7 Emotional Mistakes Even Smart People Make

It’s a sad but understandable fact that most people don’t know much about their emotions—either how they work or how to work with them in a healthy way.

As a result, they end up making the same emotional mistakes over and over again, leading to cycles of low mood, anxiety, procrastination, and strained relationships to name just a few.

Almost every emotional mistake people fall into comes down to this one trap:

What feels good now often leads to feeling worse later.

Emotional mistakes are intuitive responses to painful feelings that often give relief in the short term but only make the problem worse in the future.

As a psychologist, my job is to help educate people to understand how their emotions really work, so they can work with them in a healthy way instead of just trying to avoid them or get rid of them with quick fixes.

What follows are 7 of the most common emotional mistakes even very smart people make. If you can learn to identify them and avoid them, you’ll find yourself far happier and more emotionally stable.

1. Trying to control your emotions

Most people imagine that with enough effort or skills, they should be able to control their emotions:

  • To calm themselves when they’re feeling anxious.
  • To cheer up when they’re feeling sad.
  • To cool off when they’re feeling angry.

But if you stop and think about it, is this really a realistic goal?

If feeling happy, for example, were as simple as flipping on your happiness switch, no one would ever need to visit therapists like me or read self-improvement articles like this one!

You can’t directly control your emotions any more than you can directly control the weather.

Unfortunately, when you do try and make yourself feel differently, it usually doesn’t go so well…

When you feel bad emotionally, chances are you take one of two approaches: You either try to escape your painful feeling or fix it. The problem is, when you try to avoid your painful feelings, you’re teaching your brain that those feelings are dangerous.

Which means that even if you “succeed” in feeling better in the moment, your brain will be afraid the next time that emotion pops up, leading to a double dose of painful emotion.

So, the next time you feel bad or upset, instead of asking How can I make this feeling go away? Try this:

What can I do despite feeling and that would be good for me?

2. Believing your thoughts

Being able to think, reason, and problem-solve is a wonderful thing. But it can get you into trouble if you’re not careful.

The problem many people get into, especially smart people, is that they over-rely on their thoughts.

Because their thinking is so helpful and accurate in certain areas of life—at work, for example—they assume that their thoughts are always helpful and accurate. Which leads to a tendency to trust their thoughts unconditionally.

But here’s the thing:

No matter how smart you are, your thoughts can be dead wrong. Especially thoughts about yourself.

But how we think directly impacts how we feel emotionally:

  • If you tell yourself you’re a loser, you’re going to feel bad.
  • If you imagine yourself screwing up tomorrow’s big presentation at work, you’re going to feel anxious.
  • If you mentally rehearse the 225 ways your spouse has wronged you over the last 10 years of marriage, you’re going to feel angry.

Unfortunately, many smart people get caught in vicious cycles of painful emotion because they believed the first thought that popped into mind, and as a result, kept thinking that way and generating ever-increasing amounts of painful emotion.

If you want to avoid spirals of painful emotion like sadness, guilt, or anxiety, cultivate a healthy skepticism of your own thoughts.

And remember… Just because you thought it doesn’t make it true.

3. Blaming things for how you feel

It’s a common misconception even among very well-educated people that things cause emotions. Because it certainly feels that way…

  • When a coworker makes a sarcastic comment to you at lunch, it feels like the comment made you angry.
  • When your spouse forgets to buy you something on your anniversary, it feels like their forgetfulness made you sad.
  • When a car cuts you off suddenly on the freeway, it feels like the other driver made you anxious.

But none of that is true.

We know from decades of research in psychology and neuroscience that a process called cognitive mediation determines how we feel emotionally. In short, it means that it’s our interpretation of what things mean that generates emotions, not the things themselves.

For example, suppose you’re driving down the freeway and a car zooms past you, asking from the right and cutting you off:

  • Situation A: You think to yourself, What an asshole, he could have killed somebody!
  • Situation B: You think to yourself, Maybe his wife is in the backseat of the car going into labor and he’s trying to get to the hospital quickly.

