Emotionally secure people have a healthy relationship with their emotions.
They don’t avoid them or ignore them just because they’re uncomfortable. And they don’t try to eliminate or “fix” them no matter how unpleasant they are.
As a result, emotionally secure people have relatively calm, balanced emotional lives:
- They don’t overreact to stressors and challenges or take things too personally.
- They don’t get stuck in patterns of worry or rumination.
- And they don’t let bad moods or difficult emotions get in the way of what matters most—their values.
So how do they do this? How do emotionally secure people get to where they are?
Of course, everything from genetics and family history to diet and exercise plays a role in our levels of emotional security. But here’s the real secret to emotional security:
Becoming emotionally secure is often about what you do less of, not more of.
In particular, emotionally secure people don’t treat difficult moods and emotions like enemies. Instead, they cultivate healthy attitudes and routines around all their emotions.
But more than just cultivating good emotional habits, they also know how to avoid certain bad habits that lead to emotional fragility and insecurity.
If you want to become more emotionally secure and stable, one of the best ways to do it is to identify and eliminate these four bad habits from your life.
1. Criticizing Others
Criticizing others gives us an ego boost in the short term, but actually lowers our self-esteem and resilience in the long-term.
Of course, our ability to think critically and make judgments isn’t a bad thing in general. After all, critical thinking is the foundation of progress and human flourishing in almost every aspect of life from medicine and politics to communication and engineering.
If we couldn’t think critically, compare alternatives, and make judgments, we’d still be living in caves… or worse.
Just because criticism is often useful doesn’t mean it always is.
And in fact, criticism can be quite harmful and destructive.
Much of the time when you criticize things—especially other people—the goal isn’t really to be helpful to them. In reality, it’s about making yourself feel good:
- When you criticize your coworker’s presentation, it isn’t really about helping them do better next time. It’s about making yourself feel smart in comparison.
- When you criticize your spouse for running late (again!) it isn’t really about helping them to be more punctual. It’s about making yourself feel superior for being on time (again!).
- When you criticize a friend’s choice in home decorations, what you’re really doing is showing what great taste you have.
Helpful criticism is about making the world a better place. Unhelpful criticism is about making yourself feel better.
From a young age, many of us learn unconsciously that being critical of other people is an effective strategy for feeling better about ourselves. And so it slowly develops into a habit.
Unfortunately, not only does this criticism often harm other people, it also harms you in the long run.
Criticism of others is often a distraction—a form of procrastination that lets you focus on other people’s problems instead of doing the hard work of looking at your own issues.
But like all forms of procrastination, it only makes the problem bigger in the long run.
When you ignore your own insecurities by pointing out other people’s flaws, it temporarily feels good. But that only allows your insecurities to grow. And as they grow, they become more and more painful, which means you need to use criticism more and more in order to temporarily feel better.
When you ignore your own insecurities, you get addicted to criticism as a shallow strategy for feeling better.
Unfortunately, this strategy often fragelizes you and makes you more emotionally insecure in the end.
If you want to become more emotionally secure, understand the real role criticism is playing in your life and take steps to eliminate it. It will be hard at first but well worth the effort in the long run.
2. Ignoring Your Feelings
Ignoring your feelings often leads to relief in the moment. But in the long run, it’s a setup for emotional insecurity and poor resilience.
Here are a few concrete examples of ways we all tend to avoid our feelings:
- You’re anxious and worried after a bad day at work. A friend asks you how you’re feeling and you say Oh fine. A little tired but not too bad.
- Your spouse suggests getting pizza for dinner tonight. Even though you’d really like to try that new Indian restaurant, you ignore that feeling and say Yeah, sure honey.
- You recently lost your job and are experiencing a lot of grief and shame around it. But when people ask you how you’re doing, you say nothing but good things, portraying confidence and optimism at all costs.
Look, it’s natural to avoid painful feelings. Obviously! Who wants to experience pain and discomfort if you can avoid it?
And to be clear, it’s really useful to be able to ignore or suppress our feelings at times. When you feel like eating that second serving of ice-cream, but know you shouldn’t, being able to ignore your feelings is a good thing!
But here’s the thing:
While it’s useful to ignore our feelings sometimes, the habit of ignoring how we feel is dangerous.
If you think about it, pain is not necessarily a good reason to avoid something:
- Exercising is often painful but leads to better health.
- Giving honest feedback is often painful but leads to better results.
- Saving money rather than spending it is often painful but leads to financial security.
Just because something feels bad doesn’t mean it is bad.
In fact, many of the most important things in life require feeling bad initially in order to feel much better eventually.
But if you habitually avoid things that feel bad, you miss out on the opportunity to feel much better in the future. This is true of finances, health, relationships, and yes, your own emotions…
- If you habitually avoid anxiety and nervousness, you miss out on the opportunity to grow and take advantage of new opportunities.
- If you habitually avoid sadness, it’s very hard to connect empathetically with important people in your life.
- If you habitually avoid anger and frustration, it’s very hard to become assertive and decisive.
