7 Psychological Habits of Highly Successful People


Successful people tend to have good relationships with themselves.

When I get to know people who have been successful—and I use that term successful in a pretty broad sense—it seems to me that many of them have an uncommonly positive relationship with themselves.

For example: One of the marks of a healthy relationship with yourself is that you don’t fall into self-criticism very often or too intensely. Successful people tend to be quite reflective and honest about their shortcomings. But they also tend to avoid the more unhelpful and destructive end of that continuum—self-judgment, rumination, negative self-talk, etc.

Of course, there are plenty of people who are very successful despite not having a great relationship with themselves. But the exception doesn’t prove the rule.

It’s my experience that when you look carefully at people who have achieved and maintained some amount of meaningful success in their life, one of the hidden variables behind that success is that they don’t get sabotaged and derailed by their own thoughts, beliefs, and emotions.

In other words…

It’s a lot easier to be successful when you have a good relationship with your own mind.

Here are 7 psychological habits I’ve observed in highly successful people that we can all learn from—whatever your definition of success is.

1. They acknowledge their emotions early

It’s hard to be successful in any part of life if you constantly get overwhelmed by painful emotions. Of course, we all experience difficult emotions like fear, sadness, or anger. But why is it that some people manage these feelings relatively well while others don’t?

It’s easier to manage difficult emotions when you catch them early.

Most people get overwhelmed by painful emotions because they ignore them or distract themselves when those emotions are small. While this feels good in the short term, it usually leads to those feelings getting much bigger and more intense over time.

On the other hand, if you can get in the habit of acknowledging your emotions when they first show up—and then validating them instead of trying to get rid of them—you stand a much better chance of staying emotionally balanced and getting on with your most important work and goals.

2. They think about their thinking

Aside from ignoring your emotions when they first show up, the other reason they end up ballooning into giant, overwhelming feelings is because we unintentionally feed them. Specifically, patterns of thinking like chronic worry or negative self-talk lead to much stronger and longer lasting emotions.

If you want to control your emotions, you must learn to manage your thinking.

Most people are not very aware of their mental patterns. As a result, they find themselves at the mercy of all the emotions those thought patterns lead to:

  • Chronic worry → chronic anxiety
  • Chronic rumination → chronic anger
  • Chronic self-criticism → chronically low self-confidence.

On the other hand, successful people often have a habit of reflecting on and paying attention to their own thoughts. They’re aware of the role they play in initiating or maintaining unhelpful mental patterns; and as a result, are better at regulating those thoughts patterns and the emotions that follow.

3. They’re compassionate with their mistakes

One of the things I’ve noticed in observing people who are successful is that there are really two types of successful people…

  • One type is very externally successful, but miserable on the inside.
  • The other type is externally successful and also has a relatively calm and confident interior life as well.

And while there are many factors that could lead to this difference, here’s a big one I don’t think is well enough appreciated:

It’s hard to be sustainably successful when you beat the hell out of yourself every time you slip up.

The externally successful and internally miserable types often have a pretty intense habit of self-judgment after mistakes. They’re constantly ruminating on past mistakes, worrying about future slip-ups, and generally being kind of nasty to themselves.

But the ones whose external success is matched by internal calm almost always have a strong habit of self-compassion. They reflect on their mistakes and try to learn from them. But they don’t dwell on them or generalize them to what they mean about them as people.

4. They listen to their emotions (but rarely trust them)

Most people’s relationship with their emotions falls into one of two extremes:

  • They’re dismissive and avoidant of their emotions. As a result, they don’t know much about them or how much those emotions influence them outside of their awareness (and they do!)
  • They’re obsessed with and overly-focused on their emotions. As a result, they frequently get lost in their feelings and are overly emotion-driven in their decision-making and choices.

On the other hand, people who tend to be successful often have a middle ground approach to their emotions:

They’re aware of and sensitive to their emotions but don’t put blind trust in them either.

