Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


Moving Toward Emotional Balance

The path goes from avoidance and attachment to acceptance.

The best way out is always through. —Robert Frost

Being out of balance emotionally usually involves either not allowing yourself to experience your feelings as they evolve by avoiding or suppressing them, or being so attached to and identified with them that your feelings are all-consuming. Emotional balance occurs when we allow ourselves to feel whatever comes up, without feeling stifled or overwhelmed, and learn to accept our feelings without judgment.

Most people try to avoid emotional as well as physical pain. After all, who wants to be in pain? Our wishful thinking tells us that if we can just avoid the pain, it won’t affect us. Ironically, efforts to keep painful thoughts, feelings, and physical sensations at bay may work temporarily, but in the long run only prolong those experiences and intensify the suffering connected to them. Suffering is a function of how people think and feel about the emotional and physical pain they experience, and the beliefs they attach to it. There is a direct correlation between the amount of effort expended to avoid pain and the degree of suffering experienced—the harder someone works to avoid pain, the greater his or her suffering tends to be.

Avoidance doesn’t work because pain is an inevitable part of life. It is an essential aspect of being human. It is in how we choose to respond to the emotional and physical pain we experience that determines whether we are able to get through that pain, or unwittingly extend and amplify it.

In the same way that lightning always finds a path to ground, feelings—including those that are uncomfortable and painful—always find a path to expression. If we don’t allow ourselves to feel them and, as necessary talk about them, if we avoid or suppress our feelings, then they invariably come out “sideways”—in indirect forms via our behavior. When feelings are expressed through behavior, they typically operate unconsciously, outside of our awareness and ability to steward. When this happens we're on autopilot, often doing things we don’t want to do and that we know don’t work for us, and we have no idea why we keep doing them.

It’s similar to a pressure cooker. Pressure cookers are instruments of balance inasmuch as a lid is required to keep the contents from spilling all over the place, but a means to release the accumulating pressure is also necessary. If there is no release valve to provide a safe path to expression, what happens? The pressure builds up until the vessel can no longer contain it and it explodes, causing potentially serious damage. Similarly, if we don’t provide our emotions a safe (though at times uncomfortable) path to expression by allowing ourselves to feel them consciously, they will still find a way out—often through some sort of unhealthy, self-defeating and/or explosive behavior.

There are several levels of awareness involved in cultivating emotional balance (as straightforward as these may seem, for many people they do not come easily or naturally):

1. Become consciously aware that you are experiencing an emotion. Although you may not know specifically what the feeling is, it is important to simply notice and acknowledge that you have some feeling.

2. Identify the particular emotion. It may be helpful to close your eyes, turn your focus inward, and allow yourself to experience that emotion in your body. Different emotions are typically experienced in different parts of the body. For example, anger might manifest as tightness in your neck and shoulders, sadness as an ache in your chest, fear as a knot in your stomach, and joy as warmth in your heart.

3. Put the emotion into words. “I’m feeling anxious.” “I’m feeling angry.” “I’m feeling sad.” Putting the emotions you experience into words by making these simple self-statements can create the space you can use to respond intentionally rather than react automatically and unconsciously.

Emotional balance is facilitated by practicing emotional regulation and distress tolerance. Emotional regulation relates to identifying the emotions that are being felt in the moment, and observing them without being overwhelmed by them. Emotional regulation skills include self-soothing activities that help to reduce emotional intensity and provide a calming effect, such as meditation, intentional breathing, yoga, listening to music you enjoy, progressive muscle relaxation, taking a walk or a hike, reading something pleasurable or spiritual, singing a favorite song, exercising, visualizing a relaxing image, and journaling.

Distress tolerance refers to enduring and accepting discomfort, and learning to bear pain skillfully. Distress tolerance enhances coping capacity by strengthening resiliency—the ability to adjust to change. Distress tolerance skills are an outgrowth of mindfulness practices, and involve the ability to nonjudgmentally accept both oneself and the current situation in spite of the emotional or physical pain it may bring.

It is important to clarify that acceptance does not equal approval. We can learn to accept and co-exist with uncomfortable, distressing emotions when we don’t like them at all, and even when we dislike them intensely.

Emotions, especially powerful, disturbing ones, can seem as though they will last forever. However, whether they are positive and bring smiles to our face and laughter to our lips, or painful and bring hurt to our hearts and tears to our eyes, feelings are always temporary. They come and go like guests who come to visit: some are welcome and we’re delighted to see them; others not so much. Sometimes they leave sooner than we would like; other times they stay way past the point when we want them to leave—but eventually they all leave.

The status of one’s emotional balance is never static; it is almost always in motion. It may be helpful to think of it in terms of a see-saw or teeter-totter, a piece of play equipment once common to schoolyards and playgrounds. Typically, two children would sit on opposite ends of a wooden plank supported in the middle by a metal fulcrum and ride up and down so that as one end went up the other end went down. The end that was up then went down and the end that was down then went up in alternating fashion. Sometimes the movement of the see-saw is more extreme, rapidly fluctuating up and then down, and sometimes, it’s slower and more gradual.

Although there may be brief periods when the see-saw is perfectly balanced, this never lasts long. The vast majority of the time there is some movement, as the respective ends of the plank move up and down, sometimes very slightly and subtly. The same is true of emotional balance, even under the best of circumstances—rarely does anyone achieve perfect balance, and when they do, it doesn't last. As the circumstances of your life change, so will your state of emotional balance. The key is to be consciously aware of it and utilize that awareness to take whatever actions will move you back toward balance.

Copyright 2014 Dan Mager, MSW

Dan Mager is the author of Some Assembly Required: A Balanced Approach to Recovery from Addiction and Chronic Pain.

More from Dan Mager MSW
More from Psychology Today