People are often shocked to hear a psychologist tell them that it’s okay to ignore their emotions.
This is partly reactionary…
We see how problematic it can be to never acknowledge emotions—maybe because you were raised by someone who never did, for example. But we then mistakenly swing to the other extreme of obsessing over how we feel and treating emotions as sacred cows.
But the best outcomes—and healthiest minds—are the result of a balanced approach to emotions.
It’s good to be aware of your emotions, but there are plenty of situations where you should ignore them.
Think about your emotions like your good friends: Even if they always have your best intentions at heart, that doesn’t make them immune from giving you terrible advice sometimes—in which case you should respectfully ignore them and go about your business.
If you want to create a healthier, more balanced relationship with your emotions, learning when to ignore them is just as important as learning when to follow them.
Here are four situations where it can be useful to ignore your emotions.
1. When they conflict with your values
Let’s say you’re heading out the door to a dinner party with your spouse when they ask you:
Be honest, does this shirt make me look fat?
You immediately feel a swell of anxiety. In your head, you’re imagining saying “yes” because you do think it’s pretty unflattering. But then you think to yourself “What if he feels hurt? Then he’s going to be irritated or sad for the rest of the night.”
In this case, the emotion of anxiety is directing you to tell a white lie and say “no” in order to avoid any unpleasantness between the two of you for the evening.
On the other hand, you and your spouse have a value of being honest with each other—even when it’s uncomfortable. Your value of honesty is pulling you in the opposite direction as your emotion of anxiety.
So what do you choose? Ignore the value and follow the emotion? Or ignore the emotions and follow the value?
I recommend choosing values over emotions every time, for two reasons:
- You’ll get better outcomes. It’s true—your spouse might feel a little disappointed or even irritated if you’re honest and tell him you don’t think it’s very flattering—especially if you’re not very tactful about how you phrase it! But you’ve been honest and given him accurate information, which allows him to make a better decision. And that’s what he really wants.
- You’ll feel better (in the end). Emotions are designed to help you make decisions quickly. And as such, they often lead to feeling better in the short term. But when they’re not aligned with your values, they can also lead to feeling worse in the long term. For example, if you get in the habit of lying to your partner about how they look, eventually they won’t trust you as much. And that lack of trust will lead to a lot of resentment and conflict long term.
Remember that how you feel emotionally is only one source of input into your decision-making process. And it’s not infallible.
Just like people can give bad advice, or your reasoning can be flawed, so too can your emotions be misguided.
When push comes to shove, choose values over emotions.
2. When they lead to aggression
Anger is an interesting if misunderstood emotion.
On the one hand, anger is often a helpful motivator for making healthy change:
- When people revolt against unjust rulers and tyrants, it’s usually anger that motivates and sustains the energy necessary to pull off something as difficult as a revolution.
- When someone finally stands up to an abuser, it’s often anger motivating that kind of courage and bravery.
- In the right dose, self-directed anger can even be a useful prompt for pushing ourselves to grow or make amends for a mistake.
On the other hand, anger easily leads to unhealthy aggression and violence:
- Hate crimes, prejudice, and oppression are often motivated by anger.
- Rude or insensitive communication with our friends or family is often motivated by unaddressed anger.
- Self-harm and depression are often the results of unchecked self-directed anger.
Like all emotions, anger can be useful at times and harmful at others. Which means it’s important to be aware of our anger and then willing to ignore it if it’s leading to aggressive action.
Notice that awareness of anger and ultimately choosing to ignore it are not mutually exclusive. In fact, it’s crucial to listen to your emotions and understand them if you’re going to be able to respond to them in a healthy, productive way—whether that means following them or ignoring them.
But isn’t it unhealthy to suppress your anger?
No. This is an old superstition from the days of Freud.
Emotional suppression, when used judiciously, is a perfectly healthy and necessary emotional skill. And in the case of anger, specifically, we know from decades of research that elaborating on or venting your anger only intensifies it. Whereas ignoring it actually helps to alleviate it.
So, if you find your anger getting the best of you and leading you to unwise decisions and behaviors, feel free to explore it and try and understand it. But at the end of the day, it’s perfectly okay to ignore your anger when necessary.
3. When they lead to worry
Worry and anxiety go together like bacon and eggs.
As long-time readers go my blog will know, I spend a lot of time talking about how worry leads to anxiety:
- When you feel anxious about an upcoming date, it’s because you’re worrying about how it could go wrong… “Will they think these pants are trying too hard? What if I’m not funny enough? I’ll probably end up saying something insensitive and it’ll be super embarrassing.” etc.
- When you feel anxious about your kid’s first day at school, it’s because you’re worrying: “What if she doesn’t fit in with the other kids and is lonely? What if her teacher isn’t sympathetic to her learning differences?” etc.
And while it’s true that the act of worrying is the cause of anxiety, it’s also true that the feeling of anxiety can be a trigger for worry, which then leads to even more anxiety.
The reason for this is subtle but important…
Many people convince themselves that worrying is helpful, and as a result, feel slightly less anxious in the short term. The problem is that the short term anxiety relief isn’t worth the long term costs which include even greater anxiety as well as the lost time and energy that could have been productively invested elsewhere.
- That 10 minutes you spent worrying about whether your daughter’s teacher will be sensitive to her specific learning challenges not only led to long term stress and anxiety but it also was time you could have spent composing an email to her teacher explaining her challenges in detail.
- All that time spent worrying about how your date would go led to you feeling especially stressed out and anxious when the date actually came. So you created a self-fulfilling prophecy of the date not turning out well because of the worry about it.
Here’s the takeaway:
When you use worry as a way to distract yourself from anxiety, you only end up creating more anxiety and problems in the long-run.
Often it’s better to validate the anxiety initially, then ignore it and move on with more productive activities.
4. When they lead to rumination
Just like anxiety can be a trigger for worry which then leads to even more anxiety, sadness and guilt can be triggers for rumination, which leads to even more sadness and guilt—even depression—long-term.
You’re laying in bed trying to fall asleep, and an old memory of how you cheated on a college boyfriend pops into mind. You feel guilty and ashamed. But then, in response to that guilt and shame, you start replaying the events of that memory in your mind, analyzing and questioning details and telling yourself how terrible a person you were for doing it and how you should have done X, Y, and Z, instead. Now, as a result of all that rumination and self-criticism, you feel even more sad and ashamed of yourself, nothing is actually better about the situation in the past, and on top of everything else, you’re now wide awake and are going to have a very hard time falling asleep.
For a lot of people, painful emotions like sadness and guilt have become triggers for unhealthy rumination or self-criticism. And while they superficially feel productive, all they do is make you feel worse.
A better approach would be to acknowledge the sadness or guilt, validate it, then ignore it and put your attention elsewhere—maybe pull out a book or listen to a podcast until you feel sleepier.
Just because it can be helpful to explore and analyze your emotions and where they come from doesn’t mean it always is.
When an old memory of a mistake pops into mind, the feeling of sadness or guilt is a totally normal reaction—almost like a reflex. But there’s no law of the Universe that says every time you have an emotion you have to explore it deeply and analyze the hell out of it.
It’s perfectly okay to have an emotion and then focus on something else. In fact, that’s very often the healthiest thing you can do.
All You Need to Know
The ability to ignore your emotions is just as important as the ability to explore them.
Here are four common situations where ignoring how you feel can be a good idea:
- When they conflict with your values
- When they lead to aggression
- When they lead to worry
- When they lead to rumination