As a psychologist, I’ve helped people work through just about every type of difficult emotion.
And across this huge variety of emotional suffering—from panic attacks and depression to anger issues and low self-esteem—there’s one common factor these people all seem to share: an unhealthy relationship with their emotions.
See, most of us don’t learn very much about our emotions or how they work when we’re young. So we grow up believing that if an emotion feels bad it is bad.
But here’s the thing…
Your emotions aren’t a problem. It’s your relationship with emotions that’s making you unhappy.
If you want to feel better emotionally you need to build a healthier relationship with your emotions. And the best way to start is by recognizing the signs of an unhealthy relationship with emotions.
1. You keep yourself constantly busy.
We all have different energy levels and preferences for how much activity feels good to us. Some of us enjoy being quite active and on the move, while others prefer a more low-key approach to life.
But whatever your baseline preference for activity and movement, being constantly busy—always preoccupied with one thing or another and never really present in the moment—is often a sign of a conflicted relationship with your emotions.
We often use busyness as a distraction from painful feelings.
Which makes sense, if you think about it…
When your to-do list is constantly throwing appointment after appointment at you, task after task, meeting after meeting, you don’t have the space to catch your breath much less reflect on seriously painful lingering emotions:
- Maybe you never grieved the death of your mother and business is a distraction from that pain.
- Maybe you’re miserable in your job/marriage/living situation/etc. but because you can’t see a viable alternative, busyness keeps your mind off the anxiety of making a big decision.
- Maybe you experienced a bout of serious depression twenty years ago and, over time, you’ve kept yourself constantly preoccupied because you hope that your busyness will ward off the return of your depression.
- Maybe you feel guilty about your broken relationship with your sister and staying busy keeps the guilt at bay.
There are as many reasons to use busyness as a distraction as there are people suffering.
But just because busyness works to keep you distracted doesn’t mean it’s a good idea. Just because you manage to keep those scary emotions at bay doesn’t mean it’s healthy, or productive, or in your best interest. It doesn’t even mean it’s easier or less painful.
Most people who have developed the habit of keeping themselves constantly busy have been doing it for so long that it’s almost a part of their personality, which makes it hard to even imagine what it would be like to not be so busy.
But no matter what your situation, here’s the unavoidable truth:
You can’t outrun your emotions.
Distraction is at best a temporary relief, never a cure.
Plus, when we sweep our emotional struggles under the rug with constant busyness, it’s like taking out a loan: Sure, you get a little breathing room for a while, but you’re paying interest. And the interest rate on emotional loans is far higher than most people realize:
- How many relationships suffer because one person is so busy and preoccupied that they can’t be truly present and available for their partner?
- How many physical ailments are made worse by the wear and tear and constant stress that comes from always being busy?
- How many genuinely exciting and interesting experiences are given up because we’re too afraid of giving up control over our tightly manage schedule that prevents any alone time with our own thoughts and feelings?
Here’s the real tragedy for people who get in the habit of using busyness to distract themselves from their own thoughts and feelings: They miss out on life.
They spend their entire lives playing defense against an imaginary opponent—the opportunity cost of which is that they have no time or energy to play offense, to really go after the things they truly love.
Take it from a therapist who spends every day witnessing this tragedy: Your mind is not as scary a place as you imagine it to be.
Yes, it contains frightening thoughts and difficult feelings, but you’re underestimating your capacity to deal with those difficulties head one.
Stop running away from your mind and take your life back. It’s worth it.
2. You intellectualize your emotions.
Suppose you show up to work a few minutes late, eyes red and puffy after another tearful argument with your husband, and a co-worker stops and asks you how you’re doing. What do you say?
If you’re a typical American adult, you probably say something along the lines of:
- Oh, I’m fine, thanks.
- I just had kind of a stressful morning.
- I’m a mess but I’ll be okay, thanks.
Each of these is an example of intellectualization. It’s when you describe how you feel emotionally in terms of conceptual ideas or metaphors rather than plain emotional words:
- Instead of saying “I’m sad” you say “I’m upset.”
- Instead of “I feel angry” you say “I’m stressed out right now.”
- Instead of “I’m pretty anxious” you say “I’m just a little wound up.”
What’s the problem, you say—these are just regular expressions we all use to describe how we feel when we’re struggling emotionally.
The thing is, they’re not.
Upset is not an emotion. It’s a concept, an idea. Stressed is not an emotion either; technically it’s a physiological response. A little wound up is a metaphor, not an emotion.
Whether we know it or not, many of us are in the habit of using vague, conceptual, and overly intellectual ways to describe how we feel as a defense mechanism.
