What makes someone emotionally stable?
Of course, we all experience the occasional mood swing from time to time. But some people seem to respond to the ups and downs of bad moods and painful emotions with far more confidence and resilience.
Over the years working as a psychologist, I’ve noticed a handful of common traits among people who seem especially good at managing difficult moods and emotions. And while there are, of course, many reasons for emotional instability, anyone can become a little more emotionally stable by working to cultivate these four habits.
1. They’re skeptical of their emotions
One of the biggest reasons people get overwhelmed by their emotions is that they make too much of them.
- You’re getting ready to give a presentation to your team at work. Unexpectedly, you start feeling anxious and wonder to yourself: I’ve never felt anxious before one of these presentations before… Why am I anxious now? What’s wrong?
- Now, in addition to feeling anxious, you’re anxious about feeling anxious! This has the overall effect of making your total anxiety much higher than it would have been.
- As a result of this much greater anxiety, you start worrying about whether other people in the room can tell you are anxious… a third layer of anxiety!
- By now, you’re really stressing out and anxious. So much so that you’re sweating and can feel your heart beating. At this point, you start worrying about whether there’s something wrong with you physically. And sure enough, your anxiety gets even higher.
Talk about a vicious cycle! And all because of the initial assumption that there was something important about how you felt emotionally… which led to worry… which generated even more anxiety.
I mean, so you felt a little anxious before a meeting… So what?!
Anxiety doesn’t necessarily mean anything. But your assumption that it was important and meaningful led to worry, which led to much higher levels of anxiety.
To assume that your emotions are always important and meaningful is a recipe for suffering and emotional instability.
Emotionally stable people are just as likely to interpret their emotions as random or meaningless as a “sign” or something they need to analyze and understand deeply.
Our culture tends to romanticize and glorify emotions as quasi-mystical experiences, full of meaning and import. But in reality, emotions are simply one of many functions of your body—sometimes painful, sometimes pleasurable; sometimes helpful, sometimes not.
Just because emotions can be important is no reason to assume they always are.
Be aware of your emotions. Listen to them. Validate them. And if the situation warrants, go ahead and think more about them or take action on them.
Just don’t trust them.
2. They’re willing to be vulnerable
I get it, it’s hard to be emotionally vulnerable…
- It’s embarrassing to tell your spouse that you’re feeling afraid of getting laid off at work.
- It’s uncomfortable to acknowledge that you’re feeling sad and still grieving when you’re supposed to be the “strong” one in the family.
- It’s tough to admit that you were wrong and face up to your guilt and shame.
But lots of things in life are hard:
- It’s hard to go to the gym instead of staying on the couch and watching Netflix.
- It’s hard to go back to school to finish your degree.
- It’s hard to practice scales on the piano.
- It’s hard to pick weeds in the garden.
- It’s hard to give your partner negative feedback.
- It’s hard to save money instead of spending it.
Life is full of hard things that we try our best to do despite how uncomfortable they make us feel. And the reason: Because we know that difficulty in the present often leads to rewards in the future.
Well, the same logic applies to our emotions: If you want to feel good in the long-term, often you need to be willing to feel bad in the short-term.
Emotional stability comes from emotional confidence—from the belief that just because an emotion feels bad doesn’t mean it is bad or that you need to do something to get rid of it.
And how do you become more emotionally confident?
By being willing to be emotionally vulnerable—to acknowledge and experience and express your emotions plainly instead of trying to get rid of them or distract yourself from them.
A simple way to get started being more emotionally vulnerable (and eventually more emotionally confident and stable) is to practice using I Feel Statements to describe how you feel emotionally:
- Instead of I’m stressed try I feel afraid.
- Instead of I’m pissed off try I feel angry that you did that.
- Instead of I’m just a little off today try I feel sad because I miss my kids.
Have the courage to be vulnerable with your emotions and your confidence to handle them won’t be far behind.
3. They manage their stressors, not their stress
Here’s something so obvious that we often miss it completely:
Difficult emotions are a lot harder to manage when you’re stressed.
