7 Beliefs of Emotionally Healthy People

How does our outlook on life and the future affect our health and well-being?

Posted Feb 27, 2018

man living emotionally healthy life
Source: man living emotionally healthy life

We all know the basics of good physical health: good nutrition, regular exercise and a full night’s sleep because, as they say, if you haven’t got your health, you haven’t got anything.

But how can we improve the health that happens between our ears? Today, we’ll do a checkup of seven beliefs emotionally healthy people hold.

Before I begin, two words of reassurance. First, remember that you’re human. No one carries around all these beliefs all the time. We each struggle in our own way. So don’t be alarmed if you think your own belief system could use some work. And secondly, I’ll be the first to say there’s no comprehensive and universal list of healthy beliefs. But in my experience, these seven steps lay a solid foundation for good health in other areas as well.  

7. “I can stay the course.”

This belief gives rise to two attributes: grit and self-control. Grit is staying the course long-term: it’s doing difficult or tedious stuff over months or years in service of a larger goal. You might make a commitment to study algebra every night, even if you hate it, to get your GED. You might bring your lunch to work and skip Starbucks for a year in order to save for that Alaska cruise. You might perform your standup routine to some lost German tourists, a couple of drunk guys, and the heckler who’s always in the back row in order to further your comedy career.

By contrast, self-control is staying the course short-term: Call this resisting temptation. It’s keeping your hands off the horn when you’re stuck in traffic that seems to never end. It’s avoiding the urge to check your phone in the middle of your friend’s agonizingly long one-woman show. It’s sticking to your diet even though the Cheesecake Factory’s Oreo Dream Extreme made an appearance in your actual dream.

Don’t get me wrong, we all fall prey to temptation and instant gratification. Anyone who’s ever had a candy bar “fall” into their cart at the checkout line can testify to that. But to build our grit and self-control muscles, just like real muscles, we have to exercise them.

Why are grit and self control so important? Because some wishes can’t be instantly granted through Seamless or Siri: A career. A loving relationship. Good health. All these things take time and staying the course to be built and maintained.

6. “I can do things I don’t feel like doing.”

This belief, in my opinion, is the best-kept secret of our time. The result of this attitude is called mood-independent behavior, which just means doing stuff you don’t feel like doing and then watching your mood catch up.

Too often, we do things only when we feel like it. Feeling lazy? We stay on the couch. Craving a Big Mac? Eat it now. Not in the mood to work? Time to browse our favorite online shoe store. We let our mood define our behavior.

So try putting behavior first and powering through those things you’ve enjoyed in the past, even if you’re not in the mood to do them right now. Feeling draggy? Hit the rock-climbing gym and watch your energy turn around. Not feeling particularly jazzy? Sit down at the piano and feel yourself get into the music. And if your mood doesn’t follow? No harm done. At least you got the thing done.

This little trick also works for facing fears. The way to build confidence is to push yourself out of your comfort zone a little at a time. If you stick to the things you already know you can handle easily, you’ll polish your current repertoire, but you won’t move forward. So tackle new things and face old fears. Struggle and frustration feel like failure, but really they’re just growing pains. If you can push through and get used to feeling temporarily incompetent or insecure—no matter how much you hate those feelings—you’ll be on your way.

5. “I can roll with the punches.”

This belief allows you to handle challenges and be flexible. Life is full of disappointments, mistakes, roadblocks, and attempts to be efficient gone awry, like trying to bathe your cat during your own shower. But when things go wrong, emotionally healthy individuals don’t give up. They adjust and deal with the fallout.

Imagine a continuum. On one end is the label “rigid.” Follow it down the line and you’ll next encounter “flexible,” “spontaneous,” and finally, at the other extreme end, “impulsive.” We want to find a balance  somewhere in the middle—the flexible-spontaneous realm.

But being flexible isn’t just about behavior. To be sure, flexibility includes retooling your study habits after failing the first exam or reconfiguring your route home when there’s unexpected construction, but it’s also more than that.

Rolling with the punches also applies to emotion. Frequently flying into jealous rages (or just rageful rages, for that matter), freaking out, or sinking into a pit of sadness on a regular basis doesn’t mean you’re hopeless, but it does mean we need to change something.

