A Healthy Relationship with Emotion
BY: T. Franklin Murphy | January 17, 2022 (modified January 20, 2023)
BY: T. Franklin Murphy | January 17, 2022 (modified January 20, 2023)
Our emotions constantly respond to our environments. We can stabilize emotion to motivate healthy action.
Wildly fiery or stoically aloof, we all have a unique emotional style. Whether we are extremely expressive or somewhat reserved, our emotional style may be stable and productive. Emotionally stable people utilize emotional arousal to energize healthy behaviors instead of misguided defensive protections. Emotional stability, while strongly associated with biological givens, can be learned through practicing emotion regulating skills.
Stabilized emotions hover around a comfortable homeostatic state. While emotionally we don't want to be flat, we also don't want to constantly experience arousal on the outer fringes of manageable.
Emotional stability is the ability to productively navigate emotional situations, remaining focused on long term objectives.
Moments of Emotional Instability
Most of us been there; and if we haven't we certainly witnessed it. The emotional tizzy fit. We experience a wave of emotion, our systems overload, and we get sucked into the black hole of emotion. We blindly respond with out an ounce of future minded concern. We destroy futures, complicate goals, and exhaust energy, helplessly reacting to internal waves of feeling.
Emotional instability is a mixture of heightened arousal and insufficient regulating resources. Behaviors follow the emotion. When under the influence of intoxicating emotions we blow a fuse at the inconsiderate driver, putting ourselves and family in danger; we flee from opportunity, fearing failure; we destroy intimate connection with angry reactions to small stresses common in all relationships.
We Experience Emotion
An central part of the human experience is emotion. Life is a feeling experience. Emotion colors our moments. Without emotion we wouldn't experience excitement or sorrow. Life would be a drab existence.
Life takes us on a rollercoaster of feeling. We experience a variety of moods throughout the weeks, months and years of our existence. New experiences arouse our senses, drawing us closer for curious exploration or pushing us away in fear.
The emotion isn't unstable. However, our reaction to the emotion may be. We may let the emotional arousals spiral into full blown emotional devastation. We do this through action and thought.
We can stabilize unruly emotions and regain control of our lives.
Characteristics of Emotionally Stable People
With over a decade of psychological research, I have discovered a few common characteristics of emotionally stable people.
Emotionally Stable People Accept Their Emotions
There is plenty of advice out there to blunt emotions, bury them, or ignore their influence by browbeating them down with an indomitable mind. The truth is that emotions are essential to wellness. They stamp events with personal significance. They provide the substance for meaningful connection. They draw wisdom from the past, reminding of danger and opportunity.
Research has shown that unhealthy suppression of emotion often leads to physical elements later.
Emotionally stable people feel emotion, recognizing its presence in their life, and draw meaningful wisdom from the arousals. However, they don't loosely or ignorantly react to these bouts of felt emotion. Nick Wignall in an excellent article on emotional stability advises "be aware of your emotions. Listen to them. Validate them. And if the situation warrants, go ahead and think more about them or take action on them" (2021).
Daniel Siegel explains that recognizing the energy flow of emotion creates clarity. He wrote that "by learning to monitor with more stability, the details of energy and information flow in the body and in relationships can be seen with more clarity, depth, and detail" (2012, location 574).
Emotions must be recognized without judgement. Wignall in an earlier article on emotional stability wrote that "it doesn’t make sense to judge yourself for things you can’t control, especially your emotions" (2020). The emotion isn't the major disruption until we begin to judge it as wrong and condemning ourselves as flawed for feeling it.
Emotionally Stable People Utilize Effective Regulating Strategies
Emotional regulation is the process of balancing emotions, creating the stability. Emotional regulation is more than tools. Regulating emotion is a habit—a pattern of behavioral and cognitive response to waves of emotion.
Emotional regulation begins with a measure of frustration tolerance and then moves to specific techniques to manage unruly emotions pushing for action. The goal, again, isn't to snuff out the emotion but to channel the energy to productive action. Regulation stabilizes the emotion, escaping harmful pushes to immediately gratify or escape.
Often living with the discomfort of the emotion is necessary to venture into unknown areas of life. Instead of relieving the emotion, we regulate, keeping the emotion manageable, or transforming the emotion by altering our focus. In Emotional Focused Therapy they refer to this as replacing emotion with emotion.
A few common emotional regulation techniques are:
Emotional reappraisal is a practice of transforming the emotion. We use the power of focus to cognitively change the situation. If we are frightened, we adjust our vision, contemplating the benefits of a new situation. Emotions follow our focus. We can tame emotions by reappraising a situation, recalling other beneficial details, and focusing on these more pleasant aspects.
