As a psychologist, I’ve helped people work through just about every shape and size of difficult emotion.
But across this huge variety of suffering—from panic attacks and depression to anger issues and low self-esteem—there’s one common factor these people all seem to share: an unhealthy relationship with their emotions.
Most of us don’t learn very much about our emotions or how they work when we’re young. So we grow up believing that if an emotion feels bad it is bad.
The trouble is, that’s simply not true:
Your emotions aren’t the problem. It’s your relationship with emotions that’s making you unhappy.
If you want to feel better emotionally you need to build a healthier relationship with your emotions. And the best way to start is by recognizing the signs of an unhealthy relationship with emotions.
1. You think there are ‘good’ and ‘bad’ emotions
The fundamental error at the heart of all emotional suffering is the belief that emotions are good or bad.
Thankfully, this is nonsense.
Emotions aren’t good or bad any more than different color traffic lights are good or bad.
You may not like red lights, but that doesn’t mean they’re bad, dangerous, or a problem to be fixed. Similarly, you may not like feeling sad or afraid or ashamed or any other difficult emotion, but that doesn’t mean they are bad, wrong, defective, etc.
Sear this into your brain:
There is no such thing as a good or bad emotion.
Emotions are morally neutral phenomena. Like the weather, color of your skin, or your preference for coffee ice-cream over mint chocolate chip, good or bad has nothing to do with it.
Just because some emotions feel bad, doesn’t mean that they are bad.
When you touch a hot stove and feel pain shooting up your finger, is the pain bad? Of course not! Pain is just a signal telling your muscles to move before your skin gets seriously burned.
Similarly, while grief, trepidation, irritability, melancholy, terror, guilt, frustration, anxiety, shame, panic, or any other difficult emotion may feel bad, that means absolutely nothing about its moral standing or usefulness.
Like it or not, fear is often a hell of a lot more useful than happiness.
If you want to start building a better relationship with your emotions, stop judging them as good or bad and start accepting them as they are.
2. You intellectualize your emotions
Imagine you just got home after a really tough day at work—maybe you made a horribly embarrassing mistake during a presentation in front of your entire company.
As you walk through the door of your house, your spouse says:
Hey honey, how was wor… Oh gosh, you look terrible. Do you feel okay?
Now, realistically, which of these two options would you be more likely to choose as a reply:
- I’m just really stressed-out.
- I feel ashamed and embarrassed.
If you’re like 99% of the adults I know, you’re probably going to pick something much closer to Option 1 than Option 2.
Which is interesting because Option 2 is clearly more accurate. Sure, you may feel stressed, but the core of what’s wrong and how you’re feeling is embarrassment and shame.
But here’s the thing:
It’s surprisingly hard to talk about how we feel in plain emotional language.
On the other hand, when we use more conceptual or vague language to describe how we feel—a process called intellectualizing emotions—it feels a little less painful.
But avoiding how you feel emotionally because it hurts isn’t a very good long-term strategy.
Sure, it feels a little less bad in the moment. But long-term, avoiding how you really feel with vague or overly intellectual language is a subtle avoidance strategy that teaches your brain to be afraid of your own emotions.
And how healthy can your relationship with your emotions be if you’re terrified of them?
Instead, consider this the next time you’re feeling a strong painful emotion:
If I was 5-years-old, how would I describe how I’m feeling right now?
Have the courage to use plain emotional language to describe how you feel.
3. You try to ‘fix’ other people’s emotions
You’re a nice person, right?
You like to help people if you can. If someone is suffering or in pain, you obviously want to help lessen that pain if it’s within your power to do so, right?
Of course you do! Because most of us are basically nice, kind people, we empathize when people are suffering and want to help.
But here’s the thing:
Despite our best intentions, we’re not always very smart about helping other people—especially when it comes to emotional suffering.
See, most people have this funny habit of trying to fix problems that aren’t actually problems—like emotions.
Here’s an example from my own life:
The other day my 3-year-old daughter crashed her bike and scraped her knee. She came running over to me sobbing and I instantly felt bad for her.
Like most parents, I don’t like seeing my kids upset or in pain. Which is why it was—and always is—hard to suppress my initial reaction of saying something like Oh it’s okay, honey. It’s not that bad. It’ll feel better soon.
I desperately wanted to say something to reassure her and make her feel better.
But I managed to hold back and said something very different instead: Oh gosh, Bi! That must have been really scary to fall off your bike like that.
Now, you might think to yourself “Well that’s dumb. For one thing, she already knows falling off her bike was scary. For another, you’re just drawing more attention to her pain, which is likely to keep her upset even longer, right?”
It would seem that way… But here’s the thing:
No matter how painful, emotions aren’t dangerous.
Which means, no matter how much they look the part, emotions are not problems—even the really painful ones.
And if emotions aren’t problems, that means treating them as such is misguided at best.
If I had told my daughter not to worry and that everything would be fine, it may well have distracted her from her fear and made her feel better in the moment. But the longer-term consequences would have been much less pleasant.
Namely, by telling her that It’s not that bad… or that You don’t need to cry… I would be implying that it’s not okay for her to feel afraid. That fear and other painful emotions are bad things—problems to be solved and gotten rid of as soon as possible.
Now, what kind of a psychologist would I be if I was teaching my children to be afraid of their emotions?
My point with all this is simple:
When you treat emotions like problems, you teach yourself to think of them as problems.
And the more you think of your emotions as the problems, the more afraid of them you’re going to be.
Look, dealing with difficult feelings is hard enough. But it’s borderline impossible if you’re also afraid of them.
Instead of trying to fix other people’s problems, try validating them instead. Let them know that you care and that you’re there for them. But most importantly, let them know that it’s perfectly okay to feel whatever they’re feeling, no matter how scary or intense.
4. You run away from your emotions
When you feel bad your gut reaction is to do something that makes you feel better as soon a possible:
- Touch a hot stove → Pull your hand back
- See a rattlesnake → Back away
- Break your arm → Take some Tylenol and then go to the doctor
And in situations like these, that pain-avoidance strategy works out well.
But avoiding pain doesn’t always lead to better outcomes. In fact, it often makes things worse:
- Feel tired → Watch Netflix instead of working out
- Craving ice-cream → Blow off your diet and go nuts
- Lusting after that new iPhone → Forget savings and buy it now
When it comes to painful emotions, avoiding them never works out in the long run:
- Distracting yourself from anxiety only makes you more anxious.
- Numbing out your grief only perpetuates your sadness.
- Venting all your anger only intensifies it.
The reason is pretty straightforward:
When you run away from something, it teaches your brain that it’s dangerous.
Now, in the case of a hot stove or a rattlesnake, those things actually are dangerous, so reminding your brain of that is a good thing and should help you avoid them in the future.
But here’s the deal: A craving for ice-cream isn’t dangerous. It doesn’t feel good, but it’s not going to put your survival at stake.
Similarly, feeling anxious isn’t dangerous. It might be uncomfortable, but anxiety itself isn’t going to hurt you.
But when you get in the habit of instantly avoiding your anxiety by distracting yourself, numbing it out, or trying to fix it by worrying about it, you create a second layer of anxiety. Now you’ve got anxiety about anxiety!
Running away from painful feelings may give you some relief in the short-term but it will always be at the expense of your long-term emotional well-being.
Think carefully before you run.
5. You trust your emotions
I like to end with this one because it always throws people for a loop…
I’ve just spent the last 6 minutes of your day trying to convince you that emotions aren’t bad or dangerous. And that you should spend less time avoiding them and more time accepting them.
But, noticeably absent from anything I’ve written is the idea that emotions are some kind of special inner wisdom that you need to constantly tune into and adhere to with religious-like fervor.
I would never say something like that because if you’ve been paying attention to life, it ought to be pretty darn clear that emotions are just as likely to mislead you as they are to guide you.
You get home from work after a long, exhausting day and collapse onto the couch. As you’re reaching for the remote to turn on the TV, an annoying thought crosses your mind: I said I was going to go to the gym today after work…
After a little inner debate with yourself, you settle on the rationalization that I’ll just get up early tomorrow and go to the gym before work. It’s only 9 or 10 hours late.
Consequently, you feel some relief from the anxiety of having promised yourself you’d exercise but feeling like watching tv instead.
Now, how wise is that feeling? It’s pushing you to stay on the couch, pour yourself a glass of chardonnay, and watch Netflix. Should you listen to that feeling?
Of course not!
Unless your work involves 8 hours a day of hard manual labor, chances are exercise would in fact be very good for you—physically, emotionally, maybe even spiritually—despite the fact that you don’t feel like it.
Obviously emotions can be useful. But just because they are sometimes helpful or instructive doesn’t mean they always are.
And just because they can lead you to very good things doesn’t preclude the possibility that they can just as easily lead you into very bad things.
People who have a healthy relationship with their emotions listen to their feelings but rarely trust them. They pay attention to how they feel but don’t necessarily act on their feelings instinctively.
Cultivate a healthy skepticism of your emotions. And when in doubt, verify that your feelings align with your values before you make any decisions.
You’ll feel better for it in the end.
All You Need to Know
If you struggle with painful moods and emotions on a regular basis, your emotions themselves aren’t the problem. More likely, it’s your relationship with your emotions that’s unhealthy.
To improve your relationship with your difficult emotions, remember the following:
There is no such thing as a good or bad emotion.
Don’t intellectualize your feelings.
Stop trying to fix other people’s emotions.
Face your emotions instead of running from them.
Listen to your emotions but don’t trust them.