If you want to become more emotionally secure and mentally tough, there are two essential skills you need to develop:
- The ability to distinguish healthy pain from unhealthy pain. Sometimes feeling bad is a signal of danger. But at least as often, it’s a signal for potential growth.
- The ability to tolerate difficult emotions and get on with life anyway. If you insist on getting rid of every difficult emotion you experience, you’re not going to have any time or energy left over to move toward the things you really want out of life—your goals and values.
When you habitually ignore your feelings, you become more emotionally fragile in the long run. But even more tragically, you run the risk of life passing you bye entirely.
All the good stuff in life requires tolerating discomfort. And tolerating emotional discomfort is no exception.
3. Dwelling on Past Mistakes
We all make mistakes. But when you’re in the habit of dwelling on those mistakes—and can’t let them go—it’s often a sign of deeper issues with control.
If you asked your average person which emotions they dislike feeling the most, the answers probably wouldn’t surprise you:
- Anxiety or fear
- Sadness or grief
- Shame or guilt
- Anger or irritability
These are the usual suspects when it comes to difficult emotions we’d rather avoid or not have to feel for too long.
But it’s my experience that there’s another feeling which most people actually find far more unpleasant. And as a result, try even harder to avoid, even if unconsciously: Helplessness.
Human beings absolutely hate feeling helpless. And we will usually resort to all manner of strategies and behaviors to avoid feeling it, regardless of the cost.
One of the reasons so many people have a hard time grieving well after the loss of a loved one is that in addition to the sadness that comes from loss, there’s also a tremendous amount of helplessness. When someone dies, they are gone. And there’s absolutely nothing we can do about it.
Put another way, we are completely helpless to change anything. And for many people, that sense of helplessness is terrifying. So, to avoid it or distract themselves from feeling helpless, they get into all kinds of unhealthy habits like substance abuse or chronic busyness which serve to numb out not only their sadness, but the helplessness that goes with it.
But here’s the thing, in addition to just wanting to avoid or distract ourselves from feeling helpless, a natural response is to do things that make us at least feel like we have some power and control.
And do you know what one of the easiest, fastest, and cheapest ways to temporarily feel a sense of control is? Thinking.
Dwelling on past mistakes or losses gives us the illusion of control, which is why we get addicted to it.
In my work as a therapist, I see a lot of clients who come to me saying something like this:
I want to be able to let go of my past failures and mistakes but I just can’t seem to stop thinking about them… And it’s making me miserable!
What most people don’t see is that—even though dwelling on past mistakes makes us feel excessively guilty or sad or ashamed—it also makes us feel in control. And if, deep down, the bigger fear is lack of control and helplessness, then accepting a lot of sadness and chronic guilt, for example, might be a worthwhile tradeoff if it lets you avoid an even more painful feeling—helplessness.
If you want to let go of past mistakes and failures and get on with your life, you must be willing to confront and accept your helplessness and lack of control.
Living in denial about it will only make you more unhappy in the long-run.
4. Trusting Your Thoughts
When you become overly trusting of your thoughts, you limit your emotional freedom—and with it, security.
You have thoughts all day long:
- You think about what color blouse to wear
- You wonder why your Caesar salad tastes a little funky today
- You try to imagine what your boss is thinking during your presentation
- You run through counterarguments in your head after your wife criticizes you for something
I say this because it’s easy to forget just how omnipresent and influential our thoughts are.
Like the narrator in a book, you often forget about them because you’re focused on the plot and main characters. But in many ways, the narrator is just as important a character as the protagonist and villain. In fact, how you think about and feel about all the characters in a story ultimately comes down to how they are framed and described by the narrator.
Well, the same thing is largely true of your own thoughts throughout the day:
How you habitually think determines how you habitually feel.
In cognitive psychology, this is known as the theory of cognitive mediation. And it states that things don’t cause emotions; it’s our thoughts about things that cause us to feel the way we do.
- If you spend most of your day worrying about some upcoming task you have to do. Chances are you’re going to feel pretty anxious.
- If you spent the entire hour of a meeting thinking about how sloppy and inefficient your employees are, you’re going to feel pretty irritated and angry.
- If you spend all evening ruminating on some mistake you made in the morning, you’re going to feel pretty sad or ashamed.
The implication of this is profound:
If you want to change how you feel and become stronger and more resilient emotionally, you need to change how you think.
Specifically, it’s important not to automatically trust that a thought is either true or helpful or meaningful. The human mind is just as likely to produce irrational, unhelpful, or plain random thoughts as it is the opposite.
If you want to take control over your emotional life rather than being controlled by it, you must learn to become a good steward of your thoughts.
Like all good gardeners know, just because something pops up in your garden doesn’t mean it should stay.
Pulling the weeds is just as important as watering the roses.
All You Need to Know
If you want to become more emotionally secure, learn to identify and let go of these four bad habits:
Ignoring your feelings
Dwelling on past mistakes
Trusting your thoughts