Do you ever struggle to control difficult emotions?
- Maybe you struggle with anger and frustration and find yourself losing your temper rather than being patient and accepting.
- Or maybe you struggle with anxiety and insecurity, frequently getting lost in worries and self-doubt rather than moving forward confidently.
- Maybe you even struggle to control more “positive” emotions like excitement—constantly getting distracted by one shinny object after the next and have trouble staying focused on one thing.
Of course, this isn’t surprising since most of us were never taught how to manage our emotions… Did you ever take a class in emotion management or have a coach break down the best practices for controlling your anger?
Yeah, me neither! Which is strange because, if you really think about it, what skill could be more important in life?
See, every skill and ability in life that matters depends on the skill of managing your emotions…
- No matter how much your study, you’ll never live up to your academic potential if you can’t manage your anxiety and perfectionism.
- No matter how much you work to improve your communication skills, you won’t make much progress in your romantic relationships if you can’t manage your anger.
- No matter how great a new business opportunity is you’ll have a hard time pursuing it if insecurities and limiting beliefs hold you back.
The most important things in life all depend on your ability to manage your emotions well.
Luckily, this is a learnable skill. In fact, there are a handful of specific skills that you can work on that will help you manage difficult emotions in just about any situation.
Here are seven of the most important…
1. Think about your thinking
The technical term for this is metacognition, or the ability to be aware of and assess what’s going on in your own mind—thoughts, emotions, beliefs, moods, expectations, self-talk, etc.
Most of the time our minds are on autopilot—stuff happens and we react:
- Your spouse gives you a nasty look, so you fire back with a nasty comment.
- Your boss sends a passive-aggressive email you don’t know how to respond to, so you distract yourself in Facebook.
- A painful memory pops into your mind, and you end up lost in ruminations and regret.
The more you ignore your own mind, the more your behaviors become reactions rather than choices.
And this leads to a lot of emotional volatility and stress:
- If your default self-talk is to catastrophize negative events and go straight to the worst-case scenario, you’re going to feel pretty anxious all the time.
- If your default response to criticism is to criticize back, you’re going to find yourself pretty frustrated and angry all the time.
- If your default interpretation of negative events is to criticize yourself and internalize things, you’re going to end up with a lot of shame and fake guilt.
On the other hand, if you can learn to pause and observe what’s happening in your mind, you give yourself the opportunity to act intentionally and purposefully.
Rather than immediately trying to do something about your emotions try to be curious about them instead.
2. Attention shifting
Most people spend their time thinking about whatever grabs their attention.
Whether it’s doomscrolling social media or fantasizing about a new car, our minds are easily pulled from one thing to the next, often with very little deliberation on our part.
Here’s the problem with letting your attention get pulled around like that:
The contents of your thoughts determine the contents of your moods.
Think about it:
- If you’re always worried about the future, you’re going to feel pretty anxious.
- If you’re always dwelling on past mistakes, you’re going to feel pretty ashamed.
- If you’re always ruminating on how you’ve been wronged, you’re going to feel pretty angry.
If you want to change how emotional you feel, you’ve got to change what you spend your time thinking about.
Unfortunately, this can be tough:
- When you’re caught in a worry spiral, it can be difficult to refocus your mind on your work.
- When you’re stuck ruminating on some slight against you, it’s hard to be present with the person sitting next to you.
- When you’re trapped in obsessing about how you feel, it’s hard to take action on the things you know will make you feel better.
Ultimately, your ability to escape unhelpful thinking patterns and all the emotional chaos they produce depends on your ability to control your attention—to notice when you’re paying attention to something unhelpful, to redirect it somewhere else, and keep it somewhere else despite the temptation to get sucked back in.
But here’s the thing: Your ability to control your attention is a muscle. And if you don’t exercise it, it will remain weak. This means your mood and emotions will be at the mercy of whatever comes to mind.
If you want to control your moods, practice controlling your attention.
Mindfulness meditation is a great way to start doing just that.
