As a psychologist, I’ve helped people work through just about every type of difficult emotion.
And across this huge variety of emotional suffering—from panic attacks and depression to anger issues and low self-esteem—there’s one common factor these people all seem to share: an unhealthy relationship with their emotions.
See, most of us don’t learn very much about our emotions or how they work when we’re young. So we grow up believing that if an emotion feels bad it is bad.
But here’s the thing…
Your emotions aren’t a problem. It’s your relationship with emotions that’s making you unhappy.
If you want to feel better emotionally you need to build a healthier relationship with your emotions. And the best way to start is by recognizing the signs of an unhealthy relationship with emotions.
1. You think there are ‘good’ and ‘bad’ emotions
The fundamental error at the heart of all emotional suffering is the belief that emotions are good or bad.
Thankfully, this is nonsense.
Emotions aren’t good or bad any more than different color traffic lights are good or bad.
You may not like red lights, but that doesn’t mean they’re bad, dangerous, or a problem to be fixed. Similarly, you may not like feeling sad or afraid or ashamed or any other difficult emotion, but that doesn’t mean they are bad, wrong, defective, etc.
There is no such thing as a good or bad emotion.
Emotions are morally neutral phenomena. Like the weather, color of your skin, or your preference for coffee ice-cream over mint chocolate chip, good or bad has nothing to do with it.
Just because some emotions feel bad, doesn’t mean that they are bad.
When you touch a hot stove and feel pain shooting up your finger, is the pain bad? Of course not! Pain is just a signal telling your muscles to move before your skin gets seriously burned.
Similarly, while grief, trepidation, irritability, melancholy, terror, guilt, frustration, anxiety, shame, panic, or any other difficult emotion may feel bad, that means absolutely nothing about its moral standing or usefulness.
Like it or not, fear is often a lot more useful than happiness.
If you want to start building a better relationship with your emotions, stop judging them as good or bad and start accepting them as they are.
Learn More: Stop Calling Them Negative Emotions
2. You keep yourself constantly busy
We all have different energy levels and preferences for how much activity feels good. Some of us enjoy being quite active and on the move, while others prefer a more low-key approach to life.
But whatever your baseline preference for activity and movement, being constantly busy—always preoccupied with one thing or another and never really present in the moment—is often a sign of a conflicted relationship with your emotions.
People use busyness as a distraction from painful feelings.
This makes some sense if you think about it… When your to-do list is constantly throwing appointment after appointment at you, task after task, meeting after meeting, you don’t have the space to catch your breath much less reflect on seriously painful thoughts or emotions:
- Maybe you never grieved the death of your mother and business is a distraction from that pain.
- Maybe you’re miserable in your job/marriage/living situation/etc. but because you can’t see a viable alternative, busyness keeps your mind off the anxiety of making a big decision.
- Maybe you experienced a bout of serious depression twenty years ago and, over time, you’ve kept yourself constantly preoccupied because you hope that your business will ward off the return of your depression.
- Maybe you feel guilty about your broken relationship with your sister and staying busy keeps the guilt at bay.
There are as many reasons to use busyness as a distraction as there are people suffering.
But just because busyness works to keep you distracted doesn’t mean it’s a good idea. Just because you manage to keep those scary emotions at bay doesn’t mean it’s healthy, or productive, or in your best interest long term. And it doesn’t even mean it’s easier or less painful…
Most people who have developed the habit of keeping themselves constantly busy have been doing it for so long that it’s almost a part of their personality, which makes it hard to even imagine what it would be like to not be so busy.
But no matter what your situation, here’s the unavoidable truth: You can’t outrun your emotions. No matter how painful or scary, distraction is at best a temporary relief, but never a cure.
Plus, when we sweep our emotional struggles under the rug with constant busyness, it’s like taking out a loan: Sure, you get a little breathing room for a while, but you’re paying interest. And the interest rate on emotional loans is far higher than most people realize:
- How many relationships suffer because one person is so busy and preoccupied that they can’t be truly present and available for their partner?
- How many physical ailments are made worse by the wear and tear and constant stress that comes from always being busy?
- How many genuinely exciting and interesting experiences are given up because we’re too afraid of giving up control over our tightly managed schedule that prevents any alone time with our own thoughts and feelings?
