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.
- 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