It’s a common belief that some people are just highly emotional by nature while others have a more stoic and balanced temperament.
And even though there are likely some genetic influences on how emotional we are, the much bigger influence is something most people don’t realize:
It’s your habits that determine how emotional you feel, especially your mental habits.
In my job as a psychologist, I work with people every day who feel emotionally unstable and volatile:
- They get lost in spirals of worry and anxiety.
- They get stuck in bouts of depression and low mood.
- They get angry and upset at the smallest stress or difficulty.
But it’s been my experience that what leads to all this emotional instability is a collection of subtle but powerful mental habits. Usually, these habits were learned and reinforced long ago in early childhood but never got unlearned.
Luckily, anyone can learn to become more emotionally stable. The key is to identify and eliminate these mental habits that cause so much excess emotional suffering.
1. Believing your thoughts
Just because you have a thought doesn’t make it true.
As humans, our ability to think rationally and creatively is one of our greatest strengths. Without it, we wouldn’t have Beethoven’s sonatas, democratic forms of government, the novels of Charles Dickens, or a cure for polio.
But for every interesting, creative, or even genius idea our minds produce, it also generates hundreds, if not thousands, of silly, irrational, or just plain bizarre thoughts that have no meaning whatsoever.
Here’s an example:
2 + 2 = 5. If you read that, the thought 2 + 2 = 5 was in your head. But the simple fact that you thought it doesn’t make it true.
But it’s not just irrational thoughts that our mind produces. The mind is also capable of generating thoughts that are actually unhelpful or even downright evil. Thoughts can lead to concentration camps and chemical warfare just as easily as Habitat for Humanity or the Peace Corp.
The point is this:
Your thoughts are not inherently true or helpful. And to assume they are is a recipe for emotional suffering.
When you assume every thought your mind throws at you is true, you end up thinking more about that though:
- If an irrational worry about your spouse dying in a car crash on their way home from work pops into your mind, your habit of believing all your thoughts is going to lead to a lot of excess anxiety.
- If an irrational judgment of a coworker pops into your mind, your habit of believing all your thoughts is going to lead to a lot of excess frustration and possibly rude behavior.
- If some negative self-talk about a recent mistake you made pops into your mind, your habit of believing all your thoughts is going to lead to a lot of excess guilt and shame.
Overthinking is at the root of most forms of emotional suffering. Stop believing that all your thoughts are true, and you’ll stop overthinking so much.
Don’t believe everything you think. Thoughts are just that—thoughts.
— Allan Lokos
2. Emotional self-judgment
It doesn’t make sense to judge yourself for things you can’t control, especially your emotions.
No legal system in the world that I’m aware of would sentence someone to prison for feeling angry. No matter how rageful a person felt, as a society, we only judge people for what they do—for their behavior.
And the reason for this is simple: It doesn’t make sense to judge someone for something they can’t control. And you can’t directly control how you feel: you can’t just turn down your sadness any more than you can crank up your happiness!
But it’s a strange quirk of human nature that while we know this is true, especially for other people, we ignore it when it comes to ourselves:
- We empathize with other people for feeling anxious but tell ourselves we’re weak the minute we start to feel nervous about something.
- We’re understanding with friends who are feeling depressed or grieving, but we tell ourselves to “suck it up” and “stop being such lazy bum!”
It’s more than a little ironic:
You’re compassionate with your friends when they feel bad, but the moment you begin to suffer emotionally, you criticize yourself for it!
One of the problems with judging yourself for how you feel is that it adds a second layer of painful emotion on top of the pain you already feel:
- When you put yourself down for feeling sad, now you feel sad and ashamed.
- When you worry about feeling angry, you feel anxious on top of feeling angry.
- When you criticize yourself for feeling afraid, now you feel frustrated and scared.
Feeling bad is hard enough without making yourself feel bad for feeling bad.
If you want to break free of the habit of criticizing yourself for how you feel, learn to practice a little self-compassion.
Be curious, not judgmental.
— Walt Whitman
3. Trying to find meaning in everything
Looking for meaning in everything is often a defense mechanism against the fear of uncertainty.
It’s human nature to dislike uncertainty. From which color shoes to buy to committing to a spouse in marriage, there will almost always be some uncertainty in our decisions, and along with it, some anxiety.
But for some people—especially those raised in chaotic or extremely unpredictable environments—they’ve learned to view uncertainty as dangerous and to be avoided at all costs. And one common way to avoid the anxiety of uncertainty is to read meaning into everything.