Instead, they see emotions as one source of potentially useful information but not gospel truth either. And when push comes to shove, they tend to use values rather than emotions to make big decisions.

5. They update their expectations frequently

Expectations are powerful beliefs about the future or what you believe should happen. But they also tend to run in the background of our minds, which means we rarely examine them or question them. As a result, we can end up thinking, feeling, and then acting in ways that are contrary to our values and what we really want all because of old, unexamined expectations—either for ourselves or others.

If you insist on having expectations, you should insist on having realistic ones.

A lot of people end up falling into patterns of self-sabotage and bad habits because they’re still operating according to old expectations—often from childhood!

Successful people understand that to continue to make good decisions in an ever-changing environment you need to be regularly examining and updating your expectations so that they actually adhere to reality and move you toward your goals and aspirations rather than away from them.

6. They’re serious about self-care

It’s very hard work to manage difficult emotions well, think clearly and accurately, update strong beliefs and expectations, manage mistakes and criticism well, and perform all the other psychological functions that success depends on.

And yet, most people rarely do anything to support their minds in accomplishing those functions well. It’s like being a professional athlete and eating a terrible diet. Or owning a sports car and never bothering to get the oil changed.

Success depends on a healthy mind. And a healthy mind depends on healthy habits.

The term self-care gets a bad rap because it’s been hijacked to mean superficial acts of comfort and pleasure. But in reality, self-care means establishing and maintaining habits and routines that support your emotional health and wellbeing.

Successful people understand that doing your best work depends on being emotionally strong and mentally sharp. But more importantly, they know that those things require time and investment.

If you want your mind to work for you, you need to work for your mind.

7. They’re willing to be emotionally vulnerable

Emotional vulnerability is another one of those terms like self-care that seems silly and superficial and not worth even thinking much about. But that’s only because most people don’t really understand what it means…

To be emotionally vulnerable means that, when appropriate, you are able and willing to talk about how you feel—especially when it’s tough. Not only is this important for your own emotional health and wellbeing (see #1), but it’s vital if you want to maintain healthy and effective relationships—which almost all forms of success depend on (probably more than you think).

From business to parenting, a successful voyage depends on all parties feeling confident that they can talk about how they really feel. And successful people understand that by modeling their own emotional vulnerability and being honest about how they feel, they’re empowering others to do the same.

All You Need to Know

If you want to be more successful in any area of life, it’s important to cultivate a healthy relationship with your own mind.

To review:

  1. Acknowledge your emotions early
  2. Think about your thinking
  3. Be compassionate with your mistakes
  4. Listen to your emotions—but never trust them
  5. Update your expectations
  6. Get serious about self-care
  7. Practice emotional vulnerability


Add Yours

This resonated with me as my mother recently passed away and I am currently having to deal with my extended family, never easy. I am particularly interested in your comments about expectations, this is something I feel I need to learn more about. Thanks

I have no reason to doubt the correctness of your observation; it resonates with me. Thanks for putting it into writing for people to learn from.

I think that this is a comprehensive recipe.
However its a tall order.
Most human beings are not taught about emotions thinking or even how to self regulate and know how to be compassionate towards self. To be more effective is to commence in early childhood and continue this teaching. Talking to adults who have already been patterned into negative ways is unearthing a minefield have worms. Most people need some therapy to help this process into being.

You really nailed it on the head with all of these. The self-care one is spot on – & I love that: if you want your mind to work for you, you must work for your mind. Yup definitely nipping the emotions in the bud early is another biggie, as is thinking about thinking. Thank you for yet another brilliant article. You’re a legend & I appreciate you.

I recently replied to one of your newsletters asking for advice on repeated intrusive thoughts. You directed me to an article you had previously written and I read it carefully. Worked like a charm! Thank you so much for helping this frequently anxious person to be bit more functional!

I’ve been working on self-care, understanding of self vs. others in my life (and their influence on me) for decades. I love to observe. Thank you for putting into words those things that work and don’t work for our emotional resilience.

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