How To Stop Mindless & Self-Destructive Behaviors When You've Got Big, Scary Feelings

A psychologist's advice for how to get honest with yourself & move on.

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We all have emotions at various times that trouble us and weigh on us and drive us to do things outside of our awareness. Nervous habits, mindless activities and even self-destructive behaviors can result.

Emotions can make us deeply uncomfortable and can be powerful drivers of behavior, like eating, endless TV watching, excessive drinking, shopping, making sharp comments, and much more.

Here's an example:


Cam sat on the sofa munching on chips while watching her favorite show. Even though she couldn’t wait to see which decision her favorite character made, her mind kept drifting. Inside, she felt a restless discomfort and she kept thinking about something her boyfriend said to her the day before. What did he mean by that? Was he joking? Was he serious? Should I be offended?

Trying to keep her focus on the show was useless, so she got up and stood looking out the window. Still, with that restless misery inside, she fed herself chips one after another without realizing she was doing it.

There’s not a person alive who hasn’t been in Cam’s shoes.


RELATED: How Your Life Will Change When You Stop Suppressing Your Feelings

If you have ever felt something that you didn’t know what to do with, you are in the good company of pretty much every other human being on the face of the planet. But do not worry, help is on the way. There are certain skills that, once you learn them, give you the power to take the tiger by the tail, so to speak.

These skills are your tools for a lifetime and you are about to learn them. Once you learn what they are, all you need to do is practice them and they belong to you.

Why you don’t already have the skills

Is some little voice in your head saying, “What’s my problem? Shouldn’t I be able to deal with my own feelings?” If so, I have an answer for you: No, not necessarily, not at all.


It all goes back to how emotionally aware your family was when you were growing up.

  • Did your family discuss family problems and conflicts in an effective way?
  • Did you feel your parents were aware of your feelings?
  • Did your parents respond to your feelings by helping you identify what you were feeling and why?
  • Did your family accept your feelings without judging you for having them? Note: This is not the same thing as assuming your feelings are always right.
  • And the final question: Did your parents do all of these things enough? Enough for you to learn how to continue them with reasonable comfort and skill in your adult life.

If you answered with some “No’s” or “Maybe not's” or find yourself in situations similar to Cam’s repeatedly, these are signs that you didn’t get enough “emotion training” from your childhood home. It is a sign that you grew up with Childhood Emotional Neglect or CEN.

RELATED: How To Control Your Emotions So They Stop Controlling You

Childhood emotional neglect can even happen even in the most loving homes.

All it takes is for the parents to be emotionally unaware, probably because they didn’t get to learn the emotional skills in their own childhoods.

I call these parents Well-Meaning But Neglected Themselves, or WMBNT. It also happens in homes where the parents are addicted, mentally ill, depressed, struggling, narcissistic, or otherwise too taken up with their own lives to be able to notice or attend to the feelings of their children.


Whatever the circumstances, none of it’s your fault. And if you didn’t learn these skills as a child, you can learn them now.

Here are 5 steps to start 'naming and taming' your emotions

1. Start paying attention to your feelings.

Not just at moments of crisis, but all day every day your body continually sends you messages.

The messages say things like, “Watch out!” “Protect yourself,” “You have lost something,” You need this,” “You want this.” These vital messages are sent to you via feelings. The more you pay attention, the better you’ll receive them.

RELATED: 5 Steps To Take When You're Ready To Open Up Emotionally

2. When you notice a feeling in your body, try to name it.

Is it sad (you’ve lost something), angry (watch out), anxious (you need the energy to prepare), or hurt (protect yourself)? These are the most general of emotions. The more specifically and exactly you can name your feelings the better.


3. Think about the message your body is sending you.

Why is your body sending this message today? Is it something going on in your life right now or something from the past or a combination?

Is this “feeling message” helpful and healthy or harmful?

4. Decide what to do to feel better.

RELATED: 3 Expert Tips For Expressing Your Feelings To Your Partner Effectively

For Cam, the feelings are uncertainty, confusion, and hurt, which is her body’s way of driving her to action. The message is, “Take action to get information. Protect yourself.”

When she gives this proper consideration, thinking about what to do, Cam realizes that she needs to ask her boyfriend what he meant by this comment and try to understand how hurt she should really be.


5. Take healthy action.

Cam pics up her phone and texts her boyfriend: “Please come over when you get up. We need to talk.”

Research has shown that naming an emotion and thinking it through in this way reduces the power that feeling has over you. So, instead of running from your feelings, turn yourself around and face them.

Use these five steps to take the tiger by the tail and swing it around and you will harness its power to energize and motivate you. You may just resolve it all together but, even if you can’t fully resolve it, you will now be the one in charge of it instead of it being in charge of you.

RELATED: ‘I Just Can’t Let Go’: How Childhood Trauma Can Affect (Unhealthy) Adult Relationships


Jonice Webb has a Ph.D. in clinical psychology and is the author of the book Running on Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect.