Why am I so emotional? has to be one of the most frequently asked questions I hear as a psychologist.
But it’s always a tricky question to answer, primarily for two reasons:
- Many different factors affect how we feel emotionally. Everything from your genetics and attachment style to what you ate for breakfast and how much sleep you got last night play some role in how you feel emotionally.
- There’s no clear standard for how much emotion is “normal.” For example: There’s no rule book that says feeling 6 out of 10 anger is normal, but 8 out of 10 anger is abnormal. Or that feeling angry for a few minutes is normal but feeling it for a few hours is abnormal.
Still, many people do experience higher and more prolonged levels of painful emotion than they need to. And while this excessive emotionality is sometimes due to factors outside their control, often that’s not the case.
Frequently, it’s subtle psychological factors that are the primary culprit in the question of Why do I feel so emotional? This is good news because, in general, a lot of your psychology is under your control—unlike your genes or what your parents did to you as a child.
What follows is a collection of subtle but powerful psychological causes of excessive emotionality. If you can learn to identify these in your own life, there’s a good chance you can use that knowledge to regulate your emotions more effectively and feel a little more emotionally balanced as a result.
1. Unchecked expectations
Expectations are beliefs about how other people or things in the world should behave or turn out.
There are two major problems with expectations, both of which often lead to heightened levels of emotion:
- They’re rarely updated as often as they should be. Suppose you have an expectation of yourself that you do A+ work all the time. While this may have been (sort of) reasonable as a very bright student in a pretty easy school setting when you were 16, it may not be all that reasonable now that you’re a 45-year-old working professional with a mortgage, 4 kids, and sick parents. In other words, your expectation of stellar work all the time is the driving force behind your perfectionism. And your perfectionism is probably driving a lot of excess anxiety, stress, and self-criticism.
- We often use expectations as a defense mechanism. When you believe that something (or someone) should be or act a certain way, it can give a false sense of certainty and control about things that are fundamentally not under your control (and therefore, anxiety-producing). For example: Is your expectation that your children get straight As in school really about your kids’ best interest or is it more about alleviating your anxiety and guilt about not being around your kids enough and this having negative effects on them? The illusion of control and certainty that comes from expectations can make us feel better in the moment. But long term it tends to make us feel worse because it’s a form of denial.
There’s a time and place for expectations. But if you never check in on your expectations, update them, or investigate what function they’re really serving, they can easily lead to a lot of unnecessary emotional pain and distress.
The trick is to make sure that you are being thoughtful and intentional with your expectations.
Make a time to check in with your expectations for key people and relationships in your life and adjust them to be as realistic and helpful as possible.
When people say they feel so emotional, one of the most common forms is feeling too anxious.
But here’s the thing many people don’t understand about anxiety:
Anxiety doesn’t just happen. It’s created and maintained by the mental habit of worrying.
This distinction between the anxiety you feel and the worry that leads to it is crucial. Because if you want to feel less anxious, the only real solution is to learn to manage your worry habit better.
Ultimately, worry is a form of thinking—a version of negative self-talk, to be more specific. It involves trying to problem-solve things in the future that either A) aren’t really problems, or B) you aren’t capable of solving.
Like all other emotions, anxiety is not something you can influence directly. You can’t decide to be less anxious any more than you can decide to be happier. Emotions don’t work that way.
We can only influence our emotions indirectly, primarily through the way we think.
If you’re constantly worrying about the future, you’re going to constantly feel much more anxious than you need to. On the other hand, if you can reduce your habit of worrying by just 20 or 30%, you’ll take a major chunk out of your excessive feelings of anxiety.
If you often feel too anxious, it’s because you’re worrying too much.
The trick is to validate the anxiety and take control of the worry.
Rumination is the flip-side of worry. When we worry, we engage in unhelpful thinking and problem solving about the future using our imagination. When we ruminate, we think unproductively about the past using our memory.
- You get home from work and try to engage with your spouse or play with your kids, but you keep going over and over that nasty comment your manager made to you during a meeting at work.
- After a fight with your girlfriend, you replay the fight repeatedly and search your memory for all the examples in your past where she’s been just as guilty of the thing she’s criticizing you for.
Like, worry, rumination often feels good or helpful because it feels like you’re doing work and solving problems. But in reality, you can’t control the past any more than you can control the future.
When you get stuck in a habit of rumination, it only fuels your anger and shame in the long run. And as a result, keeps you feeling more emotionally volatile.
Also like worry, rumination tends to be compulsive because—very briefly—it makes us feel good. It gives us a sense of control that temporarily alleviates our anxieties or insecurities.
- Rather than accepting the fact that your manager doesn’t really like you, you temporarily make yourself feel better by analyzing the situation over and over to try and find out what you could have done or said that would have made things better.
- Rather than exploring the possibility that maybe your girlfriend was right to criticize you, you distract yourself from your feelings of shame by getting defensive and angry and making her out to be the bad gal.
Now, this doesn’t mean thinking about the past can’t be helpful sometimes. To the contrary, calmly and objectively reflecting back on our past can be enormously helpful and productive.
So how do you know if you’re doing unhelpful rumination or helpful reflection?
The best indicator I’ve found to distinguish helpful reflection from unhelpful rumination is intentionality.
When we get stuck in cycles of unhelpful rumination, it’s typically a relatively mindless and reactive process—we just find ourselves rumination.
On the other hand, genuine reflection is usually very intentional—it’s initiated deliberately and thoughtfully.