Self-compassion is a very simple concept:
When you’re struggling, treat yourself like you would treat a good friend.
Most of us have this strange habit of beating ourselves up and being overly self-critical anytime we make a mistake. Which is ironic since, at the same time, we’re usually incredibly compassionate and understanding when other people make mistakes!
Unfortunately, most of us learned growing up that the “secret” to success and happiness in life is to be hard on yourself. Like the tough drill sergeant yelling at his new recruits, we mistakenly learn that being tough on ourselves prevents failures.
Except that’s not really true…
Most people succeed despite their self-judgment, not because of it.
And in fact, most people could be both far more effective and far happier if they stopped beating themselves up for every failure or misstep.
Because when you beat yourself up for making a mistake, you only add more painful emotion and stress onto the original frustration or sadness that goes along with making mistakes.
Self-judgment only compounds difficult emotion and frequently leads to spirals of bad moods and painful feelings.
If you want to avoid these spikes and spirals of painful emotion and become more emotionally strong instead, learn to practice self-compassion instead of self-judgment.
4. Emotional tolerance
Much of emotional strength involves learning better ways to respond to difficult emotions and moods so that they don’t explode out of control.
But sometimes the difficult feelings are simply inevitable:
- No matter how self-compassionate you are, making mistakes still stings and will likely lead to some amount of guilt or shame.
- No matter self-aware you are of your painful emotions, they will still hurt when they show up unannounced.
- No matter how good you are at managing your attention, you will still get stuck in worry from time to time and that will lead to anxiety.
In other words…
You have to be able to get on with life despite feeling bad.
Just like a runner needs to be able to keep running despite feeling tired if they want to finish the race, you need to be able to live your life despite feeling difficult emotions.
Because really, what’s the alternative?
You can’t wait to do important things with your life until you feel perfect. That’s a recipe for chronic procrastination and regret.
But doing even small things when we feel bad emotionally is tough, no doubt about it. The trick is to build up your emotional tolerance.
Back to our runner example… The only way runners are able to keep going for so long even though they’re tired and in pain is because they’ve built up their tolerance and strength.
They started with running a couple miles until they got stronger, then worked up to 5 miles as they got stronger, then 10, and on and on.
Well, emotional tolerance works the same way…
You have to practice feeling bad if you want to become emotionally strong.
So, the next time a difficult emotion hits you, instead of asking How can I not feel so bad? Ask yourself this: How can I use this as an opportunity to improve my emotional tolerance?
5. Cognitive restructuring
How we think determines how we feel emotionally. And a huge part of how we think comes down to self-talk—what we say to ourselves internally.
Unfortunately, many of us grow up internalizing an extremely negative and pessimistic style of self-talk:
- The minute something bad happens, you catastrophize: Oh my God, it’s all over now…
- As soon as you make a mistake, you generalize it into a core character defect: I’m such an idiot!
- Whenever someone looks at you sideways, you interpret malice: She’s always so judgmental!
The problem with this overly negative self-talk is that it creates self-fulfilling prophecies…
When you’re constantly telling yourself how bad everything is, everything starts feeling pretty bad.
The way out of this dilemma is to retrain your self-talk to be more realistic and accurate. And a powerful technique for doing this mental retraining is called cognitive restructuring.
In short, it means learning to:
- Identify your negative self-talk and what triggers it.
- Observe the connection between how you think and how you feel.
- Generate alternative ways of interpreting what happens to you in more realistic terms.
- Paying attention to the emotional and behavioral benefits that go along with these alternative stories.
For some practical tips on dealing with negative thinking, including negative self-talk, this guide I wrote recently is a good place to start: 10 Healthy Ways to Deal with Negative Thinking
Most people hear the term assertive and they think rude or pushy.
But in reality, assertive communication isn’t rude or pushy at all. Assertiveness is the healthy middle ground between passive communication and aggressive communication:
- Aggressive communication means not respecting the wants and needs of other people (manipulation, for example).
- Passive communication is when you don’t respect your own wants and needs (being a “pushover.”)