Here’s the real tragedy for people who get in the habit of using busyness to distract themselves from their own thoughts and feelings: They miss out on life.
They spend their entire lives playing defense against an imaginary opponent—the opportunity cost of which is that they have no time or energy to play offense, to really go after the things they truly love and value.
Take it from a therapist who spent years witnessing this tragedy: Your mind is not as scary a place as you imagine it to be. Yes, it contains frightening thoughts and difficult feelings, but you’re underestimating your capacity to deal with those difficulties head on.
Stop running and take your life back. It’s worth it.
Learn More: How to Set Boundaries with Your Own Mind
3. You intellectualize your emotions
Imagine you just got home after a really tough day at work—maybe you made a horribly embarrassing mistake during a presentation in front of your entire company.
As you walk through the door of your house, your spouse says:
Hey honey, how was wor… Oh gosh, you look terrible. Do you feel okay?
Now, realistically, which of these two options would you be more likely to choose as a reply:
- I’m just really stressed-out.
- I feel ashamed and embarrassed.
If you’re like 99% of the adults I know, you’re probably going to pick something much closer to Option 1 than Option 2.
Which is interesting because Option 2 is clearly more accurate. Sure, you may feel stressed, but the core of what’s wrong and how you’re feeling is embarrassment and shame.
But here’s the thing:
It’s surprisingly hard to talk about how we feel in plain emotional language.
On the other hand, when we use more conceptual or vague language to describe how we feel—a process called intellectualizing emotions—it feels a little less painful.
But avoiding how you feel emotionally because it hurts isn’t a very good long-term strategy.
Sure, it feels a little less bad in the moment. But long-term, avoiding how you really feel with vague or overly intellectual language is a subtle avoidance strategy that teaches your brain to be afraid of your own emotions.
And how healthy can your relationship with your emotions be if you’re terrified of them?
Have the courage to use plain emotional language to describe how you feel.
Learn More: The Dangers of Intellectualized Emotions
4. You try to ‘fix’ other people’s emotions
You’re a nice person, right?
You like to help people if you can. If someone is suffering or in pain, you obviously want to help lessen that pain if it’s within your power to do so, right?
Of course you do! Because most of us are basically nice, kind people, we empathize when people are suffering and want to help.
But here’s the thing:
Despite our best intentions, we’re not always very smart about helping other people—especially when it comes to emotional suffering.
See, most people have this funny habit of trying to fix problems that aren’t actually problems—like emotions.
Here’s an example from my own life:
The other day my daughter crashed her bike and scraped her knee. She came running over to me sobbing and I instantly felt bad for her.
Like most parents, I don’t like seeing my kids upset or in pain. Which is why it was—and always is—hard to suppress my initial reaction of saying something like: Oh it’s okay, honey. It’s not that bad. It’ll feel better soon.
I desperately wanted to say something to reassure her and make her feel better.
But I managed to hold back and said something very different instead: Oh gosh, Eva! That must have been really scary to fall off your bike like that.
Now, you might think to yourself
Well that’s dumb. For one thing, she already knows falling off her bike was scary. For another, you’re just drawing more attention to her pain, which is likely to keep her upset even longer, right?
It would seem that way… But here’s the thing:
No matter how painful, emotions aren’t dangerous.
Which means, no matter how much they look the part, emotions are not problems—even the really painful ones.
And if emotions aren’t problems, that means treating them as such is misguided at best.
If I had told my daughter not to worry and that everything would be fine, it may well have distracted her from her fear and made her feel better in the moment. But the longer-term consequences would have been much less pleasant.
Namely, by telling her that It’s not that bad… or that You don’t need to cry… I would be implying that it’s not okay for her to feel afraid. That fear and other painful emotions are bad things—problems to be solved and gotten rid of as soon as possible.
Now, what kind of a psychologist would I be if I was teaching my children to be afraid of their emotions?
My point with all this is simple:
When you treat emotions like problems, you teach yourself to think of them as problems.
And the more you think of your emotions as the problems, the more afraid of them you’re going to be.
Look, dealing with difficult feelings is hard enough. But it’s borderline impossible if you’re also afraid of them.
Instead of trying to fix other people’s problems, try validating them instead. Let them know that you care and that you’re there for them. But most importantly, let them know that it’s perfectly okay to feel whatever they’re feeling, no matter how scary or intense.
