Here’s a controversial idea that I believe deeply to be true…
Most of our struggles in life come from not managing our emotions well.
A few quick examples:
- Do we struggle to communicate with our spouse or partner because we lack communication skills—or is it that big emotions like fear or defensiveness derail our conversations?
- Do we really struggle to finish our creative projects because we don’t have the right to-do list software or that we’re lazy—or is it that limiting beliefs like self-doubt and imposter syndrome or negative self-talk and self-criticism get in the way?
- Do we really struggle with healthy eating because we don’t know which foods are healthy and which ones are not—or is it that we use food to compensate for our unmet emotional needs?
In other words, if you drill down deep enough, the root cause of most of our biggest struggles is that we're not very good at managing big, painful emotions.
If this is true, it means that the most important skill in life is the ability to manage your emotions well.
Think about it…
- Imagine how much more confident you would feel initiating difficult conversations with your spouse if you were an expert in managing fear and defensiveness?
- Imagine how much more focused, productive, and creative you would be if you were a master at handling self-doubt and procrastination?
- Imagine how much healthier your diet would be if you had a set of tools to manage stress, self-soothe, and navigate insecurities?
Emotional strength is the ability to respond well to difficult emotions. And it’s a skill anyone can get better at.
But it takes the right approach…
- Superficial coping strategies might make you feel a little better in the moment, but they don’t build emotional strength (and in many cases, they actually hurt it).
- Endlessly ruminating and dwelling on the mistakes or hurts of your past won’t make you more skilled at handling difficulties in the present.
- And I’ve yet to find a pill or chemical that creates genuine confidence and competence in the ability to manage difficult moods and emotions well.
Like any other ability in life, achieving emotional strength takes practice and patience. It takes some effort and perseverance. But mostly it takes habits—small consistent behaviors which, when repeated often enough, becomes our default way of being.
If you want to start building true emotional strength and resilience, here are three small habits that will get you there.
1. Acknowledge your emotions early
It’s human nature to avoid things that hurt—including painful emotions.
This is why most of us have an unconscious habit of immediately and unthinkingly trying to ignore difficult emotions…
- We get anxious and distract ourselves with social media.
- We feel sad and numb ourselves with food or marijuana.
- We feel insecure so we lash out defensively to shift the focus outward.
And while this avoidance of difficult emotion often gives us a little short-term relief, the long-term consequences are almost never worth it.
Because the more you avoid difficult emotions the stronger they get…
- Avoid your anxiety long enough and you start to have anxiety about anxiety (which often manifests as panic or generalized anxiety).
- Avoid your anger long enough and it will start expressing itself as passive-aggressive communication or even outright aggression.
- Avoid your sadness long enough and it could grow into full-blown depression.
Here’s the key idea:
The more you avoid your emotions the stronger and more frequent they become long-term.
Which also means they’ll be much harder to manage well.
This is why so many people resort to toxic coping strategies like alcoholism or chronic reassurance-seeking… When you allow your emotions to fester and grow because of avoidance, they become overwhelming.
The solution to this pattern of emotional avoidance is to stop running away from your emotions and start acknowledging them early when they’re still manageable.
And a simple way to remember to do this is this little mantra:
Name it to tame it.
The simple act of approaching an emotion and naming it signals to your brain that it’s not a threat. Which means that even though it’s a little uncomfortable, you’ll be saving yourself a lot of pain in the long-run.
Think about it like this….
- Imagine you’re outside on a cold snowy day. You reach down into the snow with your bare hands and make a snowball. How does it feel? Well, it’s a little uncomfortable and maybe even a tad painful, but you can do it, right?
- Now imagine you’re on the mountainside in the middle of winter and you see an avalanching barreling down on you. What can you do? Not much. Maybe get behind a tree and hope for the best.
- Handling your emotions early is like holding a snowball with your bare hands: a little uncomfortable but very doable. Chronically ignoring your emotions and then getting overwhelmed by them is like trying to survive an avalanche.
So here’s your first habit to start building emotional strength:
Acknowledge your emotions early and often. Simply say to yourself: “I’m sad” or “I’m feeling pretty anxious right now.”
Once you get into the habit of immediately acknowledging and naming your emotions, you’ll find that they’re actually far easier to deal with and much less overwhelming.
2. Validate your emotions compassionately
While our natural response to painful emotions is to avoid or ignore them, there’s another response many of us have that’s just as unhelpful: Self-criticism.
Specifically, many of us have a habit of immediately criticizing or getting judgmental of our emotions themselves or of ourselves for having them.
- You feel anxious about something and your immediate self-talk is “Stop being ridiculous and worrying about dumb stuff!”
- You feel sad and unmotivated and your immediate response is to say to yourself: “Don’t be so lazy! Get off your but and get back to work!”
- You feel hurt and a little angry by something your partner said to you during a difficult conversation and your first reaction in your head is “He’s probably right… I have no right to feel angry with him for this given what I’ve put him through.”
