Being emotionally fragile means you have a hard time managing difficult emotions:
- Little bits of worry throw you into cycles of anxiety and panic.
- Small bouts of sadness lead to spirals of self-criticism and depression.
- Tiny bits of irritation quickly blaze into hours or days of anger.
When you’re emotionally fragile, even small amounts of painful emotion consume you.
But it is possible to escape this pattern of emotional fragility and learn to be more emotionally resilient.
Over the years working as a psychologist and therapist, I’ve learned that the key to overcoming emotional fragility is this:
If you want to be more in control of your emotions, you need a better relationship with them.
Many people have an unhealthy relationship with their emotions because they’re afraid of them. So they get in the habit of running away from or trying to get rid of these painful emotions.
Unfortunately, this fight or flight reaction to your emotions trains your brain to see them as dangerous, which only makes you more afraid of your emotions in the long run.
If you want to feel stronger in the face of difficult emotions, you must unlearn the habits that are keeping you afraid of them.
We all feel emotionally fragile sometimes. But if you feel this way a lot, chances are several of these habits are the cause.
If you can learn to identify these habits and work to undo them, emotional resilience won’t be far behind.
1. Trusting your thoughts
If you think about all the people you interact with in your life, you probably don’t trust them all to the same degree:
- Maybe you have high levels of trust in your best friend and your spouse.
- Moderate levels of trust in your manager at work.
- And a low level of trust in used-car salesmen.
In life, it’s normal (and smart) to trust different people to different degrees.
Well, the same is true of your own thoughts…
Not all of your thoughts deserve to be trusted equally.
Your mind throws thousands of thoughts at you each day, many of which are accurate and helpful. But many of them are also misguided, random, or downright untrue. This is completely normal.
Emotionally resilient people understand that they shouldn’t blindly trust every thought that crosses their mind.
If you do, it’s a set-up for emotional fragility:
- If you accept every worrying thought as true, you’ll end up chronically anxious.
- If you accept every revenge fantasy as a good idea, you’ll end up overly aggressive.
- If you accept every self-criticism as valid and accurate, you’re going to end up with pretty low self-esteem.
If you want to stop being so emotionally fragile, cultivate a healthy skepticism of your own thoughts.
Go ahead and listen to your thoughts, but don’t be afraid to dismiss them too.
After all, sometimes a thought is just a thought.
“Rather than being your thoughts and emotions, be the awareness behind them.” ― Eckhart Tolle
2. Relying on coping skills
A common trap that emotionally fragile people fall into is relying on coping skills to feel good.
A coping skill is a technique or strategy you use to temporarily feel better:
- Doing some deep breathing exercises when you feel stressed.
- Repeating your positive self-image mantra when you feel bad about yourself.
- Texting your therapist when you’re feeling down and can’t seem to shake it.
While coping skills have their place, relying on them can be dangerous.
Coping skills are emotional Tylenol. They temporarily make you feel better, but they rarely address the underlying issue.
Relying on coping skills to manage difficult feelings is risky because it encourages you to treat emotions themselves as problems. Which is simply never the case…
Like physical pain, painful emotions are just signals, often trying to tell you that something is wrong and needs to be addressed:
- Fear isn’t a problem: It’s a message from your brain that something in your life is dangerous or not working.
- Sadness isn’t a problem: It’s a message from your brain that you’ve lost something valuable.
- Anger isn’t a problem: It’s a message that your brain thinks something in your life is unjust and should be dealt with.
If you consistently treat your emotions like problems, don’t be surprised if they keep feeling that way.
“What remains in diseases after the crisis is apt to produce relapses.” ― Hippocrates
3. Breaking promises to yourself
Emotionally fragile people often struggle with low self-esteem.
And while there are many initial causes of low self-esteem, there’s one thing that almost always keeps people stuck in it:
People with chronic low self-esteem have usually gotten in the habit of breaking promises to themselves.
Think about it: If you frequently break your promises to yourself, how could you trust yourself or be proud of yourself?
Low self-esteem and emotional fragility go hand-in-hand because it’s hard to confidently manage painful feelings if you don’t believe in yourself:
- It’s hard to tell yourself that you’ll be okay despite your worries if you don’t trust yourself.
- It’s hard to remind yourself of your positive qualities when all you can remember is a string of broken promises to yourself.
- It’s hard to fight back against self-criticism and doubts when you aren’t proud of yourself.
A powerful way to fight back against emotional fragility is to start keeping your promises to yourself.
The trick is to start small: If you tell yourself you’re going to finish your report before lunch, do it; if you tell yourself you’re going to call your sister after work, just do it, even if you don’t feel like it.
You’re stronger than you think, but you’ll never feel that way until you start learning to trust yourself.
“Self-esteem is the reputation you have with yourself.” — Naval
4. Going with the flow
There’s nothing wrong with being easy-going sometimes. But if you always find yourself “going with the flow” and following the lead of others, you’re probably keeping yourself emotionally fragile.
The problem with always going with the flow is that it’s a lie.
When you habitually defer your own wants and needs for other people’s, you’re lying to yourself and others about your true desires and values.
