It’s a common misconception that some people are simply wired to be emotionally unstable while others just lucked out with a more balanced temperament from birth.
Obviously, there are some relatively fixed biological factors that influence how emotional we tend to feel. But here’s the much bigger factor that most people miss:
Emotional stability comes from the habits you form over time, not the genes you were born with.
If you want to become more emotionally stable, try to incorporate some of these habits into your own daily life.
1. Embracing uncertainty
It’s really uncomfortable to be uncertain about things that matter to us: whether you did well enough on the interview to get that new job, for example.
The problem is that because we dislike uncertainty (and all the anxiety that goes with it), we get into habits that briefly numb out our uncertainty anxiety. Unfortunately, though, these quick fixes end up causing much bigger problems down the road…
Reassurance-seeking, for example, often gives us the illusion of certainty by getting other people to tell us “everything will be fine.” But ultimately this is just a form of denial.
While you might get some temporary relief in the moment, refusing to accept the fact of uncertainty, actually makes you less able to deal with uncertainty in the future because you miss out on the chance to build confidence.
Avoiding uncertainty feels good now, but in the long-run all it does is fragilize you.
Emotionally stable people are able to tolerate the anxiety of uncertainty because they’re in the habit of embracing uncertainty and building confidence in their ability to handle it instead of indulging the fantasy that uncertainty is avoidable or outsourcing that job to other people.
2. Letting go of control
Like uncertainty, helplessness is another one of those feelings that’s really hard to deal with.
For example, it’s incredibly hard to watch someone we love suffer through heartbreak or grief knowing that, ultimately, there’s not much we can do to alleviate their suffering directly.
Unfortunately, because we’re so eager to not feel helpless, it’s easy to fall into the trap of doing things that make us feel in control even though we aren’t—the side effects of which make things worse in the end. Worry is a perfect example of this…
Suppose someone you love is on a long road trip during a storm and you’re afraid about them getting into an accident. You don’t actually have any control over that outcome. But worrying about it temporarily makes you feel like you can do something—exert some kind of control. The problem, of course, is that it’s all side effect and no benefit: your worry won’t actually keep your loved one safe, but it will make you anxious and stressed.
Emotionally stable people cultivate the courage to face up to the fact that we all are far more helpless than we want to believe. And they know that while it’s hard in the moment, letting go of the need for control makes things far easier in the end.
The embrace of reality will always make you stronger than the indulgence of delusion.
3. Accepting painful emotions
It’s human nature to avoid pain: Your hand accidentally swipes a hot pan and instantly recoils in order to avoid tissue damage from a burn.
And this is true of emotional pain as well: Feeling sad and our tendency is to lose ourselves in a distraction; feeling anxious and we look for reassurance from others.
But here’s the thing…
Just because it feels bad doesn’t mean it is bad.
When you lift weights at the gym and your muscles feel sore afterward, that’s not a bad thing—it’s actually good because it’s a sign you’re getting stronger! But what would happen to your physical health if you avoided everything that’s uncomfortable or painful? Yeah, you wouldn’t be too healthy and strong!
The same principle applies to emotional health and stability…
Just because an emotion is uncomfortable or feels bad doesn’t mean it’s bad or you’re bad for feeling that way.
But if you get in the habit of treating your emotions as bad things by avoiding them, you train your brain to be afraid of how you feel. And that’s a terrible setup for long-term emotional suffering and instability.
4. Lowering expectations
Most expectations are a form of wish-fulfillment: We confuse what we want to be the case for what is. And the consequences are almost always… not good!
For example: You care a lot about your kids and their future happiness. As a result, you expect them to do very well in school—anything under an A is a disappointment.
The problem is your expectation that your kids should get As and do well in school (because it will—theoretically—lead to a happier life) isn’t necessarily based on reality.
- What if they have an undiagnosed learning disability?
- Or maybe they just don’t learn well sitting inside a building listening to people cram information down their throats for 8 hours at a time. (Shocking, I know…).