The problem with this critical and judgmental response to feeling bad is actually the same as avoiding…
By attacking your emotions you teach your brain that they’re bad (or that you’re bad for feeling them). Which means the next time they show up, you’re going to feel bad about feeling bad…
- Anxious about feeling anxious
- Angry about feeling sad
- Ashamed about feeling angry
And when you compound emotions like this, they become much more intense and hard to manage well.
The solution is to stop judging and criticizing your emotions and start validating them instead.
Validating an emotion simply means reminding yourself that it’s valid and okay to feel any emotion, even if you don’t like it.
- You feel anxious about something and you say to yourself: “I don’t like feeling anxious, but it makes sense that I feel this way given what just happened in that meeting.”
- You feel sad and unmotivated and you say to yourself: “I hate feeling sad and lazy, but just because it feels bad and I don’t like it doesn’t mean it is bad for me to feel this way.”
- You feel hurt and a little angry by something your partner said to you during a difficult conversation and you say to yourself: “Feeling angry always makes me uncomfortable—which makes sense given how I was raised—but that doesn’t mean I’m wrong for feeling it and standing my ground on this issue.”
Validation works for the same reason naming your emotions works: By approaching your difficult emotions (rather than avoiding them or attacking them) to teach your brain that, however painful, they’re not a threat or danger.
As a result, they become less intense and frequent over time.
There’s also another important reason why validating your emotions is so helpful…
Validation short-circuits judgment and negative self-talk.
You can’t be validating and judgmental at the same time. So any time you spend validating how you feel, that’s all time you’re not spending criticizing yourself.
And that lack of self-criticism makes even the biggest difficult emotions much easier to manage.
- After you’ve acknowledged and named your difficult emotion, take a minute to validate it too—remind yourself that it’s valid and okay to feel whatever you’re feeling even if you don’t like it.
- And if it helps, think about it like this: Validation is what you would say to a good friend came to you with a struggle. You wouldn’t ignore it or criticize it—you’d acknowledge it and validate it.
3. Act on your values courageously
So far we’ve talked about how the natural tendency to either avoid or criticize our emotions both lead to the same problem: Those emotions get bigger, more frequent, and harder to handle in the long-run.
And to counteract these tendencies, I’ve suggested two simple habits, both of which involve approaching your emotions like you would a friend who was struggling: Acknowledging and naming your emotions early and validating your emotions compassionately.
But there’s a twist to this story…
While it’s good to be aware of your emotions and to treat them kindly, that doesn’t mean you have to obsess over them.
- Let’s say you start to feel anxious…
- You name the anxiety and validate it.
- But then you start analyzing it… Why am I feeling this way? Where does it come from? What events in my childhood predisposed me to this? What effects are my emotions having on other people? What does it mean that I feel anxious so frequently? What do other people think of my anxiety? Etc.
It’s not that those are bad questions or that thinking about your emotions isn’t sometimes helpful. They’re great questions and at the right time I think they can be very helpful.
My point is simply this:
You don’t have to wallow in your emotions.
Once you’ve acknowledged and validated an emotion, you should feel free to get on with your life. And in fact, this is usually very healthy because it signals to your brain that just because it thinks something is wrong doesn’t mean it’s true.
Your brain is smart. But it makes plenty of mistakes too. And when it comes to your emotions, many of them are helpful, but a lot of them are either misguided or not worth spending more time with beyond an initial acknowledgment.
Listen to your emotions, but don’t take orders from them.
And even if you do want to spend more time with a difficult emotion, it’s often more helpful to do it at a different time…
- Maybe you plan to bring it up in a therapy or counseling session.
- Maybe you decide to spend your evening journalling time writing about it.
- Or maybe you just decide to think on it more deeply on your morning walk tomorrow.
Of course, moving on from painful emotions isn’t always easy—in fact, sometimes it’s quite hard.
And this is where values come in…
Values are principles or ideals that guide your behavior, especially in difficult situations or circumstances.
And values can help you move on from difficult emotions because of two qualities they posses:
- They help you remember how you want to behave. If you’re feeling angry with your partner, for example, your value of kindness might remind you to hold back on that biting comment.
- But values also motivate you to behave in the right way. When you really think about your value of kindness and why it’s so important to you, that value gives you motivation toward holding your tongue, and as a result, helps “out-compete” the motivation toward a hurtful comment.
So, remember that, once you’ve acknowledged and validated an emotion, you’re under no obligation to stay with it.
And if you’re struggling to move on from difficult emotions, it’s very helpful to remind yourself of and clarify your values and use them to motivate you toward more helpful actions and behaviors in the face of difficult emotions.
All You Need to Know
Emotional strength is the ability to manage difficult emotions well. Here are three small habits that will improve your emotional strength:
- Acknowledge your emotions early. Name it to tame it.
- Validate your emotions compassionately. Just because it feels bad doesn’t mean it is bad.
- Act on your values courageously. Dwelling on emotions can be just as harmful as avoiding them.
I hope you found this helpful.
If you’d like to learn more about how to build emotional strength and resilience, check out my 5-week training program, Mood Mastery. I’ll teach you my step-by-step system for mastering difficult moods and emotions and unlocking your fullest potential.