Same exact situation and event, but more than likely, a completely different emotional response. And the reason…

Things don’t cause emotions. It’s how you think about things that changes how you feel.

That’s not to say, of course, that our environment doesn’t matter… When something negative happens, it makes sense that our interpretation would be negative.

The key is to realize that while you have little control over what happens to you, you always have control over how you choose to think about it.

4. Fearing your emotions

Here’s a question for you: Suppose you accidentally touch a hot pan on the stove. A searing pain shoots up your finger and arm. Is the pain dangerous?

Answer… Not at all.

Pain isn’t dangerous. It’s your brain’s way of communicating danger.

In this case, what’s dangerous is the tissue damage that would occur if you left your finger on the hot pan. The pain is just a means to get you to move your finger and prevent the true danger.

The same principle applies to emotional pain:

  • When you feel gut-wrenchingly sad after a long-time partner breaks up with you, for example, the pain of sadness and grief isn’t dangerous or bad.
  • When you’re in the middle of a panic attack, the anxiety feels awful, but it’s not dangerous.

The key insight here is simply this:

Just because something feels bad doesn’t mean it is bad.

Many people get into the bad habit of trying to numb out or escape painful emotions because they think they’re dangerous. Unfortunately, this has the unintended side-effect of making them worse in the long-run.

The secret to lowering the intensity and pain of your emotions is to remind yourself that, however uncomfortable, emotions are not dangerous or something to be feared.

5. Trusting your emotions

Just like it’s dangerous to believe all your thoughts unconditionally, it’s similarly problematic to trust your emotions blindly.

Our culture tends to glorify emotions. From a young age we’re bombarded with messaging about how important it is to “Find your passion,” “Let your intuition guide you,” and of course, “Follow your heart.” As if emotions are somehow wiser and more accurate messengers of truth than, say, a thought or principle.

Despite what every Disney movie wants you to believe, emotions are often a terrible guide for our behavior.

For example:

  • When you’re in an argument with your spouse, your anger might nudge you toward making a biting or hurtful comment to get even. Should you really follow your heart on that one?
  • Your alarm goes off and you remember that you said you were going to exercise this morning, but you just feel like you need another 15 minutes of sleep so you roll over and tell yourself you’ll work out in the evening. Is your intuition really your best guide on that one?

No matter how strong they feel, or how mysterious and wise they seem, the fact is your emotions will frequently conflict with your values and highest aspirations.

And if you get in the habit of trusting your emotions blindly, you’re setting yourself up for a life of chronic procrastination, low self-esteem, and probably poor health.

To truly follow your dreams and live a life you can be proud of, you have to be able to ignore your emotions from time to time and keep your eyes on your values instead.

6. Judging your emotions

Remember earlier when we talked about how it doesn’t make sense to try and control your emotions because they’re not actually under our direct control?

Well, here’s another important implication of this idea:

If you don’t have direct control over your emotions, it doesn’t make any sense to judge yourself for them.

Actually, this is something we all know and agree to in a legal sense, anyway: Nobody gets sent to prison for feeling angry. You only get sent to slammer when you’ve done something wrong.

And the reason? We judge people based on their actions because actions can be controlled. But we don’t judge people on their feelings precisely because they’re not under our control.

And yet, there are a lot of very smart people out there—including several lawyers I’ve worked with—who insist on judging themselves as bad or wrong because of a certain emotion.

Unfortunately, this has nasty side effects:

  • When you judge yourself negatively for feeling sad, now you’re feeling guilty on top of your sadness.
  • When you criticize yourself for feeling anxious, now you’re feeling sad on top of feeling anxious.
  • When you blame yourself for feeling angry, now you’re feeling ashamed on top of feeling angry.

Judging yourself for how you feel only intensifies your distress.

You may not like feeling anxious or sad or angry or any other uncomfortable emotion, but criticizing yourself for it will only make things worse.

Instead, consider a little reminder I call The Other Golden Rule: When you’re feeling down, treat yourself like you would treat a good friend.