Learn More: How to Handle Other People’s Bad Moods Like a Pro
5. Your self-talk is harsh and judgmental
It’s ironic that so many of us are compassionate, understanding, and gentle when faced with other people’s difficulties and emotional struggles. But when faced with our own painful emotions, we’re just opposite—we tend to be judgmental, intolerant, and harsh with ourselves when we’re struggling.
- When we’re anxious or afraid we tell ourselves to Pull it together or remind ourselves that I’m always crying and worrying over the smallest things… why can’t I just be normal!
- When we’re sad and depressed we reprimand ourselves: Do you know how many other people have it way worse than we do? Show a little gratitude!
- When we’re feeling ashamed and defeated, we pile on the hurt with an inner voice that says things like Of course this would happen to me… I’ll always be a screw up. I should just accept it.
In other words, we’re mean to ourselves at precisely the moments when we should be kind to ourselves. And this meanness mostly comes in the form of overly-harsh and negative self-talk.
Self-talk is the running commentary and narrative that we all have going through our minds. For some of us, though, this voice in our heads is a judgmental tyrant, constantly putting us down, criticizing, judging, worrying, ruminating, and generally making us feel like garbage.
We take it for granted that this voice is always playing in our head and we assume that the nature of this voice is simply who we are.
Your self-talk is largely a learned habit, generally picked up from parents, or caregivers early in life then reinforced via friends and ourselves as we get older. But the point is, how we talk to ourselves is a habit—nothing more, nothing less.
If you’re in the habit of talking to yourself in a harsh, judgmental way—especially during times of emotional pain—you’re going to be fueling the flames and increasing your suffering. Because as decades of psychological research has confirmed, how we feel emotionally is mediated by how we think and interpret the world around us.
How we habitually think determines how we habitually feel.
An obvious sign that your relationship with your emotions needs work is if your inner narrator is a jerk. If your self-talk is condescending, intolerant, and judgmental of your emotions, what kind of a relationship can you really expect from those emotions?
The key is to realize that no matter what kind of habits of self-talk you’ve built up over the years, with practice, they’re changeable. You can learn to be more compassionate and gentle in the way you talk to yourself, and especially, the way you talk to yourself about the way you feel.
When we’re upset, we need our inner voice to be a friend, not a bully.
Learn More: 10 Ways to Deal with Negative Thinking in a Healthy Way
6. You’re always asking for reassurance
Another hallmark of an unhealthy relationship with your emotions is that you lack confidence in your ability to manage difficult emotions on your own.
As a result, it’s easy to get in the habit of seeking reassurance and comfort from others:
- You’re worried about that weird pain in your side (could it be cancer?) and so you instantly call your mother to see if she thinks you should call the doctor. Mom assures you it’s probably just a cramp and nothing to worry about.
- You feel guilty that you decided not to participate in the extended family Christmas celebration this year, so you ask your wife one more time whether she thinks it was really a good idea.
- Your partner still seems a little upset so you ask him for a third time if he’s sure there’s nothing wrong.
Here’s the thing: While reassurance feels good temporarily—because it alleviates some painful emotion like anxiety or guilt—it easily slips into a vicious cycle of ever lower and lower confidence in one’s own ability to tolerate and manage difficult feelings and uncertainties.
Like most addictions and problematic behaviors, reassurance-seeking is a trade off of our long-term happiness and health for short-term comfort and ease.
The solution is to learn through your own hard-earned experience that you can tolerate and manage difficult emotions on your own and live to tell the tale. In other words, the solution is to build confidence.
And like any skill-building endeavor, best to start small and work your way up:
- Instead of instantly calling your son to see if he made it home after his flight, wait 15 minutes and prove to yourself that you can live with your anxiety instead of instantly alleviating it with reassurance.
- Rather than peppering your partner with questions about how they feel (in order to alleviate your anxiety), give them some space, trusting that they will come to you if that’s what they want or need.
You wouldn’t learn how to do long-division if your teacher gave you the answer every time you got stuck. And you wouldn’t learn how to tie your shoes if your parents always bought you velcro sneakers or tied your shoes for you. Gaining confidence in your ability to manage your own difficult emotions is no different: It’s a skill you must build.
It will be hard and it will take time, but in the end, it will be worth it.
