Many of us grow up with a pretty confused attitude toward our emotions, especially the difficult ones.
Specifically, we end up avoiding anything that feels bad (anxiety, grief, frustration, etc.) and chasing anything that feels good (joy, relief, excitement, etc.)
But if you’ve ever tried dieting, saving money, having a difficult conversation, studying for a test, or basically any other important task in life, you probably understand this simple truth:
What feels good now often leads to feeling worse later.
- Avoiding anxiety now feels like a relief but it makes your anxiety worse later because now you have anxiety about anxiety.
- Avoiding a difficult conversation now because the other person might get upset, leads to increasing frustration and resentment later.
In other words, our intuition about how to deal with our emotions is often misguided.
But with practice, you can cultivate a healthier, more productive set of emotional intuitions. And the following six habits are a good place to start.
1. Listen to your emotions, but don’t trust them.
Many of us fall into the trap of either avoiding our emotions altogether or blindly following them.
But here’s the thing most people don’t fully understand:
Just because your emotions are sometimes helpful doesn’t mean they always are.
- Fear can keep you safe and help you avoid dangerous situations. But it can also lead you to miss out on a lot of wonderful experiences in life.
- Anger can give you the energy you need to fight injustice and unfairness. But it can also lead to impulsiveness and harmful aggression.
People with a healthy emotional intuition understand that there’s no one size fits all approach to dealing with emotions. They have to be taken on a case-by-case basis.
When faced with a difficult emotional situation, start by asking yourself this question:
Does this emotion align with my values?
And if you’re not sure, it probably means you need to spend less time ruminating on how you feel, and more time clarifying your values.
2. View your emotions mechanically, not morally.
If you struggle a lot with emotions in your life, you may have fallen into a subtle trap of being judgmental about how you feel:
- When you feel sad you think it means you’re pathetic or silly.
- When you feel afraid you see it as a sign of weakness.
- When you get angry you judge yourself for not being in control of your feelings.
The problem with being moralistic and judgmental with your emotions is that it makes them more intense:
- When you get angry for feeling sad, you only end up sadder or even depressed.
- When you feel guilty about feeling angry, it only leads to more pain and suffering.
- When you feel anxious about feeling afraid, you’re likely to feel even more anxious or even panicky.
A healthy emotional intuition means realizing that emotions can’t be judged as right or wrong for the simple reason that you don’t have direct control over them.
Emotions themselves are not good or bad. And you are not good or bad for feeling them.
So, save the moralizing and judgment for your behavior and learn to see your emotions mechanically. You may not like the fact that you’re feeling bad, but that doesn’t mean you’re bad for feeling that way.
3. Validate painful emotions instead of trying to fix them.
Just like emotions aren’t morally good or bad, they’re not problems to be solved or gotten rid of.
Of course, when you’re in the grips of some difficult emotion like fear or grief, it’s easy to see them as problems. But that’s not technically true…
Here’s my favorite analogy for this situation:
- When you touch your finger to a hot stove, is the pain you feel a problem?
- Absolutely not! In fact, it’s a good thing.
- The real problem is your skin tissue burning—pain is just a signal that helps you move your hand and avoid serious burns.
The same thing is true of emotional pain:
Just because something feels bad doesn’t mean it is bad.
No matter how painful, your emotions are your mind’s way of trying to help:
- Fear is trying to keep you safe.
- Guilt is trying to prevent future mistakes.
- Anger is trying to correct an injustice.
Unfortunately, our emotions often get confused, telling us something is dangerous, for example, even though it is actually perfectly safe. But that doesn’t change the fact that it’s just trying to help!
Think about emotions like lights on your car’s dashboard: You may not like it when some of them blink on (low fuel!) but it would be foolish to get rid of them.
Emotionally intuitive people understand that the correct response to painful emotion is validation not problem-solving.
Acknowledge your emotions, remind yourself that they’re just trying to help and that, no matter how painful, emotions themselves are not dangerous.