Finally, helpful reflection is always aimed at understanding not feeling.
So ask yourself: Am I dwelling on the past to genuinely understand something better, or am I doing this to make myself feel better or avoid dealing with some other uncomfortable situation or reality?
4. Waiting for motivation
Most people look at motivation as fuel—when you feel good enough, inspired enough, or motivated enough, it gives you the energy to do things:
- If you feel energetic enough, you go for a run.
- If you feel inspired enough, you work on that creative project.
- If you feel motivated enough, you write a new blog post.
And while there’s certainly some truth to this idea that feeling good helps us take action, when viewed in isolation, it’s actually dangerous.
Feeling good does make it easier to do hard things, but it’s not a requirement for doing hard things.
Which makes sense if you really think about it…
- If someone held a gun to your head and said to go to the gym and walk on the treadmill for 20 minutes, you could do it… regardless of how you felt initially.
- If someone said here’s a check for $1,000,000 if you finish that blog post you’ve been meaning to write, you could do it… regardless of whether you were feeling inspired or not.
The point is simple:
We are perfectly capable of doing difficult things despite not feeling like it.
But here’s the most important implication of this idea: Doing important things makes us feel good!
- Working on a creative project regardless of how you feel will lead to you feeling more inspired.
- Going to the gym regardless of how you feel will lead to you feeling more energized.
Action leads to motivation at least as often as motivation leads to action.
The problem is, most people don’t really believe this. And so they sit around waiting to do important things until they feel like it.
Unfortunately, this habit of waiting for motivation leads to a lot of chronic shame, sadness, and self-criticism. Because you’re essentially living in a chronic state of procrastination—putting off the things you know you should do and doing something easier instead.
When this habit gets really entrenched, it leads to a state of perpetually low self-esteem and poor self-worth, which makes you keenly vulnerable to difficult emotions and bad moods.
On the other hand, when you stop waiting around for motivation and learn to make your own by taking good action regardless of how you feel, you buffer yourself from the effects of stress and painful emotion.
5. Passive communication
Passive communication is a tendency to ignore your own wants and needs and “go with the flow” of other people’s wishes in order to avoid conflict.
Your spouse suggests going to a movie for date night. You think to yourself, It’d be nice to go to dinner instead so we can actually talk. But then you think to yourself, No, he always complains about “fancy restaurants” and how expensive they are. Better just do a movie. At which point you find yourself saying, Sure, honey.
Obviously, deferring what you want and doing what someone else wants isn’t a bad thing necessarily. In fact, for any relationship to function healthily we need to be able to sacrifice and compromise sometimes.
But many people have gotten into a habit of always compromising on what they want and always deferring their needs to those of others. And for most significant relationships in our lives, this is just as unhealthy as never compromising.
The reason is, it leads to chronic resentment and anxiety. And when you’re chronically resentful of people and at the same time anxious, it’s very difficult to maintain a balanced, non-reactive emotional life.
When you habitually avoiding external conflict, you’re simply shifting all that conflict inside yourself.
And when you’re full of inner conflict, your emotions are going to feel all over the place and extreme.
If you want to cultivate true emotional peace and stability, you must learn to be assertive. You must learn to express your wants and needs clearly and honestly.
6. Unclear values
Answer this question to yourself honestly:
How much of your time do you spend doing things you genuinely want to do?
If we’re honest with ourselves, I think it’s probably a lower number than we’re comfortable admitting.
Of course, there’s boatloads of privilege wrapped up in that idea: Many people, out of sheer necessity, have to spend nearly all their time doing things they don’t especially want to do.
That being said, it’s a strange phenomenon that so many of us actually have the freedom to spend time doing things we really care about, believe in, and are passionate about, and yet… we don’t. And as a result, we live in this state of constant low-level shame about ourselves.
This perpetual sense of feeling like we’re not spending our time wisely is a huge vulnerability to feeling overly emotional.
Think about it: If you’re already feeling bad about yourself for wasting time, procrastinating, or indulging superficial goals at the expense of genuine ones, even small stressors and setbacks are going to hit you that much harder.
Part of this chronic procrastination is a result of the waiting for motivation problem described above in #4. But I think there’s actually a deeper reason why we live in this perpetual state of self-disappointment where we’ve got a list of things we should be doing or working on and yet we find ourselves wasting time on things that don’t really matter to us…
We don’t really know what our values are.
I mean, we kind of do. We know the vague outlines of our values and what we want:
- You know you want to get in shape and be healthy.
- You know you want to spend more quality time with your family.
- You know you want to be more creative.
- You know you want to travel more.
The problem is, these are all incredibly vague, non-specific ideas. And that lack of specificity makes it extremely hard to actually move forward on any of them and gain the emotional benefits of doing so.
If you think about the most emotionally resilient people you know, I bet most of them have this in common: They have specific, clear goals and values and make steady progress toward them.
Because when we spend our time and energy doing the things that really matter to us—the things we really value—it’s like a super injection of emotional stability and energy.
But the trick to getting there—the trick to getting over the chronic procrastination hump—is to get really clear about your values. And to make extremely clear, specific plans and systems that will help you move toward these values.
So, don’t be satisfied with vague values. Take the time to really get to know your values in a clear, concrete way.
When you do, you’ll find that you’re able to make much better progress toward them; and as a result, feel more confident and emotionally stable as a result.
All You Need to Know
If you chronically feel more emotional than you think you should, there’s a good chance one or more of these habits may be a significant cause:
Waiting for motivation