is very high. This post sets a new bar in that regard!

Reading this leaves me wanting to read a more detailed presentation of the four points that includes some practical, how-to instructions. I think I’ll go do some research. Thanks for the pointer and for being here!

Take a look at some of Nick’s past articles. I believe you’ll find a detailed article on each of these points.

This has been such a helpful article & hits the nail on the head for what I’ve been experiencing at times . I’ve realized that having a calendar (or) schedule often helps us with not getting into the rumination cycle when emotions try to get the better of us.

Hi Nick:

Minor edit … at the end of the article “If you want to become emotionally strong, work to build these 5 habits” … 4 habits.

rgds,
Dan

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