If you think about it, saying “I feel sad” is much more direct, raw, and painful than saying “I’m kind of overwhelmed.” You have to be vulnerable to describe how you feel with plain emotional language. And because most of us are afraid to be vulnerable with our feelings, we subtly avoid it by intellectualizing how we feel—transforming our emotions into ideas because ideas hurt less.
The problem is when we avoid our emotions—even with the language we use to describe them—we signal to our brains that those emotions are not just painful, but dangerous. Which means we train our brain to be afraid of being emotional.
What’s more, by avoiding being vulnerable about how we actually feel, we make it hard for other people to help and support us because we’re hiding and obscuring how we feel.
The next time you’re experiencing painful emotions and someone asks you how you’re doing, think about it like this: What would an 8-year-old kid say? How would they describe how they feel?
Without the fancy vocabulary and clever social-linguistic skills we adults have, kids tend to just describe how they’re feeling plainly: I’m sad, I’m afraid, I’m angry, etc.
We adults would do well to take a lesson from kids and re-learn how to be honest and direct in describing how we feel emotionally.
3. You feel bad about feeling bad.
As a psychologist and therapist, I’ve noticed two near-universal truths about every person who walks into my office for therapy:
- They feel bad. Obviously. They’re experiencing one or many very painful emotions, from sadness and loneliness to anxiety or guilt. And they don’t know what to do about it.
- They feel bad about feeling bad. They’re angry at themselves for feeling anxiety and “being weak.” They feel guilty about feeling relieved when a family member with whom they had a difficult relationship with passed away. They feel anxious that they might feel depressed again in the future.
Number 1 is inevitable. Feeling emotions—including the uncomfortable ones like sadness and fear—is an inevitable part of being human. You can’t avoid emotional pain. Shit happens and we feel bad. That’s reality and there’s no escaping it.
Number 2 is self-inflicted and—with practice—avoidable. When we observe ourselves feeling bad and then judge ourselves as bad or weak or immoral for feeling that way, we add a second layer of painful emotion on top of the difficult feelings we were already feeling.
As the great novelist Haruki Murakami said:
Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional.
For all sorts of interesting but complicated reasons, our culture instills in us from the youngest age that to feel bad is bad. It’s a subtle distinction but it makes all the difference.
When you touch a hot pan on the stove, pain signals fire through your neurons and you instinctively pull back your hand. The sensation of pain that comes from touching a hot pan undeniably feels bad. But it would be silly to say that the pain itself is bad. In fact, it’s good. Our bodies have pain for a reason—without the pain, you would likely have left your hand burning on the pan for a lot longer, resulting in a much more serious third-degree burn.
The same thing is essentially true for our emotions:
Just because an emotion feels bad doesn’t mean it is bad.
But when you operate under the assumption that every painful emotional experience is bad, you get yourself into all sorts of unconscious habits designed to get rid of those painful feelings. But as we’ve talked about in the last couple points, trying to avoid or get rid of your feelings is a losing battle. And in fact, you’re only increasing their frequency and intensity in the long run.
If you want to become more emotionally strong, remind yourself that just because a particular feeling feels bad that doesn’t mean it is bad or that you experiencing it is a bad sign.
Learn to validate and accept your emotions—even the painful ones. You’ll still feel the pain but you’ll save yourself a lot of suffering.
4. Your self-talk is harsh and judgmental.
It’s ironic that so many of us are compassionate, understanding, and gentle when faced with other people’s difficulties and emotional struggles. But when faced with our own painful emotions, we’re just opposite—we tend to be judgmental, intolerant, and harsh with ourselves when we’re struggling:
- When we’re anxious or afraid we tell ourselves to Pull it together or remind ourselves that I’m always crying and worrying over the smallest things… why can’t I just be normal!
- When we’re sad and depressed we reprimand ourselves: Do you know how many other people have it way worse than we do? Show a little gratitude!
- When we’re feeling ashamed and defeated, we pile on the hurt with an inner voice that says things like , Of course this would happen to me… I’ll always be a screw-up. I should just accept it.
In other words, we’re pretty mean to ourselves at precisely the moments when we should be kind to ourselves. And this meanness mostly comes in the form of overly-harsh and negative self-talk.
Self-talk is the running commentary and narrative that we all have going through our minds nearly all the time. For some of us, though, this voice in our heads is a judgmental tyrant, constantly putting us down, criticizing, worrying, ruminating, and generally making us feel like garbage.
We take it for granted that this voice is always playing in our head and we assume that the nature of this voice is simply who we are.
