6 Tiny Habits That Will Make You More Emotionally Sophisticated Than 98% Of People

Photo: StarGladeVintage, cottonbro studio, Cyntia Kent | Canva
Sophisticated woman

Many people grow up pretty confused about their emotions and how they work. So, understandably, they tend to simply avoid what feels bad and hold onto what feels good.

The problem is…

Making decisions based on how you feel is a recipe for both failure and unhappiness.

On the other hand, emotionally sophisticated people have a more nuanced understanding of how emotions work. And the better you understand your emotions, the easier it is to work with them healthily.

Emotional sophistication means having a deep understanding of how your emotions work.

If you want to cultivate a healthier understanding of your emotions, these 6 habits are a good place to start:

1. You're curious about your mind

Emotionally sophisticated people have a habit of thinking about their minds.

Just like a good scientist is curious about the world and lets their natural curiosity and observations guide later theorizing and experimentation, emotionally sophisticated people have a curiosity about their own minds and inner world.

For example:

  • They think it’s curious that guilt was the first emotion they felt after getting cut off on the freeway rather than anger.
  • They notice a pattern of pessimistic thinking in certain areas and optimism in others.
  • They wonder about the bigger beliefs that motivate their behaviors.

The trick to cultivating self-curiosity is to realize that we’re all naturally curious — including about ourselves. But for many people, that innate curiosity has been suppressed by a competing habit of self-criticism.

It’s hard to be curious about yourself when you’re constantly judging yourself.

If you want to alleviate the overly judgmental attitude toward your mind and allow your natural curiosity to rise, practice being more gentle with yourself. Watch your habits of self-talk and practice re-framing the way you talk to yourself in gentler, more compassionate terms.

This doesn’t mean becoming irrationally positive and naive. It’s about being realistic and kind to yourself. It’s about treating yourself the same way you would treat a good friend: with gentleness and honesty.

Cultivate gentler self-talk and you’ll make space for your natural curiosity to take root.

“The mind is not a vessel to be filled, but a fire to be kindled.”

― Plutarch



RELATED: 5 Emotional Blindspots Most People Never Notice

2. You keep your expectations in check

Most people assume that expectations are a way to foster growth and achievement:

  • Having high expectations for our kids academically encourages them to do well in school and be successful at work.
  • Having high expectations for our employees encourages them to work well and do quality work.
  • And of course, setting massive expectations for ourselves leads to personal growth and self-improvement.

That’s what we think, anyway…

In reality, we end up using high expectations as a way to soothe our anxieties and insecurities.

Here’s how it works:

  • Most people hate uncertainty. The idea that their kids won’t be successful and happy or that their employees won’t do their jobs without constant supervision, for example, fills them with anxiety and dread.
  • But, because they can’t control their kid’s academic success or their employee’s performance, they settle for the next best thing: expecting those things to happen.
  • When you create an expectation in your head — which is just you imagining the thing you want to be true — it temporarily alleviates some of that anxiety and uncertainty. It makes you feel just a little more in control and a little more certain that things will go well.
  • But in reality, your expectations are merely fictions you’ve spun up in your mind. And often, they’re not based on much evidence. This means these expectations are likely to be violated frequently — the result being a lot of stress and frustration on your part plus a lot of shame and resentment on the part of the people you’re expecting things from.

Expectations are usually unconscious defense mechanisms we use to make ourselves feel better.

Expectations have their place. But they very easily run wild and start causing hugely unnecessary stress and unhappiness unless you’re careful to keep them in check.

Emotionally sophisticated people cultivate the habit of checking in on their expectations regularly and making sure they aren’t too far outside of reality.

“Expectations [are] like fine pottery. The harder you [hold] them, the more likely they [are] to crack.”

― Brandon Sanderson



3. You're compassionate with yourself 

A sure sign of emotional sophistication is that you are compassionate with yourself when times are hard — that you approach your mistakes and suffering in a gentle, rational way without resorting to extremes.

In my experience as a psychologist, the one thing that unites virtually every one of my clients is that they lack the habit of self-compassion.

Self-compassion simply means treating yourself like you would treat a good friend — in a supportive and non-judgmental way.

Ironically, while most of us are quite good at being compassionate with other people, we’re terrible at being compassionate with ourselves:

  • When you make a mistake, you immediately start criticizing yourself with negative self-talk and catastrophic predictions.
  • When you feel upset or afraid, you immediately criticize yourself for being weak and discount your pain as silly or trivial.
  • When you’re uncertain or confused, you compare yourself to others — as if shame will motivate you to figure things out.

In other words, your default response to mistakes and pain is to be hard on yourself. This is probably the result of a culture that insists that the only way to achieve success in life (and therefore happiness) is to be tough on yourself.

But I see little evidence that being hard on yourself improves either your success or happiness in the long run. If anything, successful people probably got their despite their lack of self-compassion, not because of it.

Self-compassion is the antidote to self-criticism.

Importantly, self-compassion doesn’t mean that you’re soft or spoiled, it just means taking a balanced view of your mistakes and failures:

  • Self-compassion means acknowledging your failures for what they are without dwelling on them.
  • Self-compassion means reminding yourself that you are more than the sum of your mistakes. Far more.
  • Self-compassion means acknowledging that just because you feel bad doesn’t mean you are bad.

