4 Signs You Have An Unhealthy Relationship With Your Emotions

Photo: Raushan_films / Shutterstock
sad girl in the rain

As a psychologist, I’ve seen first-hand how most people struggle with their emotions much more than they need to…

  • They get overwhelmed by spirals of worry and anxiety
  • They lash out in fits of anger or defensiveness
  • They procrastinate on their goals because of apathy, guilt, or fear

But difficult emotions like anxiety or anger or shame… they’re not the real problem.

Emotions are a normal and healthy part of the human experience.

They might be uncomfortable or painful sometimes. But that doesn’t make them bad or dangerous.

Think about it…

Just because an emotion feels bad doesn’t mean it is bad.

Exercise feels bad. Studying for an exam feels bad. Having a difficult conversation feels bad. But these are all good things!

But when you fall into the trap of thinking that painful emotions are bad or dangerous, you tend to treat them like enemies to be avoided or eliminated. Unfortunately, this fight or flight reaction to painful emotions trains your brain to see them as threats, which makes them increasingly painful and frequent over time.

If you want to experience calmer moods and less painful emotions, you’ve got to recognize the many ways in which — consciously or not — you treat your emotions like enemies. And then start treating them like friends instead.

Here are 4 signs that you have an unhealthy relationship with your emotions:

If you can learn to identify the ones at play in your own life, you can start to correct them and build a healthier, more mature, and ultimately less painful relationship with your emotions.

1. You talk to yourself judgmentally 

Ironically, 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 the 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 ‘You’re always crying and worrying over the smallest things… why can’t you 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. 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. Not true.

Your self-talk is largely a learned habit, generally picked up from parents or caregivers early in life and 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. As decades of psychological research have confirmed, how we feel emotionally is mediated by how we think and interpret the world around us.

In other words, how we habitually think (and talk) determines how we 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 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 we’re upset, we need our inner voice to be a friend, not a bully.

“The privilege of a lifetime is being who you are.”

— Joseph Campbell

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2. You seek 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 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 emotions like anxiety or guilt — it easily slips into a vicious cycle of ever lower and lower confidence in one’s ability to tolerate and manage difficult feelings and uncertainties.

Like most addictions, 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 (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.

“You cannot swim for new horizons until you have courage to lose sight of the shore.”

— William Faulkner



RELATED: 3 Simple Actions To Stop Procrastinating & Feeling 'Stuck' In Life

3. You procrastinate

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 the 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 — things we do because they add a positive feeling.

Procrastination is palliative. 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 doing it.

But if you’re in the habit of putting things off 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 to do something difficult. But this is backward…

Motivation and confidence are feelings that result from doing worthwhile 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 as normal phenomena that — while unpleasant — don’t 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 to live your life. It’s only through living your life alongside all your emotions that you learn to manage them effectively.

“You don’t need more discipline, you just need a better reason to be disciplined.”

— Jack Butcher

Photo: Ketut Subiyanto/Pexels

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4. You don't know your own values

As a therapist, I’ve observed that two types of people walk into my office: The first type of person has a strong sense of their values and what they want in life, but some emotional struggles are getting in the way. The second type of person also has emotional struggles, but the difference is they have no clear sense of what they really want out of life.

Here’s the interesting part: No matter how severe the emotional struggles, the first type of person — the person with a clear sense of values and desires — tends to be quite successful in overcoming their struggles. It’s as if having a clear sense of your values and knowing what you want makes it a lot easier to work through any sort of challenge, including emotional struggles.

Not knowing what’s important to you in life is a major emotional liability.

This means clarifying your values deeply and systematically is an important ingredient for working through almost any type of struggle. But the causality goes the other way, too…

In many cases, major emotional struggles — especially at a young age — prevent you from identifying, clarifying, and pursuing important values and goals in life. When you’re just trying to survive and not feel miserable, you don’t have the luxury of considering what’s important to you and what you want out of life.

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 want and pursuing it with energy and passion is a frighteningly foreign concept.

All of which is to say, if you have a hard time identifying what’s important to you — what your goals or dreams or passions are — it could be that it’s your relationship with your emotions that’s to blame.

If on a basic level, your life revolves around avoiding emotional discomfort and staying safe from emotional pain, you won’t have developed the muscle required to take life by the horns and chase after what you want despite how you feel.

To develop this muscle for identifying and chasing after what you want — for making a life, not just floating through it — you need a healthier relationship with your emotions, especially the painful ones.

You’re never going to find the courage to do difficult but rewarding things if you’re terrified of anxiety or embarrassment.

You’re never going to reap the benefits of big risks if you assume you must feel confident beforehand.

If you’ve got that nagging sense that there must be more to life, figuring that out just might come down to cultivating a different relationship with your emotions.

“Now is the time to get serious about living your ideals. How long can you afford to put off who you really want to be? Your nobler self cannot wait any longer.”

— Epictetus



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Nick Wignall is a psychologist and writer sharing practical advice for emotional health and well-being. He is the founder of The Friendly Minds newsletter.