- Assertive communication is when you honestly express your own wants and needs, but you do it in a way that’s respectful of others as well.
Why does this matter for becoming more emotionally strong?
When you habitually avoid external conflict, you end up creating internal conflict.
This happens most often when people are overly passive in the way they communicate:
- You usually just “go with the flow” when there are group decisions to be made.
- You chronically hold back from voicing your opinions or ideas.
- You give in easily in order to avoid conflict.
Here’s the problem with being so passive and overly accommodating of others:
- When you constantly give in to other people’s wishes—and ignore your own—you start to feel bad about yourself and your self-esteem drops.
- Your frustration and anxiety levels also tend to go up because you’re never getting your needs met.
- Finally, you end up resenting other people because they always get what they want and you never get what you want.
Now think about it…
If your self-esteem is low, you’re full of frustration and anxiety, and you’re resentful of your most important relationships, how effective are you going to be trying to manage more difficult emotions on top of all that?
Yeah, not very.
On the other hand, when you learn how to be assertive, your ability to be strong and balanced in the face of difficult emotions goes way up because your self-esteem and confidence are much higher.
Learning to be more assertive is the single most underrated thing you can do to improve your emotional health.
7. Clarify your personal values
You can spend all the time in the world avoiding what you don’t want, but if you’re not sure where you’re going, how likely are you to get there?
No, that’s not a brain teaser or a world problem… It’s just meant to get you thinking about a simple but frequently overlooked idea:
Fundamentally, life is about moving toward the things you want, not running away from the things you don’t want.
- It’s no little kid’s dream to grow up to become really good at managing their anxiety.
- It’s no little kid’s dream to become really good at anger management when they grow up.
- It’s no little kid’s dream to one day be an expert non-procrastinator.
Little kids want to become astronauts and doctors and teachers and scientists and musicians and professional athletes. They want to do cool, awesome stuff!
Of course, along the way, they’ll have to figure out how to be courageous in the face of fear or stick to a habit even when it’s hard. But these are secondary to the big picture: Going after the stuff they really want!
Well, is this any different for us adults?
As important as it is to learn the skills that will help you deal with difficult things like bad moods, fears, and low self-esteem, let’s not forget about the big picture… What do I really want?
Ask yourself this question:
If I had tons of confidence, never experienced a bad mood, and always felt motivated, what would I do?
What are the really good things in life that difficult moods and emotions are holding you back from?
What are your goals, your dreams, your aspirations? What are your values—the things that matter most to you in life?
Here’s one last way to think about this:
Are you more likely to work through difficult moods and emotions when you have crystal clear goals and values you’re moving toward or when you’re just stumbling through life hoping to avoid much pain or discomfort?
Obviously the first!
So, take the time to get to know your values. Everything’s easier when you do.
Want to Work with Me?
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
So helpful, thanks very much for your clear understanding of the knots we get entangled in!!
Hi, Nick! What a great article! Like always your explanations help us so much! I´m saving money to buy soon your course, it must be amazing! (The difference between currencies makes everything almost 6 times more expensive.). I would like to make a suggestion, but I´m not sure about how is in English. In Portuguese, all titles should be capitalized. Is not a grammar error, but a matter of edition. So the title should be Clarify your Personal Values instead of Clarify your personal values. I´m saying that not because I´m a nasty person looking for mistakes, on the contrary, is because I consider your articles masterpieces and should be treated as so. Please delete this comment.
Nick, this piece really resonated with me! I will be reading it over and over. Thank you for all that you do.
I am always looking forward to your essay. As always, you open my eyes. Your insights and comments are as refreshing as a sip of cool water on a hot day.
Greetings from Poland.👋
I feel headings should contain all capital letters . So that it draws attention and reader should completely get into concept of balance.
I decided to look in to my emotions and fine out problem and solution that is limiting and struggling me. Here I come to your page and it like you arrange this words for me. Nothing from all your points that is not my affection. Thanks you.
STFU *crying emoji*
I just feel empty sometimes