There’s no greater strength than the ability to be gentle with yourself.

“The soft overcomes the hard.
The slow overcomes the fast.”

— Lao-tzu



RELATED: 7 Rare Personality Traits The Most Emotionally Strong People Share

4. You talk about your emotions in plain language

Because we tend to see painful emotions as problems, and most of us get into the habit of intellectualizing our emotions when we talk about them.

Intellectualizing your emotions is when you turn a plain emotion or feeling into an idea, concept, or metaphor:

  • Instead of “I feel sad” you say “I’m just a little off today.”
  • Instead of “I’m afraid” you say “I’ve just been feeling a little stressed out.”
  • Instead of “I feel frustrated with you” you say “I’m just upset.”

But here’s the problem…

Intellectualizations are subtle avoidance strategies.

Think about it:

Let’s say you were feeling ashamed and disappointed in yourself for a mistake you made at work and a coworker approached you and said, Hey, what’s wrong?

Which of the following responses feels less scary:

  • I feel really ashamed for that mistake I made.
  • I’m just a little stressed. I’ll be fine.

The first one feels scarier because when you use plain emotional language you make yourself more vulnerable — you tell people how you feel. On the other hand, when you use a concept like stress it’s more vague and ambiguous.

The trouble is…

If you always avoid painful emotions you’re teaching your brain that they’re bad, which only makes them feel worse the next time around.

If you want to cultivate a more sophisticated and healthier relationship with your emotions, practice using plain language to describe how you feel.

When in doubt, ask yourself the following question the next time you’re feeling bad:

How would a six-year-old describe this feeling?

“The moment we cry in a film is not when things are sad but when they turn out to be more beautiful than we expected them to be.”

― Alain de Botton



5. You take responsibility for your actions

Emotionally sophisticated people take responsibility for the things that are actually under their control — their actions.

But taking responsibility is not a mere intellectual exercise…

Most people understand on a conceptual level that they are responsible for their actions. What differentiates emotionally sophisticated people is that they know that mere understanding isn’t enough. They know that they must remind themselves of it regularly and practice the skill of taking responsibility.

For example:

Many people struggle with lateness. They chronically show up late to events, submit work late, and generally just are sluggish about the things they’ve committed to.

Now, most of these people would acknowledge that they should take responsibility for being on time. But they don’t actually do anything differently.

Emotionally sophisticated people know that understanding is necessary but not sufficient for genuine change.

On the other hand, a person with more emotional sophistication would acknowledge that they need to create a plan to incentivize themself do be on time.

For example:

If they’re showing up late for work, they might set a recurring alarm in their phone, or prep for their day the evening before, or commit to carpooling so they were forced to be onetime through social accountability.

Emotionally sophisticated people know that understanding is necessary but not sufficient for genuine change. They know that to be truly responsible for our actions, we need to take practical steps to facilitate them.

Instead of relying on willpower, luck, or good intentions, they take responsibility not just for the outcome they wish to achieve, but to building the process they need to get there.

“Most people do not really want freedom, because freedom involves responsibility, and most people are frightened of responsibility.”

― Sigmund Freud

RELATED: 5 Ways Men Can Get Comfortable With Their Emotions — & Build Way Deeper Relationships

6. You make time to clarify your values

Emotionally sophisticated people have a habit of regularly reflecting on and clarifying their values.

While they’re always trying to be aware of what they might be unconsciously avoiding, they’re also striving to be clear about what they want to move toward.

But this can be surprisingly difficult…

For one thing, it’s easy to move toward things that look and feel important or valuable but may not be — perhaps because the tradeoffs would be too great:

  • Chasing the next promotion or salary bump at work, even though it means spending even less time with your family and friends.
  • Enrolling in grad school (and taking out another $80K in student loans) because you’re not sure what else to do and your parents will be impressed because, hey, more education!
  • Buying that new iPhone because it’s awesome and surely it will make you more productive even though you’re not saving for retirement at all.

In other words, the line between genuine values and false values can be surprisingly thin. And even if it is clear, the gravity of immediate wants and desires is often far stronger than that of long-term values and aspirations. All of which means…

It’s essential to regularly clarify what we’re chasing after in life.

I had a client once who, to make sure her marriage was healthy and going in the right direction, created a little ritual with her husband:

Each year on their anniversary, they went out to a nice dinner and checked in with each other about A) what they thought was going well in their relationship, B) what they thought needed work, and C) what their dreams together were.

This is a great example of a small but powerful habit that increases self-awareness about values and has a real, measurable impact on quality of life.

If this whole discussion of reflecting on your values sounds lofty and complex and maybe a little intimidating, start with a bucket list. Set aside half an hour some Saturday morning and sit down with a nice cup of coffee or tea, a pen, and a blank sheet of paper. And just start jotting down things you’d love to accomplish or learn or do or generally dream about.

Simply being aware of your values and reflecting on them from time to time is a huge step toward realizing them.

“The greater danger for most of us lies not in setting our aim too high and falling short; but in setting our aim too low, and achieving our mark.”

― Michelangelo Buonarroti

RELATED: 5 Ways The Most Emotionally Tough People Become That Way

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.

This article was originally published at Medium. Reprinted with permission from the author.