Learn More: How to Stop Reassurance Seeking
7. You run away from your emotions
When you feel bad your gut reaction is to do something that makes you feel better as soon a possible:
- Touch a hot stove → Pull your hand back
- See a rattlesnake → Back away
- Break your arm → Take some Tylenol and then go to the doctor
And in situations like these, that pain-avoidance strategy works out well.
But avoiding pain doesn’t always lead to better outcomes. In fact, it often makes things worse:
- Feel tired → Watch Netflix instead of working out
- Craving ice-cream → Blow off your diet and go nuts
- Lusting after that new iPhone → Forget savings and buy it now
When it comes to painful emotions, avoiding them never works out in the long run:
- Distracting yourself from anxiety only makes you more anxious.
- Numbing out your grief only perpetuates your sadness.
- Venting all your anger only intensifies it.
The reason is pretty straightforward:
When you run away from something, it teaches your brain that it’s dangerous.
Now, in the case of a hot stove or a rattlesnake, those things actually are dangerous, so reminding your brain of that is a good thing and should help you avoid them in the future.
But here’s the deal: A craving for ice-cream isn’t dangerous. It doesn’t feel good, but it’s not going to put your survival at stake.
Similarly, feeling anxious isn’t dangerous. It might be uncomfortable, but anxiety itself isn’t going to hurt you.
But when you get in the habit of instantly avoiding your anxiety by distracting yourself, numbing it out, or trying to fix it by worrying about it, you create a second layer of anxiety. Now you’ve got anxiety about anxiety!
Running away from painful feelings may give you some relief in the short-term but it will always be at the expense of your long-term emotional well-being.
Think carefully before you run.
Learn More: 4 Tips for Building a Healthier Relationship with Your Emotions
8. You procrastinate. A lot.
Procrastination is a complex issue with all sorts of causes and consequences. And it’s something we all do from time to time. But if you find yourself consistently procrastinating in many areas of your life, it could be a sign that the way you handle your emotions is not working too well for you.
Procrastination—putting something off until later despite knowing it will cost us more in the long-term—is a form of instant gratification. But not in the pleasurable sense of eating a candy bar or impulse buying those new shoes. Both of those are appetitive in nature—things we do because they add a positive feeling.
Procrastination is palliative in nature. It feels “good” because it removes something painful or unpleasant. When we put something we should do now off until later, it relieves us of the unpleasant emotions we experience anticipating a task or actually doing it.
But if you’re in the habit of putting things off in order to escape some unpleasant emotion—fear of disappointment is a common one—it could indicate that you’re not very good at managing difficult emotions and doing what needs to be done anyway.
Often this comes from a faulty underlying belief about the relationships between how we feel and what we’re capable of doing. See, a lot of us believe that we need to feel good or motivated or confident in order to do something difficult. But this is actually backwards…
Motivation and confidence are feelings that result from doing worthwhile—if challenging—things. They’re an effect not a prerequisite.
But ultimately, it all boils down to your relationship with emotions—do you see unpleasant feelings like anxiety or shame as immovable obstacles that prevent you from doing what you want? Or do you see them as normal phenomena that—while unpleasant—don’t actually have much bearing on what you do either way?
In other words, the healthier view is to learn through experience that it’s perfectly possible to do difficult things while feeling anxious or embarrassed or angry or whatever.
Feeling good is nice, but it’s in no way a requirement for taking action.
You don’t need to eliminate painful emotions in order to live your life. In fact, it’s only through living your life alongside all your emotions that you learn to manage them effectively.
Learn More: How to Stop Procrastinating
9. You trust your emotions
I like to end with this one because it always throws people for a loop…
I’ve just spent the last 10 minutes of your day trying to convince you that emotions aren’t bad or dangerous. And that you should spend less time avoiding them and more time accepting them.
But, noticeably absent from anything I’ve written is the idea that emotions are some kind of special inner wisdom that you need to constantly tune into and adhere to with religious-like fervor.
I would never say something like that because if you’ve been paying attention to life, it ought to be pretty darn clear that emotions are just as likely to mislead you as they are to guide you.
You get home from work after a long, exhausting day and collapse onto the couch. As you’re reaching for the remote to turn on the TV, an annoying thought crosses your mind: I said I was going to go to the gym today after work…
After a little inner debate with yourself, you settle on the rationalization that I’ll just get up early tomorrow and go to the gym before work. It’s only 9 or 10 hours late.