Likewise, leaning too heavily on unhealthy coping like self-injury, drowning your sorrows, or otherwise obliterating your feelings with drugs, sex, sugar, shopping, video games, or anything else pop psychology has deemed “addictive” is a sign that we need more coping tools in our toolbox.

So what are the tools that allow you to roll with the punches? For one, feel what you feel. Allow yourself to feel the more difficult emotions—fear, shame, guilt, vulnerability—rather than just bravado and rage. You can also access your feelings through your body—consciously relax, exercise, or mindfully breathe. Reach out to people who care about you, or find an activity that will soothe you through your stress. When you respond in a way that makes you feel better at low cost, you’ll find better options than just indulging yourself or numbing yourself. Drinking everything in the house and staying in bed for a week probably isn’t rolling with the punches. Portioning out some Thin Mints and watching a few episodes of "The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt," followed by taking your cat to a professional for that bath? Roll on.

4. “Everyone deserves to be treated with respect.”

Sirius Black got it right when he said, “If you want to know what a man’s like, take a good look at how he treats his inferiors, not his equals.”

And while none of us likely has a house elf named Winky, we all  encounter people who do things for us every day—customer service reps, the bus driver, custodians, drugstore clerks—and each of them deserves our respect.

Remember that even if someone is being paid to help you doesn’t mean it’s fair to be rude to them. Respect and money aren’t interchangeable; in fact, if you’ve ever worked for a boss you didn’t like, you’ll know that in the long run, respect buys a lot more than money.

Now, as for how to treat people who play Candy Crush in a movie theater with the volume turned up to max, that’s another story...

3. “I can laugh at myself.”

When we’re only in it to win it, we’re definitely taking ourselves too seriously. Red flags include being judgy, micromanaging, always having to be right, getting defensive, holding grudges, never apologizing, or anything else that smacks of holier-than-thou self-importance.

So how can you learn to laugh at yourself? Start by cataloguing the things you’re embarrassed about, and your own worst qualities. What are the things your haters say about you? Own them. Stephen King once said, “I am the literary equivalent of a Big Mac and fries.” George W. Bush famously said to the Yale graduating class, “To those of you who received honors, awards, and distinctions, I say, well done. And to the C students — I say, you, too, can be President of the United States."

2. “I am capable.”

Call this “I can do hard things,” “I can handle whatever life throws at me,” or even just “I’m competent.” Believing we can’t handle things—that we’re incapable or incompetent—drives all anxiety. Indeed, growing people’s belief in their own competence is 50% of what I do in my clinic every day and talk about at length in my book on social anxiety.

So where does the belief of “I’m capable” come from? Experience. Push yourself a little, then a little more. Try new things, talk to new people, go new places, and enjoy the sensation of marveling at yourself when you survive and get a little stronger each time. The reward is a sense of your own power and capability that will carry you through the years.

1. “I can love and am worthy of love.”

Believing you are worthy of love and can give love in return—which everyone is, even if you worry you’re the lone exception—pays off for a lifetime.

To build our case, let’s look to Harvard University’s Study of Adult Development, which has followed the lives of 724 men for over 75 years. The study began in 1938 and it continues to this day and beyond. The researchers have gathered data on everything: the men’s physical characteristics, their drinking, their careers, their marriages, their relationships with their mothers, and much more. And what did they find?

As Dr. George Vaillant, the longest-tenured of the study’s four directors, summed it up, "Happiness is love. Full stop." Indeed, the men in the study who were the most satisfied in their relationships—those who felt loved and gave love—at age fifty were the healthiest at age eighty.

Now, if you grew up in a family where you had to earn love through achievement, obedience, or simply keeping quiet and out of the way, this belief might not come easily for you. You may carry around in your core the idea that love has to be earned or worth has to be granted. If that resonates with you, you deserve more than a blog post; search out a qualified therapist you like and trust and do some good work.

In short, believing you can love and deserve to be loved back will allow you to connect to other people, which in turn makes life happy, healthy, and long.