Developing a healthy relationship with emotions is crucial for good mental health. Accepting, labelling, and tuning into the five universal human emotions (fear, anger, sadness, disgust, happiness) can help us solve problems and think in more helpful ways. There is no such thing as a negative emotion – they are all there to help you!

However, emotion-coping is hard. Most of us struggle with emotions because we are never taught what they are for or how to use them. Instead, we avoid and suppress emotions and think they are bad or a sign of weakness. This is often modelled to us by family, friends, and society more broadly.

There are 20 signs of unhealthy emotion-coping. If you notice yourself doing any of them, please don’t despair or beat yourself up. They are common (albeit unhelpful).

  1. Constant “busyness” or distraction. For example, always working, doing chores, or using devices
  2. Intellectualising emotions. In other words, using concepts or metaphors to describe your emotions. For example, saying “I’m upset / flat / wound up” rather than “I’m angry / sad / scared”
  3. Delegating emotion-coping to someone else. For example, requiring excessive reassurance seeking when you’re feeling scared or boundary setting when you’re feeling angry
  4. Avoiding talking about emotions. For example, talking about what you did rather than how you felt
  5. Minimising emotions. For example, saying “I’m fine / OK / just a little stressed” rather than what you really felt
  6. Feeling bad about emotions / criticising yourself for how you feel. For example, saying “I’m weak for feeling sad”, “I’m bad for feeling angry”, or “I should get it together and stop crying”
  7. Trying to control emotions. For example, attempting to fix other people’s emotions by distracting them, or bottling up your own emotions
  8. Trying / pretending to be happy all the time. Also known as the ‘happiness trap’
  9. Only paying attention to secondary (‘loud’) but not primary (‘quiet’) emotions. For example, only focussing on the fear or anger that followed your sadness or shame
  10. Emotional reasoning. In other words, trusting and acting on your every emotion rather than making decisions based on your values
  11. Expecting other people to read your mind based on how you feel. Also known as ‘mind-reading’
  12. Using emotions as instruments to get what you want rather than asking for what you want. For example, crocodile tears (instrumental sadness), crying wolf (instrumental fear), feigned embarrassment (instrumental shame), and bullying (instrumental anger)
  13. Criticising others. For example, labelling other people with unhelpful words such as “loser” or “idiot” to suppress your own feelings of shame or fear
  14. Attribution errors. For example, categorising other people as weak or bad rather than as sad, scared, or angry
  15. Procrastination. We don’t put off tasks but rather the emotions associated with tasks, such as the fear of disappointment
  16. Perfectionism. For example, striving hard at school or work to subdue emotions such as sadness or anger, or creating unrealistic expectations for others to avoid getting close to them and having to show vulnerability
  17. Worrying about the future. For example, worrying about where you will park to avoid acknowledging the fear of doing a presentation
  18. Ruminating about the past. For example, focussing on a perceived slight to avoid the guilt associated with taking responsibility for your own contribution to a difficulty
  19. Fuzzy values and goals. In other words, feeling so overwhelmed by your emotions that you don’t have the time or energy to work out who you want to be or what you want to do with your life
  20. Using substances or food to cope with difficult emotions. For example, drinking excessive amounts of alcohol, smoking, binge eating, or restricting food when you experience high levels of fear, sadness, anger, or shame.

How many do you do? If you are interested in learning some healthier ways of managing your emotions, please see our blog ‘Four signs of healthy emotion-coping’.