I get that it probably sounds obvious when you read it spelled out like that. But I work with so many people who fail to handle their emotions well and assume it’s because they’re not good at managing difficult emotions.
In reality, it’s that they’re not good at managing difficult emotions when they’re under a ton of stress. Which is true for every single person on the planet!
On the other hand, you’d be amazed at your natural ability to manage difficult emotions well when you’re not super stressed out all the time.
All of which is to say…
One secret of emotionally stable people is that they’re really good at keeping their stress levels in check.
And how do they do that? Are they just experts in stress management? Not at all. In fact, they avoid stress management because they intuitively understand one key distinction:
It’s better to manage your stressors before they turn into stress.
Prevention is the best medicine.
Once you’re stressed out, it’s actually very hard to eliminate that stress. And try as you might to throw the whole kitchen sink of coping skills and relaxation strategies at it, usually stress just has to burn itself out.
If you’re constantly focused on your stress and how to manage it, you will inevitably not have as much time and energy to focus on understanding the sources and causes of your stress—your stressors.
Emotional stability comes from good stress management. But the best form of stress management is to forget about managing your stress and prioritize managing your stressors instead.
If you’ve got a bullet in your chest you can keep putting bandages over the wound all night long but the bleeding won’t stop until you address the root cause—that piece of metal in your body and the punctured blood vessel that’s leading to all that bleeding in the first place!
Treat the cause, not the symptom. Manage your stressors, not your stress.
So, what does good stressor management look like exactly?
Excellent question and the topic of our final point below 👇
4. They know how to set healthy boundaries
In one way or another, managing your stressors comes down to setting healthy boundaries.
- Let’s say one of the biggest sources of stress in your life is your coworker who constantly “drops by” your office to chat and gab.
- Not only is it annoying, but it really hurts your productivity and focus at work. And so you end up having to stay late or work on the nights and weekends to catch up.
- Unfortunately, because you don’t want to hurt his feelings and be seen as mean or rude, you just keep letting it happen.
- And finally, as a result of all the stress that comes from not getting enough done at work and having to work at home, you find yourself irritable and short with people at work and home. And you struggle to manage that irritability well.
- You’re having trouble managing your emotions…
- Because you’re constantly stressed…
- Because you aren’t managing your stressors…
- Because you’re afraid to set boundaries.
So, what would setting healthy boundaries look like in this case?
Well, probably some version of not letting your distracting coworker waste so much of your time!
Easier said than done, right? For sure. But that doesn’t mean it’s not still necessary.
In my experience, there are two ideas that are critical if you want to get better at setting healthy boundaries:
- Assertive communication. Most people struggle to set healthy boundaries initially because they don’t want to come across as rude or mean. But assertiveness allows you to communicate your wants and needs honestly but in a way that’s also respectful of others. It’s probably the most underrated skill in all of emotional health.
- Boundary enforcement. While setting boundaries can be difficult, it’s enforcing your boundaries that’s often the really hard part. Because as much as it would be nice to live in a world where everyone respected your boundaries all the time, that’s a fantasy. People will violate your healthy boundaries. The only question is, what are you going to do when it happens? Unfortunately, most people don’t do anything, which only makes the problem worse because it communicates that you aren’t really serious about your boundaries. So before you set a boundary, you need to clearly think through what you’re willing to do if that boundary is violated. Better to not set a boundary at all than to set one you’re unwilling to enforce.
At the end of the day, your ability to manage your difficult moods and emotions isn’t just a matter of what happens in your own head—other people do affect us!
Which means if you want to be more emotionally stable, it’s vital to learn how to manage the stressful things and people in your environment effectively. And most of the time that some down to better boundaries.
All You Need to Know
If you want to be more emotionally stable, try to incorporate some of these habits into your life:
- Learn to be skeptical of your emotions
- Practice being vulnerable with your emotions
- Manage your stressors, not your stress
- Work on setting healthier boundaries