Your self-talk is largely a learned habit, generally picked up from parents or caregivers early in life then reinforced via friends and ourselves as we get older. But the truth is:
How we talk to ourselves is a habit—nothing more, nothing less.
The thing is, if you’re in the habit of talking to yourself in a harsh, judgmental way—especially during times of emotional pain—you’re going to be fueling the flames and increasing your suffering. Because as decades of psychological research has confirmed, how we feel emotionally is mediated by how we think and interpret the world around us.
In other words…
How you habitually think determines how you habitually feel.
An obvious sign that you’re relationship with your emotions needs work is if your inner narrator is a jerk. If your self-talk is condescending, intolerant, and judgmental of your feelings, what kind of a relationship can you really expect from those feelings?
The key is to realize that no matter what kind of habits of self-talk you’ve built up over the years, with practice, they’re changeable. You can learn to be more compassionate and gentle in the way you talk to yourself, and especially, the way you talk to yourself about the way you feel.
When you’re upset, you need your inner voice to be a friend, not a bully.
5. You’re always asking for reassurance.
Another hallmark of an unhealthy relationship with your emotions is that you lack confidence in your ability to manage difficult emotions on your own. As a result, it’s easy to get in the habit of seeking reassurance and comfort from others:
- You’re worried about that weird pain in your side (could it be cancer?) and so you instantly call your mother to see if she thinks you should call the doctor. Mom assures you it’s probably just a cramp and nothing to worry about.
- You feel guilty that you decided not to participate in the extended family Christmas celebration this year, so you ask your wife one more time whether she thinks it was really a good idea.
- Your partner still seems a little upset so you ask him for a third time if he’s sure there’s nothing wrong.
Here’s the thing: While reassurance feels good temporarily—because it alleviates some painful emotion like anxiety or guilt—it easily slips into a vicious cycle of ever lower and lower confidence in one’s own ability to tolerate and manage difficult feelings and uncertainties.
Like most addictions and problematic behaviors, reassurance-seeking is a trade-off of our long-term happiness and health for short-term comfort and ease.
The solution is to learn through your own hard-earned experience that you can tolerate and manage difficult emotions on your own and live to tell the tale. In other words, the solution is to build confidence.
And like any skill-building endeavor, best to start small and work your way up:
- Instead of instantly calling your son to see if he made it home after his flight, wait 15 minutes and prove to yourself that you can live with your anxiety instead of instantly alleviating it with reassurance.
- Rather than peppering your partner with questions about how they feel (in order to alleviate your anxiety), give them some space, trusting that they will come to you if that’s what they want or need.
You wouldn’t learn how to do long-division if your teacher gave you the answer every time you got stuck. And you wouldn’t learn how to tie your shoes if your parents always bought you velcro sneakers or tied your shoes for you. Gaining confidence in your ability to manage your own difficult emotions is no different: It’s a skill you must build yourself.
It will be hard and it will take time, but in the end, it will be worth it.
6. You procrastinate a lot.
Procrastination is a complex issue with all sorts of causes and consequences. And it’s something we all do from time to time.
But if you find yourself consistently procrastinating in many areas of your life, it could be a sign that the way you handle your emotions is not working too well for you.
Procrastination—putting something off until later despite knowing it will cost us more in long-term—is a form of instant gratification. But not in the pleasurable sense of eating a candy bar or impulse buying those new shoes. Both of those are appetitive in nature—things we do because they add a positive feeling.
Procrastination is palliative in nature. It feels “good” because it removes something painful or unpleasant. When we put something we should do now off until later, it relieves us of the unpleasant emotions we experience anticipating a task or actually doing it.
But if you’re in the habit of putting things off in order to escape some unpleasant emotion—fear of disappointment is a common one—it could indicate that you’re not very good at managing difficult emotions and doing what needs to be done anyway.
Often this comes from a faulty underlying belief about the relationships between how we feel and what we’re capable of doing.
See, a lot of us believe that we need to feel good or motivated or confident in order to do something difficult. But this is actually backward…
Motivation and confidence are feelings that result from doing worthwhile—if challenging—things. They’re an effect, not a prerequisite.
But ultimately, it all boils down to your relationship with emotions—do you see unpleasant feelings like anxiety or shame as immovable obstacles that prevent you from doing what you want? Or do you see them normal phenomena that—while unpleasant—don’t actually have much bearing on what you do either way?
In other words, the healthier view is to learn through experience that it’s perfectly possible to do difficult things while feeling anxious or embarrassed or angry or whatever.
Feeling good is nice, but it’s not a requirement for taking action.