Distraction can be beneficial if used appropriately. Distraction shouldn't be used to avoid difficult situations but as an avenue to settle emotions, regain stability, and preparation for effective behavior.
We can write in a journal, exercise, or engage in a hobby. The idea is to find a distraction that demands attention, pulling our mind away from the stressor. Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi refers to the cognitive state produced by attention grabbing activities as 'flow'. Flow states can temporarily distract, allowing for us to regain our strength, refuel our depleted ego, and then move forward towards our long term goals.
Problems arise when distraction becomes an escape. We engage in something less emotionally demanding, never to return to the problem needing attention. We have a disagreement with our spouse (emotionally demanding) and go to the bar (distraction). The problem with distractions like this is they actually may create more issues than they solve.
We run from the emotion, rather than intelligently settling the emotion so we can accomplish what needs to be accomplished. In this example, reengaging in conversation with our spouse to find a resolution to the disagreement.
Many people are able to stabilize emotions by getting to work on the problem. According to Behavior Activation Theory, this can be an effective response to manage emotions.
Often the entirety of a problem is causing the distress. Working on the problem many require breaking it up into sizable chunks, beginning with a simple piece we know must be accomplished. I have found some topics I choose to research quickly overwhelm when I look at the magnitude of the subject. The massiveness of the project leads to postponing the work. I have learned that if I just begin, perhaps format a new webpage, create a single subsection, and begin to scribble some notes, the anxiety settles and I begin to move forward.
Anxiety and fear often signal to pull away. However, pulling away neglects accomplishing what needs to be accomplish. We should acknowledge the emotion, understand the message, and then redirect efforts in a way that simplifies, relieving some of the anxiety. Success of large projects requires a workable plan, broken up into smaller manageable actions.
Emotionally Stable People Manage Stressors
Emotionally stable people are not simply resilient, effectively managing more stress than others; they also predict future stresses and avoid unneeded encounters. We all have limited energy to deal with life. We must manage where and how we are going to spend that energy. We must predict, learn from experience, and limit exposures to people and events that overwhelm our systems.
We can't just live life in the moment. Emotional stability requires a measure of future mindedness. This means if we know our extended family draws too much for our reservoir of strength, we limit exposure. Instead of spending a week vacation with family, we limit it to a few days. We may attend the family dinner but leave shortly after the meal.
Other stressors are consequences of poor planning. Financial budgets can eliminate future stress of an empty bank account. Education and skill development can release future stress of employment. Spending time developing and maintaining a relationship with a spouse can prevent the future stress of a divorce.
By wisely managing our lives in the present we limit the stress load in the future.
Emotionally Stable People Have Support From External Resources
Emotional stabilization is more than an internal job. Autonomy and personal resources are essential. But even the most resilient can be overwhelmed, overloaded with stress, and in need of support. Support networks rarely are formed during crisis. We may discover who we can count on in the heat of the moment, however, we build those relationships during day to day interactions.
No, we are not an island. And no, we can't manage life all by ourselves. Some of our greatest resources are found outside of ourselves. We must take time to develop connections where we can openly share our strengths and draw support for our weaknesses.
Internal resources are like our checking account. We make deposits, while withdrawing funds to cover ever day expenses. We take some of the extras and invest in relationships (a savings account).
When emotional surprises overwhelm, those monthly deposits into the savings accounts may be life saving. We find in the critical moments that the relationships are gold, bearing some of our burdens, lifting us over the hump, and aiding in emotional healing.
Emotionally Stable People Express Their Emotions
Another characteristic of emotionally stable people is there skillful expression of emotions. They integrate their awareness of an emotional experience with their long term goal and honestly express emotions in a non-abrasive but enlightening way.
Instead of just blurting out their discomfort, they consider the context, impact, and goals of emotional sharing. They masterfully share feelings in a non-blaming way. Skillful sharing of emotion is emotional intelligence at its highest level.
Books on Emotional Stability
A Few Words on Emotional Stability by Flourishing Life Society
While there is no current measurement for emotional stability, the concept may help us achieve more balance in our emotional lives as we develop and practice practical emotional regulation skills. With work, emotions become a force motivating growth rather than a bothersome interfering enemy disrupting hopes and dreams.
Siegel, D. (2012). Pocket Guide to Interpersonal Neurobiology: An Integrative Handbook of the Mind (Norton Series on Interpersonal Neurobiology). W. W. Norton & Company.
Wignall, N. (2020). 5 Things Emotionally Stable People Don’t Do. Medium. Published 5-2-2020. Accessed 1-16-2022.
Wignall, N. (2022). 4 Secrets of Emotionally Stable People. Nick Wignall. Published 7-29-2021. Accessed 1-16-2022.