21 CommentsAdd Yours
What about the emotions on the happy, joyful end of the spectrum? Are they to be distrusted?
Siri – I think it’s more about feeling (all) your emotions…and not letting them lasso you and run the show (regardless of what they are). Looking forward to Nick weighing in!
I was surprised to discover in my 30s that yes positive emotions should also be weighed up against my values and prior commitments. When we are feeling energised and positive for instance we can end up starting projects or making commitments to things that are not actually in line with our priorities or that we are not going to have the resources or energy to see through long term. So feeling inspired and energised is fine but we don’t always have to act on our positive emotions either.
It’s a good question. Basically, yes, I think the same principle applies.
Think about all the “excitement” that can lead to stock market bubbles or the “bliss” that comes from heroin. Obviosuly those are extreme examples, but I think it illustrates the broader point that trust is a very high bar. And I can’t think of a single emotion in my life that’s utterly trustworthy.
So again, I’m all for “listening” to all your emotions, but trusting them implcitly doesn’t seem like a very good strategy long-term.
Hi Nick, great article!! “Anxiety about anxiety” is really spot on. Thank you so much.
I think yes. When you feel happy, joyful, you are more likely to make promises that you might not be able to fulfill, to fall for someone’s tricks or lies. So we have to separate our emotions from decisions.
LOVE this Nick. Going to go deeper on #2.
Thank you for this!!
You bet, Theresa! Thanks for the kind words 🙂
Pretty simple straightforward reason as you have pointed.
When you run away from something, it teaches your brain that it’s dangerous.
I keep running away from bad feelings as I label it(Guilt, Shame, anxiety) and whenever I experience it next time my brain turns into flight mode and tries to imagine something dreadful is going to happen.
Yup. It’s difficult in the moment, but facing our difficult feelings and actually welcoming them is “easier” in the long-run.
Thanks, excellent job, this is very helpful. The elephant are tiur emotions and the rider has the brain (frontal cortex hopefully)!
Right, love that metaphor!
Thanks, excellent job, this is very helpful. The elephant are one’s emotions and the rider has the brain (frontal cortex hopefully)!
When you say that running away from an emotion teaches your brain that it’s dangerous, what does that mean? Does it actually change the brain’s “wiring”? I understand that the brain is malleable and nerve connections that we use frequently get reinforced. Trying to understand this point that I have heard you make before. Thanks.
Yup. The brain’s threat detection system wouldn’t be very effective if it couldn’t adapt and “learn” to treat new things as dangerous. And though I still don’t think neuroscience has a complete understanding of how the brain learns and adapts on a cellular level, it’s pretty clear that it does.
A good (but somewhat techncial) book that covers this is Anxious by Joseph Ladieux
thank you for this helpful article and i liked reading the comments of other people, i sure know that emotions are really and important; you feel and think therefore you are; and it is true unfortunately that many try and control others’ emotions under the guise of being helpful and it not letting other precious souls think and feel how they are, and as David Bowie wisely sang ‘just because i feel does not mean that i do not think aswell’ – way agree, because of having strong emotions was accused of not thinking deeply and sometimes when i have come to a decision which took me a long time to come to through many happenings with alot of thinking and have tried other ways [like making mammoth efforts for more then 25 years in a marriage that was futile and in the at time years lost, so many sad times and my older Sons alienated against me and time and peace lost with youngest precious Son], then when left unloving and unwise people who proved they were never friends accused me of not thinking it through, and i am thinking very carefully about all it do and do not do.
This was an excellent article. I have been married 50 years, and for 25 of those years, I trusted my emotions more than my values. Why? It ‘felt ‘ good. Wrong reasons!
This led to all kinds of trouble like having a 4-year affair ( I ‘felt’ loved) 25 years ago years ago among other things. I spent the next 25 years trying to make up for it.
About 10 years ago my therapist informed me my wife was an emotional abuser(no she doesn’t believe in therapy). After inner child work and some clarity of my situation, I began to ‘weed out’ my emotions ( the marriage never felt right) from my values ( what’s the ‘right thing to do’ for both of us?) It’s a tough decision at 70 years old. But emotional abuse and codependency are not good emotional feelings. What do the ‘values’ to say?
“Trust your emotions” – this was so helpful. thank you Nick!
Nick great article. Like always. I have a suggestion or a wish. I read the articles whenever I have some time. Love them. It would be so much easier for me to listen to them. I wish if possible you could read your articles and we could download them in mp3 format. Then I would be able to listen to a lot more of them and get wiser by it. Something like the “Savvy Psychologist :: Quick and Dirty Tips” especially with Ellen Hendricksen or Jade Wu. They have sponsors.
love this so much Nick! Question for you – do YOU define feelings differently than emotions? I never have (and still don’t)… someone I used to follow makes a very big distinction that just doesn’t resonate. Your newsletter DOES resonate for me, so thank you very much!