You don’t need to eliminate painful emotions in order to live your life. In fact, it’s only through living your life alongside all your emotions that you learn to manage them effectively.
All You Need to Know
If you struggle with painful moods and emotions on a regular basis, your emotions themselves aren’t the problem.
More likely, it’s your relationship with your emotions that’s unhealthy.
To improve your relationship with your difficult emotions, remember watch out for these signs:
- Constant busyness
- Intellectualizing your emotions
- Feeling bad about feeling bad
- Judgmental self-talk
Want to work with me to build a healthier relationship with your emotions?
Several times a year, I teach a live, six-week course called Mood Mastery that’s all about building mental strength and resilience by cultivating a healthier relationship with your emotions. Learn more here →
29 CommentsAdd Yours
To take responsibility you need encouragement and helpful information. So Thanks for the clear reminders and new skills too! Doing is growing.
You’re very welcome, Marise!
Master EmoWignall 🙂
ALWAYS a respite to read
and to move through your words…always a beacon to a better and higher me. Your words have been invaluable in the adjustment of my internal reels….and priceless in my compassionate encouragement of others.
Your distinction of intelligence vs fitness is a new paradigm for so many…..and the ease, empathy and kindness within your nudging of us into our best of the next moment is nothing short of stunning.
In gratitude and commitment to my own emofitness….and in deeper empathy, understanding and compassion of others’,
Well, thanks Rene! 🙂
Thank you so much for your articles. They are so honest and raw. It is nice to know that dealing with my emotions is a normal human condition. Thank you.
You’re welcome, Rebecca!
You have helped me more than therapists I have seen in the past. Today in particular, this article was a godsend. My daughter died a year ago today on the footsteps of my door, and so as you can imagine I have been going through many emotions/thoughts panic attacks.
I appreciate your insight and your newsletter.
Very sorry to hear that Dee. Thank you for the kind note.
This is a very thought provoking article for me! Thank you for your insight!
You’re very welcome, Judy!
Thank you for the exposition,I am learning alot, my emotions are hay wired these days.
You bet, Obanye!
Procrastination is not one of my own avoidance tools so it was interesting to learn how it can be used. It helped me become more understanding of the trait in others.
Great point, Ann! I think that’s a really helpful way to look at all this stuff—even if it doesn’t apply to us, it can help us be more compassionate with others.
Wow, Nick. Wow. This post is spot on! The section below hit me like a ton of bricks. It makes me think about one of the unfortunate afflictions of the Puella aeternus complex, that of the eternal girl who never grows up, in large part because she cannot bear to make a real sacrifice to slip out of her carefully constructed reality, and therefore endure discomfort. I agree that we must direct gentleness and compassion, but doesn’t the Puella also require gentle butt-kicking… from herself? It’s very easy for a Puella to let herself off the hook and never connect with inner drive.
“Now, even if you escape a difficult childhood and have plenty of opportunities to consider and pursue your values, that habit of avoiding pain may still be with you. When you spend your entire childhood playing defense, it’s difficult to learn how to play offense. When your whole way of being in the world is oriented around not feeling bad and staying safe, identifying what you really want and pursuing it with energy and passion is a frighteningly foreign concept…
In order to develop this muscle for identifying and chasing after what you really want—for making a life, not just floating through it—you need a healthier relationship with your emotions, especially the painful ones.”
Thank you Nick, your posts got me through a hard time in my life. Keep up the good work!
You’re very welcome, Hao!
How are you?
This was really useful, thank you.
My problem is that I can’t even identify how I feel. I’m numb.
Glad it was helpful, Michelle.
It’s brings great hope to see there’s a pattern to these familiar experiences and feelings, that these involuntary responses, like syndromes have some underlying habits and can be unlearned. Thank you, Nick.
You’re very welcome, Michael!
Very Useful Article. Thank You
You’re welcome, Uma!
An amazing & insightful article. Paraphrasing: feeling comfortable beforehand will keep us from taking risks, reminded me that stepping out of depression takes action, before the depression begins to lift. Often, I’ve found that doing what is required first can be very useful & helpful on the road to stepping out of my own depression and can change my out look on life & situation entirely. Appreciate your gentle approach.
Most of this describes me to a T. Especially about playing defense and therefore drifting through life and intellectualizing our emotions.
Do you know of any books or resources that could help me learn to break some of these habits, understand more, and grow?
I will be bringing these up with my therapist too, but I would love to read more.
Thank you for your article.
very helpful information.
I came across this amazingly well written article a couple of months ago, and compared to the repetitive, generic things I find in each new self help book, this was like a breath of fresh air. If he ever comes out with a self help book, I’d buy it ☺️