Not only does this make you feel bad about yourself and lower your self-esteem, it also prevents other people from understanding the real you:
- If you always “go with the flow” when your husband suggests Italian food, he’s never going to know that you don’t actually like Italian food all that much.
- If you always “go with the flow” and say yes to new assignments at work, your manager is never going to know that you’re burnt out and unhappy in your job.
- If you always “go with the flow” and agree to host Thanksgiving at your house, your family is never going to understand why you frequently seem irritable and resentful toward them.
Going with the flow seems nice, but it’s actually the opposite: it’s a lie that ends up hurting everybody in the end.
If you want to build up the courage to be more yourself and express what you really want confidently, practice assertiveness.
Being assertive means you’re willing to express your wants and needs in a way that’s true to yourself and respectful of others. And it’s a skill anyone can learn.
It may feel awkward and scary at first, but being honest about what you really want will improve all your relationships—especially your relationship with yourself.
“The privilege of a lifetime is being who you are.” — Joseph Campbell
5. Being judgmental with yourself
It’s a sad fact that most people grow up learning that the only way to properly motivate yourself is to “get tough” with yourself.
Like the hard-ass drill sergeant so often portrayed in movies, most of us internalize from a young age that unless we beat ourselves up with lots of self-criticism and tough self-talk, we’ll end up slacking off or not performing well.
And because our families and culture glorify performance and success (especially academic success), we end up having our self-worth tied to our ability to achieve and be successful. So we come to over-rely on judgmentalness and self-criticism as a motivator.
But here’s the problem…
While fear can be an effective motivator in the short-term, it has disastrous emotional consequences if it’s your only form of motivation.
When you’re constantly critical and judgmental with yourself, you begin to feel as if nothing is ever good enough. So you double down and get even tougher with yourself, which of course only makes you feel worse.
Unfortunately, to create a healthy relationship with your emotions and manage them effectively, you have to be able to be gentle and compassionate with yourself:
- It’s pretty hard to feel confident when you are judgmental with yourself every time you feel afraid.
- It’s pretty hard to feel motivated when you are judgmental with yourself every time you lack energy or enthusiasm.
- It’s pretty hard to feel good about yourself when you’re constantly talking trash to yourself in your head.
Start to practice a little self-compassion, and you’ll find yourself far more resilient than you ever thought possible.
“If your compassion does not include yourself it is not complete.” — Jack Kornfield
Emotionally fragile people often get stuck in the habit of asking for reassurance anytime they feel scared, sad, or upset.
On some level this makes sense: If you don’t trust yourself to manage difficult feelings well, and someone else you do trust tells you everything’s going to be okay, that’s an awful tempting strategy.
But chronic reassurance-seeking has one major downside:
Every time you ask for reassurance, it’s a vote of no-confidence in yourself.
Think about it from your own brain’s perspective: If every time you feel bad, you immediately rush to have someone else make you feel better, what does that say about your own self-confidence and belief in yourself?
If you want to become more emotionally resilient and confident, you must be willing to tolerate the temporary discomfort of dealing with your own difficult feelings.
A child will never learn to tie their own shoes if their parents always do it for them. Similarly…
You will never learn to manage difficult emotions if you’re always outsourcing that job to someone else.
Of course, we all need help and support sometimes. But if other people are your default strategy for feeling better, you might need to rethink your gameplan.
“Goddamit, whenever a person wants reassurance he tells a friend to think what he wants to be true. It’s like asking a waiter what’s good tonight.” ― John Steinbeck
7. Staying busy all the time
One of the least well-known habits that leads to emotional fragility is constantly staying busy.
People in this habit never let a minute go by without having something to do. And they keep their schedules so packed that they never have any space for mental downtime and the chance of being alone with their own thoughts.
While this constant activity and preoccupation can make you feel productive and on top off things, it’s often just a mask for something unhealthy:
Constant busyness is often a primitive defense mechanism for avoiding painful feelings.
- If your relationship is unhappy but you are too afraid or ashamed to try and improve it, constant busyness helps you avoid that pain.
- If, deep down, you’re profoundly unhappy in your work, constant busyness helps you avoid that pain.
- If you’re afraid to be alone with your own thoughts, constant busyness helps you avoid that pain.
But that’s not actually true… Constant busyness temporarily helps you avoid those pains, but it never really addresses them.
You’re just kicking the can down the road. And all the while, those problems are just festering and growing bigger with time.
Chronic business is a form of emotional procrastination—putting off the hard work of dealing with painful feelings by always having something to do.
Ultimately, if you want to end the cycle of emotional fragility and become more resilient, you’re gonna have to start facing your fears and dealing with them head-on.
But you can only do this if you free up a little time in your schedule to self-reflect and ask yourself what really needs to be addressed.
“There is nothing the busy man is less busied with than living: there is nothing that is harder to learn.” ― Seneca
All You Need to Know
Emotionally fragile people aren’t broken, they’ve just developed a set of habits that interfere with their ability to be resilient and relate to their emotions in a healthy way.
If you want to be less emotionally fragile, work to eliminate these habits:
Being too trusting of your thoughts
Relying on coping skills to feel better
Breaking promises to yourself
Always going with the flow
Being judgmental with yourself
Constantly staying busy