By telling ourselves that everything means something, we give ourselves the illusion of certainty.
But if you constantly rely on meaning-making as a crutch to alleviate the anxiety of uncertainty, your tolerance for uncertainty gets weaker and weaker.
And at some point, reality will catch up to you, demanding that you face up to the fundamental uncertainty of life:
- Maybe a close friend dies tragically at a young age for “no good reason.”
- Maybe you get laid off from your dream job for “no good reason.”
- Maybe your spouse leaves you for “no good reason.”
Making up stories about how it all means something eventually stops working when the uncertainty becomes big enough. And if you haven’t built the emotional strength to tolerate uncertainty, your moods and emotions will suffer profoundly. Depression and severe anxiety are often the results.
Emotionally stable people have the strength and willingness to accept uncertainty for what it is—to look an uncertain future in the face and accept it.
Practice accepting uncertainty in small ways and you’ll be able to handle it confidently when it arrives in big ways—as it always does eventually.
The art of being wise is the art of knowing what to overlook.
— William James
4. Trying to control everything
Control issues are usually a sign of insecurity and a fear of helplessness.
Just like the need to find meaning everywhere is a sign you’re afraid of uncertainty, needing to control everything is a sign you’re afraid to feel helpless.
Trouble is, you are helpless. At least in a lot of cases. It’s simply the nature of life that we can’t control everything we wish we could:
- You can’t control whether your best friend stops smoking so much weed every day.
- You can’t control whether your boss thinks you’re smart.
- You can’t control whether your spouse feels stressed out at the end of the day.
Your power and influence in this life are limited.
You can try to influence people in the way you think is best, but it’s a mistake to assume responsibility for the outcomes.
When your unconscious belief is that you should be able to control the outcome of everything, you end up with unrealistically high expectations for yourself. And inevitably, these expectations get violated, leading to big emotional swings:
- You walk in on your best friend smoking weed after he told you he’d quit, leading to a surge of frustration and disappointment.
- Your boss gives you a bunch of negative feedback after a presentation you thought was great leading to shame and self-doubt.
- Your spouse comes home stressed again despite the fact that you called them that day at lunch to check in leading to anger and resentment.
Remind yourself that it’s okay to feel helpless. Sometimes we just can’t help. Living in denial about that isn’t going to help anyone in the long run—least of all yourself.
Lowering your expectations to a realistic level doesn’t mean you don’t care. It means you’re being honest with yourself.
Finally, have the humility to accept that you can’t control nearly as much as you’d like. Do your best, but don’t pretend that you’re God.
A rational person can find peace by cultivating indifference to things outside of their control.
— Naval Ravikant
5. Emotional reasoning
People who spend their time running away from painful feelings usually have no energy left for the things that matter most—their goals and aspirations.
We all want to feel good. But the decision to feel good now often comes at a heavy cost for how we feel later:
- Asking a friend for reassurance when you’re worried feels better now. But in the long-run, you’re teaching your brain that you’re not capable of dealing with your own anxiety. This erodes your confidence and makes you more anxious long-term.
- Letting that sarcastic comment fly during an argument with your spouse feels good in the moment. But in the long-run, you’re destroying trust in your relationship.
- Staying in bed because you’re not motivated feels better now. But in the long-run, you’re killing your self-esteem because you’re training your mind not to believe that you follow through on your commitments to yourself.
It’s not that emotions and feelings are bad or always misleading: sometimes they’re quite useful!
But it’s a mistake to treat your feelings as gospel: The reality is that our emotions are often in direct conflict with our values.
If you want to feel more emotionally balanced, you must learn to subordinate your feelings to your values.
And the best way to do this is by consistently reminding yourself of those values and aspirations:
- Do I care about feeling cozy in bed or getting down to my goal weight and being healthy and vital?
- Do I care about feeling less anxious now or become a confident person?
- Do I care about feeling right or having a good relationship with my spouse?
You can make decisions based on how you want to feel or your values. Choose wisely.
Between stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response.
— Viktor Frankl
All You Need to Know
Everyone experiences painful emotions. Becoming a more emotionally stable person means that you improve your relationship with your emotions by cultivating healthy ways of responding to them:
Don’t believe everything you think.
Resist judging yourself for how you feel.
Let go of your need to find meaning in everything.
Give up trying to control everything.
Make decisions based on your values, not your feelings.