7. Coping with your emotions

Coping is a short-term strategy that often leads to long-term pain.

It seems like everyone wants to learn more coping skills these days. As a therapist, I get asked about this all the time:

Well, I guess I’m here because I’d like to learn some coping skills to help me when I’m anxious/depressed/angry/etc.

But here’s the thing about coping skills: they’re Band-Aids, nothing more. While they might alleviate some discomfort in the short term, they never actually address the underlying issue.

And that’s where the real trouble starts…

When you rely on coping skills to feel better, you tend to avoid addressing the root of the problem.

Look, nobody likes having surgery done on them, but if you’ve got a bullet in your chest, it needs to come out.

Similarly, if you’re getting chronically anxious, depressed, or whatever other emotional struggle you’re dealing with, coping is just kicking the can down the road.

At the risk of mixing my metaphors, at some point you have to bite the bullet and do surgery. At some point you have to face up to the fact that copings skills only address the symptom, not the cause, of your suffering.

There’s a time and place for coping with painful emotions, but rarely should you rely on to manage your emotional distress.

All You Need to Know

Like finances or a healthy diet, what feels good now often makes us feel much worse later. If you want to improve your moods and emotional health, watch out for these common emotional mistakes:

Trying to control your emotions

Believing your thoughts

Blaming things for how you feel

Fearing your emotions

Trusting your emotions

Judging your emotions

Coping with your emotions


Add Yours

So what good are emotions? Can they help at all?
Are emotions the engine that ignites and propels is forward when our values are right?

Emotions can be very helpful as long as they align with our values, circumstances, goals, etc.

Can you please clarify your idea that coping skills aren’t helpful? To me, for example, learning to challenge thoughts is one example of a coping skill. So if I think, “I am a loser,” it is helpful to challenge this and say, “No, actually I made a mad choice.” I am guessing you are talking about getting to the root of why I would think that way to begin with. To me, I think that maybe comes indirectly when I learn to challenge thoughts. “Why do I keep telling myself I am a loser?”

Would be interested to hear your thoughts on this one. Thanks!

Hey Jenna,

Yeah, so I think the gist of it is that often coping is a distraction from getting at the underlying issue and building long-term habits that address that issue.

It sounds like what you’re doing is great! To some extent, this is just a semantical issue I think 🙂

I wrote more about my issues with the idea of coping skills here:


I just love your posts. This is the best psychological blog I ever read. It gives wise advices and really shows the direction for self development.

My son used to assume that the person driving too slowly on the interstate was carrying a wedding cake to a reception hall. It’s an interesting way to approach this highway nuisance, not that I’ve ever seen the cake in the back seat. Maybe it is a tiny cake.

That said, I’m not sure saying you cannot calm yourself if you’re anxious is accurate. If I’m overly anxious in the air, I will need to either calm myself or risk getting thrown out the boarding door at 30K feet. Practices like meditation or mindfulness or praying all can help tackle the anxious feeling.

Now if you’re depressed or constantly anxious, you should consult a professional.


Actually, in moments that I’ve been swamped in the difficult emotions such as tension, anxiety, and fear, I look at the values ​​of patience and courage, which are among my most important values ​​.. and I think that my emotions in these difficult moments; test my values ​​as a woman who used to consider herself a warrior for a certain period, then I knew that life is not just windmills, And I will not match the Don Quixote.
So I have not tamed my difficult emotions, but I regard them as just like my little daughters and sons, and I actually deal with them in kindness, patience, and sometimes courage; Let’s say: I practice civilized parenting with my emotions, and with this, I can one day reach emotional maturity with them, although I do not mind crying because of my anger as I did when I was a young girl.
Thanks for raising this topic in your article, I really needed to remember that I often treat myself as my best friend, especially these days.


EMAIL: robinson.buckler [ @ y a h o o ] com..!!!……???? ????

United States……………???? ????

So I just read a lot some I don’t understand some I find to be very interesting because there are some things in there that I could see myself doing but just don’t know how to get around to it so What is your thought on that

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