The point is simply this:
Unrealistic expectations are a recipe for excessive frustration, disappointment, and high-conflict relationships.
In the short-term, your expectations make you feel good because they give you a false sense of control and certainty which alleviates your anxiety. But in the long-run they only lead to pain because they’re so often at odds with reality.
5. Being skeptical of their own thoughts
Emotional instability almost always comes from getting lost in overly-negative and unrealistic thoughts:
- Panic and anxiety come from losing yourself in spirals of worry and catastrophizing.
- Depression and self-loathing come from cycles of self-criticism and judgment over past mistakes, failings, or perceived inadequacies.
- Chronic anger and resentment come from endlessly ruminating over other people’s cruelty, insensitivity, or foolishness.
To put it more generally:
How we habitually think determines how we habitually feel.
So how do we end up with patterns of unhealthy thinking?
One of the biggest reasons is that you’re too trusting of your own thoughts…. When an overly negative or unrealistic thought comes to mind, you immediately begin elaborating on it and acting as if it were true.
Emotionally balanced people, on the other hand, make it a point to be skeptical of their own thoughts. Especially when their thoughts are extremely negative or harsh, they deliberately try to create more realistic and constructive alternative thoughts.
6. Expressing their wants and needs assertively
We all have personal wants and needs. And being able to pursue those wants and get those needs met is a major part of maintaining a balanced and healthy emotional life.
Unfortunately, many people are taught from a young age that it’s selfish to ask for what you want or put your own wants and needs first. So over the years, they get in the habit of telling themselves that what they really want isn’t important.
Guess what happens when you spend a lifetime telling yourself that your own wants and needs aren’t as important as other people’s?
You will never feel worthy enough or good enough if you never stand up for yourself and your own wants and needs.
Many people are plagued by low self-confidence, chronic self-doubt because they either don’t know how to ask for what they want or are afraid to pursue it. Consequently, they’re racked by inner turmoil, resentments, self-directed anger, and chronic anxiety.
Emotionally stable people are willing to stand up for themselves and ask for what they want assertively.
7. Setting healthy boundaries
While not asking for what you want can be a major source of emotional instability, the inability to say no to what you don’t want is even worse.
- You always “go with the flow” because you’re afraid that other people will get upset with you if you suggest something they don’t want.
- You’re terrified of being alone, so you never enforce consequences on the boundaries you set because you’re afraid people will leave you.
- Your whole life you’ve been stuck in the “best supporting actor” role because you’re afraid to tell people no and pursue your own goals and curiosities.
One of many problems with unhealthy boundaries is that you lose respect for yourself. And when you don’t respect yourself, it’s hard to maintain emotional resilience in the face of stressors and challenges.
Healthy boundaries are a precondition for a healthy sense of self.
If you want to have more self-confidence, higher self-worth, and the ability to navigate difficult moods and emotions gracefully, find the courage to set (and enforce) healthy boundaries.
8. Prioritizing values over feelings
On the deepest level, most forms of emotional instability come down to one big mistake: emotional reasoning.
Emotional reasoning is a type of cognitive distortion that leads you to make decisions based on how you feel rather than your values:
- Staying on the couch and watching more TV because you feel too tired to go to the gym.
- Making that sarcastic comment to your spouse because you feel like they deserve it after that nasty comment they made about you earlier in the day.
- Turning down that offer to hang out with friends because you feel kind of depressed and sad.
As in most areas of life, what feels good emotionally now often ends up making us feel worse later. Similarly, what’s difficult in the moment, is often profoundly beneficial long-term.
Emotionally stable people know that their emotions will lead them astray just as often as they will help. As a result, they’re careful to never take orders from their feelings, and instead, always verify them against their values—the things they know to be right, true, and genuinely important.
Listen to your emotions, but never trust them.
All You Need to Know
If you want to become more emotionally stable, work to cultivate these habits:
Let go of the need for control
Accept painful emotions
Keep your expectations in check
Be skeptical of your thoughts
Express your wants and needs assertively
Set healthy boundaries
Prioritize values over feelings