Consequently, you feel some relief from the anxiety of having promised yourself you’d exercise but feeling like watching tv instead.
Now, how wise is that feeling? It’s pushing you to stay on the couch, pour yourself a glass of chardonnay, and watch Netflix. Should you listen to that feeling?
Of course not!
Unless your work involves 8 hours a day of hard manual labor, chances are exercise would in fact be very good for you—physically, emotionally, maybe even spiritually—despite the fact that you don’t feel like it.
Obviously emotions can be useful. But just because they are sometimes helpful or instructive doesn’t mean they always are.
And just because they can lead you to very good things (and they can!) that doesn’t preclude the possibility that they can just as easily lead you into very bad things.
People who have a healthy relationship with their emotions listen to their feelings but rarely trust them. They pay attention to how they feel but don’t necessarily act on their feelings instinctively.
Cultivate a healthy skepticism of your emotions. And when in doubt, verify that your feelings align with your values before you make any decisions.
You’ll feel better for it in the end.
Learn More: 4 Perfectly Good Reasons to Ignore Your Emotions
All You Need to Know
If you struggle with painful moods and emotions on a regular basis, your emotions themselves aren’t the problem. More likely, it’s your relationship with your emotions that’s unhealthy.
To improve your relationship with your difficult emotions, remember the following:
- There is no such thing as a good or bad emotion.
- Constant busyness isn’t a solution.
- Don’t intellectualize your emotions.
- Stop trying to fix other people’s emotions.
- Be gentle and compassionate in your self-talk
- Stop asking for reassurance.
- Face your emotions instead of running from them.
- Deal with procrastination head on.
- Listen to your emotions but don’t trust them.
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 →
9 CommentsAdd Yours
Awesome insights! A few too many for one sitting though.
Awesome insights, a few too many for one sitting though!
Respectfully disagree with the “too many” comment – I’m willing to take the time for important insights and reminders. Thank you for your work in publishing these, Dr Wignall. Keep them coming!
Hi Nick, thank you for this great article and list of aspects regarding our relationship to our emotions. I really like the attention and emphasis you put on emotional processing in your work. I feel that it’s incredibly original and very useful in practical terms.
The signs you list here and your related work give me the hint that personally I do have an unhealthy relationship to my emotions (and understanding how many of these signs are present also in my familiar surrounding further confirms this).
Now, there’s something that I struggle with a bit when trying to apply your ideas to my personal reality. A central aspect of what you propose/write is that emotions and feelings are not good or bad and that one should be critical about them. But: If they’re not good or bad, how can I evaluate them at all and what precisely does it mean to be critical about them?
If I understand you correctly, put simply you suggest to evaluate an emotion in relation to how well it helps us stick to our values. On one hand that makes a lot of sense, and it appears to promote a very rational way of thinking. But if I think entirely in these rational terms, and if my evaluation of an emotion mainly relates to how well it’s aligned with my values, doesn’t that lead me towards an attitude that disregards my emotions (in favor of my values)? Isn’t that exactly one of the reasons that made me ignore my emotions in the first place?
If I aim to have a better relationship with my emotions, is there something inherently positive about them that can make me want to improve my relationship towards them? In other words, are emotions just an inevitable part of life which I need to learn how to deal with, or are there also situations in which I should strive towards enjoying them and indulging in the effect they have on me?
Thanks again so much for your thought provoking writing.
Thank you for explaining my debate with this topic so eloquently 👏🏼👏🏼👏🏼 I would love to hear the conversation on this as well!
This was an incredibly insightful, well-written, and totally relatable explanation of MOST PEOPLE’S relationship w/ our emotions! Thank you for your practical, and (if not EASILY) at least very able to be incorporated into anyone’s life, ways of developing a healthier outlook on our emotional landscape!! I LOVE how each numbered “point” has ANOTHER article linked beneath it to expand upon each “point!”
A song for you, “Arms of gold” by Tape machines.
Love your work and you 🙂
Not being affected by other assumptions, is that you? Thanks for self sab article that is as you say a golden oldie. Work to write, work to read:)
Dont stop healing the human race:)
Just hoping that maybe you could use some women/men of color when you are posting pictures in your article. I appreciate what you are sharing but would love it to be more inclusive. Warmly, Tanya, LMFT