The Case for Emotional Fitness

Do you frequently struggle to shake off bad moods? Or wish you could bounce back a little faster from stressful or frustrating experiences?

Maybe you have a hard time sticking with your goals and commitments because of difficult emotions like shame or anxiety?

If so, you’re not alone.

Most of us struggle with our emotions because we were never taught much about them or how they work.

Instead, from a young age, most of us simply learned to think about difficult emotions as something to be avoided or gotten rid of as quickly as possible.

Think about it:

Every time you were told as a child to “cheer up, it’s not so bad” you were implicitly learning that it’s not okay to feel sad or worried or angry.

Unfortunately, when we learn at such a young age that to feel bad is bad, it sets us up for a lifetime of conflict and confusion with our own moods and emotions.

The dangers of emotional avoidance

If you believe that it’s bad to feel bad, you’re going to get in the habit of running away from or trying to get rid of any painful emotion you experience.

And while this strategy of avoidance “works” in the short term by providing temporary relief, it can have disastrous consequences in the long-run.

For one thing, many of the “coping strategies” we use to escape our painful feelings have pretty bad side-effects:

  • Overeating as a way to alleviate stress can lead to weight gain and shame.
  • Procrastinating to avoid fear of failure can lead to poor performance at work.
  • Numbing out the pain of grief with alcohol or drugs can lead to broken relationships and poor health (among other things).

But these nasty side effects aren’t even the worst of it…

The real danger in running away from painful feelings is the lesson it teaches your own brain.

When you try to eliminate or run away from difficult emotions, you train your brain to view them as dangerous.

For example:

  • If you constantly run away from your anxiety, you’re training your brain to be afraid of being anxious.
  • If you constantly try to get rid of your sadness, you’re training your brain to view sadness as the enemy.
  • If you constantly distract yourself anytime you feel grief, you’re training your brain to be “on guard” against future episodes of grief.

The problem with teaching your brain to fear its own emotions is that you end up compounding your emotional suffering:

  • Getting mad at yourself for feeling sad is only going to make the sadness more intense in the long-run.
  • Criticizing yourself for feeling angry is only going to make the anger last longer.
  • Worrying about getting anxious is only going to make you feel more anxious.

When you feel bad about feeling bad, you add a second layer of negativity onto your experience.

And this is why your emotions often seem bigger and longer-lasting than you expected.

Ask yourself: What has a lifetime of running away from and trying to get rid of my “bad” feelings taught my brain?

The short answer: You’ve trained your brain to be at war with itself—to be on guard and defensive anytime so much as the possibility of a painful emotion presents itself.

While nothing could feel more natural than to run away from painful feelings, nothing is more destructive for your mental health.

Your antagonistic relationship with your emotions is the very thing that makes them so difficult to manage.

Okay, maybe you’re feeling a little discouraged or at this point. Let me offer a solution…

Instead of avoiding your difficult emotions, what if you could learn to live with them?

What if no matter what kind of emotion you experienced—or how intense—you had the skills and confidence to face it, accept it, and get on with your life?

Wouldn’t that be something?

Building a better relationship with your emotions

As a psychologist and therapist, I work with my clients every day to help them take control of their emotional lives.

But the surprising secret to managing your most difficult moods and emotions well is this:

To master your emotions you must be willing to live with them.

That means:

  • No more running away from or fighting with your emotions.
  • No more trying to “fix” difficult feelings like anxiety or sadness.
  • No vilifying uncomfortable emotions as “bad” or “negative” or “unbearable.”

Fighting with and running away from painful emotions is the very thing that intensifies them. You need to do the opposite—you need to accept your emotions, understand them, and be willing to live with them.

Of course, that’s easier said than done.

If simply understanding that difficult emotions aren’t really dangerous or bad was all you needed to do, just reading this article would change everything.

And in fact, mere understanding is almost never enough for any kind of change:

  • Understanding how to run a marathon won’t make you a marathon runner.
  • Understanding music theory won’t make you a musician.
  • Understanding how a diet works won’t make you lose weight.

Understanding is necessary but never sufficient for lasting change.

And this is true of your relationship with your emotions as well.

To truly master your difficult moods and emotions, you need practice and training to cultivate a fundamentally new attitude toward and relationship with your emotions.

In other words, emotional intelligence isn’t enough. What you need is emotional fitness.

The Case for Emotional Fitness

If you’re going to build a healthier relationship with your emotions, you need new habits and mental muscles that will give you the strength and confidence to confront your difficult emotions and moods head-on instead of running away from them.

And like learning any new skill, it helps to have a program to follow—a set of guidelines and recommendations for practicing in an optimal and efficient way.

I call this process Emotional Fitness.

Just like you need the exercises and habits of physical fitness to build a stronger and healthier body, you also need better habits of mind to build mental toughness and emotional resilience.

Emotional Fitness means committing to consistent habits and exercises that strengthen your mental and emotional health.

It’s not easy, but the benefits are profound:

  • Better Relationships. Instead of losing your temper or using the silent treatment after an argument with your spouse, what if you could confidently tolerate your own frustrations and insecurities and resolve disagreements respectfully? What if you could learn to tolerate other people’s difficult emotions and bad moods instead of reacting to them defensively?
  • Better Work. What if you could feel the urge to procrastinate and ride it out instead of running away from it—getting back to work rather than wallowing in cheap distractions and self-criticism? What if you could leave the stress and frustrations of work where they belong and come home relaxed and at peace?
  • Better Moods. What if you could move on quickly from difficult moods without getting lost in them for hours or days on end? What if you could observe your painful emotions with curiosity and balance rather than immediately running away from them and then losing yourself in unhealthy coping strategies like stress-eating and alcohol?
  • Better Self-Talk. We all fail and screw up sometimes, but what if you could respond to your own mistakes with self-compassion and gentleness instead of self-judgment? When things are tough, what if you could talk to yourself like you talk to a good friend instead of beating yourself up?
  • Better Health. What if, after falling off the wagon for a couple days with your new diet, you could calmly pick yourself up, get back on the diet, and avoid any self-sabotage and defeatist thinking? What if you could find your way to the gym each morning regardless of whether you felt motivated or not?

In other words…

What if you learned to work with your emotions instead of fighting against them?

What might your life look like then?

  • Imagine how your relationships would improve if you learned how to effectively manage your defensiveness…
  • Imagine how your moods would improve if you weren’t constantly putting yourself down with self-judgment and inner criticisms…
  • Imagine how much more productive you would be if you weren’t battling chronic procrastination and distraction…

Imagine what your life would feel like if you weren’t at war with yourself.


7 Comments

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Thank you! I was stuck,not sure how I got there. You gave much needed answers that were understandable and made sense. Now it’s my responsibility to take action and my choice if I am willing to do the work to change.

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