4. Talk about your emotions in plain language.
Because we tend to see painful emotions as bad things or problems, most of us get into the habit of intellectualizing our emotions when we talk about them.
Intellectualizing your emotions is when you turn a plain emotion or feeling into an idea, concept, or metaphor:
- Instead of I feel sad you say I’m just a little off today.
- Instead of I’m afraid you say I’ve just been feeling a little stressed out.
- Instead of I feel frustrated with you you say I’m just kind of upset.
The problem is, these intellectualizations are actual subtle avoidance strategies designed to help us feel less bad.
Think about it: Let’s say you were feeling really ashamed and disappointed in yourself for a mistake you made at work and a coworker approached you and said, Hey, what’s wrong?
Which of the following to responses feels less scary:
- I feel really ashamed for that mistake I made.
- I’m just a little stressed. I’ll be fine.
The first one feels scarier because when you use plain emotional language you make yourself more vulnerable—you tell people how you really feel. On the other hand, when you use a concept like stressed it’s more vague and ambiguous.
But here’s the problem:
If you always avoid painful emotions you’re teaching your brain that they’re bad. Which will only make you feel worse the next time you experience them.
If you want to cultivate a stronger, healthier relationship with your emotions, practice using plain language to describe how you feel.
When in doubt, ask yourself the following question the next time you’re feeling bad:
How would a six-year-old describe this feeling?
Little kids haven’t learned how to lie to themselves about how they feel, which makes them excellent models for us adults.
5. Be curious about your emotions, not combative.
Most people’s biggest problem emotionally is that they’re afraid of their own emotions.
This deep emotional fear contributes to just about every form of emotional suffering you can think of from depression and anxiety to anger management issues and low self-esteem.
Because when you’re afraid of your emotions you treat them like threats. And when you treat your emotions like the enemy—always running away from or trying to eliminate them—your brain starts to actually believe that they are the enemy!
This is why most people are so emotionally reactive—they’ve trained their minds to view their own emotions as dangerous.
But when you have a healthier relationship with your emotions, that fear gets replaced with curiosity. Because when you learn to be curious about your emotions (even the painful ones) you teach your brain a much different and much healthier lesson:
I may not like certain emotions but that doesn’t mean there’s something wrong with me for having them.
And when you really believe that—I mean really believe that—it becomes much, much easier to handle difficult emotions.
If you want to cultivate better emotional intuition, practice being curious about your emotions.
Wonder about them:
- Where did this emotion come from?
- What might it be trying to tell me?
- Am I experiencing any other emotions alongside this one?
- What are my expectations or beliefs about this emotion?
- Ideally, how would I like to respond to this emotion?
Treat your emotions like enemies and that’s increasingly how they’ll feel. But treat them like friends and they’ll become far easier to work with.
6. Don’t take your emotions too seriously.
Look, there’s nothing special about your emotions. Like your fingernails or small intestine, they’re just another part of your body.
Unfortunately, our culture tends to either glorify or demonize emotions, both of which tend to be unhelpful and often lead to a lot of suffering.
Emotionally intuitive people see emotions for what they are: often useful, but frequently misguided, and sometimes plain silly.
In other words, they don’t take their emotions too seriously…
- They can laugh at the fact that they still—after all these years—get a little nervous speaking in public.
- They can gently chuckle to themselves when they feel a surge of frustration or defensiveness creep up after a valid criticism.
- They can smile softly when they feel guilty about something that they know they have no real reason to feel guilty for (aka fake guilt).
People who are emotionally intuitive have a kind of lightness about them.
They’re not constantly worrying about or even thinking about this emotion or that. They see emotions as just one of the many aspects of being a human being—sometimes glorious, sometimes awful, and frequently just a little wacky.
Of course, it’s important to understand and respect your emotions. But that doesn’t mean you can’t laugh at them from time to time too.
Want to Work with Me to Build a Healthier Relationship with Your Emotions?
A couple times a year, I guide a small group of motivated individuals through a six-week program to build emotional strength and resilience. It’s called Mood Mastery and you can learn more about it here →