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Want to Be Happier? Put Your Beliefs in Check

The road to resilience begins with how we think about our emotions.

Key points

  • We are conditioned to believe that some emotions are “bad” and thus, avoid them.
  • But the challenge we each face isn’t with having emotions. It’s with having certain beliefs about emotions.
  • Those who believe that emotions are unchangeable and “bad” have difficulty regulating them.

For years my commute to work involved a series of flights, often to an Air Force base in the U.S. or abroad.

Some months, I’d hop from base to base, starting in the U.S. to Korea to the U.K. (with a one-day layover in Finland just for kicks). I’ve also traveled for pleasure and as a service volunteer: to Cappadocia in Turkey, the Pyramids, all over Europe, and to the other side of the world, Australia. I used to love getting on a long flight–the movies, food, free (albeit not-so-great) wine.

But a few years ago, I unexpectedly developed a fear of flying. When the plane barreled down the runway, a wave of anxiety would flash through my body as I clenched the armrests and closed my eyes.

As someone who has taught stress management skills for over a decade, not only would I feel nervous as the plane started its ascent, I would also feel angry at myself for being anxious. And amid these dueling emotions, I recited facts about plane safety in my head, listened to soothing music, and engaged in deep breathing techniques–to no avail.

What I didn’t immediately realize was that despite my best efforts to “control” my anxiety, deep down, I believed something that was keeping me stuck in a cycle of anxiety and anger during every takeoff: “I shouldn’t feel this way.” Perhaps you can relate.

Have you ever said to yourself during a moment of anger, “I’m not allowed to be mad”? Or maybe when you’re feeling a bit down, you think, “I can’t be sad; I need to cheer up.” Perhaps instead, you repeatedly (and secretly) tell yourself, “Emotions are a sign of weakness.”

Many people try to avoid “negative” emotions, whether anger, sadness, anxiety, or the like, because we’ve been conditioned to believe that some emotions are “bad.” Habituated to believe that we should be happy all the time. Just because the research literature distinguishes negative versus positive emotions doesn’t mean that the former is “bad” and the latter is “good.”

Emotions are complex, but emotions serve an important purpose in life. Anger can inspire us to take action. Anxiety can prepare us to deal with genuine threats. Sadness can help us to process loss. “Negative” emotions often drive adaptive physiological changes that enable us to adjust to situations appropriately.

The challenge we each face isn’t with having emotions. It’s with having certain beliefs about emotions–and some of these beliefs have been linked to greater depression and anxiety (Predatu & Maffei, 2020). Specifically, people who believe that emotions are unchangeable and “bad” have difficulty regulating their emotions (Ford & Gross, 2019).

In many cases, poor emotional regulation can cause you to react in ways that are harmful to our well-being, relationships, and career success. Further, unhelpful beliefs about emotions can cause you to feel even more negative emotions (i.e., shame, guilt, frustration).

Below is a list of common but unhelpful (and inaccurate) statements that can undermine your ability to regulate your emotions. Take a few minutes to review this list, noting the statements that you are most influenced by.

  • Emotions are unchangeable (a.k.a. “I can’t change how I feel”).
  • Negative emotions are bad and should be avoided.
  • Emotions are a sign of weakness.
  • People should be happy all or most of the time.
  • My emotions make me lose control.
  • Good people don’t get angry.
  • People shouldn’t talk about their emotions.
  • Other people don’t want to know how I am feeling.
  • If I tell other people how I really feel, they'll think poorly of me.

It’s not enough to be aware of the counterproductive beliefs you hold about emotions; you need to intentionally cultivate a healthier and more holistic view of emotions.

A recent study shows that when people believe that emotions are helpful versus a hindrance, they are more likely to use healthier coping strategies, which predicts greater happiness and social support (Karnaze & Levine, 2018). Further, Gutentag & colleagues (2017) found that people were more successful at regulating their emotions the more they believed emotions could be controlled.

A recent study by Veilleux & colleagues (2020) argues that people’s beliefs about their ability to control their emotions are an even better predictor of well-being and psychological distress than their beliefs about emotions in general.

Instead of viewing emotions through the lens of black-and-white thinking (i.e., bad versus good; valuable versus useless; pleasant versus unpleasant), it is essential to adopt a more wholistic and healthy view of both emotions and your ability to regulate them.

Here are some evidence-based beliefs to help you adopt a healthier view of emotions that, in turn, will enable you to have greater emotional control and experience greater well-being.

  • All emotions are adaptive.
  • Emotions are controllable.
  • I don’t have to be controlled by my emotions.
  • I can learn to regulate my emotions better.
  • Negative emotions are a normal part of the human experience.
  • Emotions are harder to regulate when I am tired, hungry or in pain.
  • Feeling a certain emotion doesn’t mean I have to react in an unhelpful way.
  • While negative emotions serve an important function in life, positive emotions aid resilient coping.
  • Acknowledging my emotions is a healthy practice.
  • It’s okay not to feel okay at times.
  • It’s healthy to share my emotions with those I trust.
  • Seeking support when I am upset is a resilient strategy.

The key to well-being & resilience isn't in eliminating "negative" emotions–but rather in applying helpful coping strategies that enable you to acknowledge and accept your emotions in a way that enhances your well-being & relationships.

The road to resilient coping begins with having a healthy, nuanced view of emotions. The next time you start to feel anger, anxiety or sadness, instead of telling yourself, “I shouldn’t feel (insert emotion),” try: “It’s okay to feel (insert emotion) at this moment.” Then ask yourself: “What’s the most helpful way I can express or regulate this emotion right now?”

References

Ford, B. Q., Lam, P., Gross, J. J. (2019). Why Beliefs About Emotion Matter: An Emotion-Regulation Perspective. Current Directions in Psychological Science.

Gutentag, T., Halperin, E., Porat, R., Bigman, Y. E., & Tamir, M. (2017). Successful emotion regulation requires both conviction and skill: Beliefs about the controllability of emotions, reappraisal, and regulation success. Cognition and Emotion, 31(6), 1225–1233.

Karnaze, M. M., & Levine, L. J. (2018). Data versus Spock: Lay theories about whether emotion helps or hinders. Cognition and Emotion, 32(3), 549–565.

Predatu, R., David, D. O., & Maffei, A. (2020). Beliefs about emotions, negative meta-emotions, and perceived emotional control during an emotionally salient situation in individuals with emotional disorders. Cognitive Therapy and Research, 44(2), 287–299.

Veilleux, J. C., Chamberlain, K. D., Baker, D. E., & Warner, E. A. (2021). Disentangling beliefs about emotions from emotion schemas. Journal of Clinical Psychology, 77(4), 1068–1089.

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