by Nick Wignall
Many people grow up pretty confused about their emotions and how they work. So, understandably, they tend to simply avoid what feels bad and hold onto what feels good.
The problem is…
Making decisions based on how you feel is a recipe for both failure and unhappiness.
On the other hand, emotionally sophisticated people have a more nuanced understanding of how emotions work. And the better you understand your emotions, the easier it is to work with them in a healthy way.
Emotional sophistication means having a deep understanding of how your emotions actually work.
If you want to cultivate a healthier understanding of your emotions, these 6 habits are a good place to start.
1. They’re Curious About Their Own Mind
Emotionally sophisticated people have a habit of thinking about their own minds.
Just like a good scientist is curious about the world and lets their natural curiosity and observations guide later theorizing and experimentation, emotionally sophisticated people have a curiosity about their own minds and inner world.
It’s hard to be curious about yourself when you’re constantly judging yourself.
If you want to alleviate the overly-judgmental attitude toward your own mind and allow your natural curiosity to rise up, practice being more gentle with yourself. Watch your habits of self-talk and practice re-framing the way you talk to yourself in gentler, more compassionate terms.
This doesn’t mean becoming irrationally positive and naive. It’s about being realistic and kind to yourself. It’s about treating yourself the same way you would treat a good friend: with gentleness and honesty.
Cultivate gentler self-talk and you’ll make space for your natural curiosity to take root.
“The mind is not a vessel to be filled, but a fire to be kindled.”
2. They Keep Their Expectations in Check
Most people assume that expectations are a way to foster growth and achievement:
In reality, we end up using high expectations as a way to soothe our own anxieties and insecurities.
Here’s how it works:
Expectations have their place. But they very easily run wild and start causing hugely unnecessary stress and unhappiness unless you’re careful to keep them in check.
Emotionally sophisticated people cultivate the habit of checking in on their expectations regularly and making sure they aren’t too far outside of reality.
“Expectations [are] like fine pottery. The harder you [hold] them, the more likely they [are] to crack.”
― Brandon Sanderson
3. They’re Compassionate with Their Suffering.
A sure sign of emotional sophistication is that you are compassionate with yourself when times are hard — that you approach your mistakes and suffering in a gentle, rational way without resorting to extremes.
In my experience as a psychologist, the one thing that unites virtually every one of my clients is that they lack the habit of self-compassion.
Self-compassion simply means treating yourself like you would treat a good friend — in a supportive and non-judgmental way.
Ironically, while most of us are quite good at being compassionate with other people, we’re terrible at being compassionate with ourselves:
But I see little evidence that being hard on yourself improves either your success or happiness in the long run. If anything, people who are successful probably got their despite their lack of self-compassion, not because of it.
Self-compassion is the antidote to self-criticism.
Importantly, self-compassion doesn’t mean that you’re soft or spoiled, it just means taking a balanced view of your mistakes and failures:
“The soft overcomes the hard.
The slow overcomes the fast.”
4. They Talk About Emotions in Plain Language
Because we tend to see painful emotions as problems, most of us get into the habit of intellectualizing our emotions when we talk about them.
Intellectualizing your emotions is when you turn a plain emotion or feeling into an idea, concept, or metaphor:
Intellectualizations are actually subtle avoidance strategies.
Think about it:
Let’s say you were feeling really ashamed and disappointed in yourself for a mistake you made at work and a coworker approached you and said, Hey, what’s wrong?
Which of the following to responses feels less scary:
The trouble is…
If you always avoid painful emotions you’re teaching your brain that they’re bad, which only makes them feel worse the next time around.
If you want to cultivate a more sophisticated and healthier relationship with your emotions, practice using plain language to describe how you feel.
When in doubt, ask yourself the following question the next time you’re feeling bad:
How would a six-year-old describe this feeling?
“The moment we cry in a film is not when things are sad but when they turn out to be more beautiful than we expected them to be.”
― Alain de Botton
5. They Take Responsibility for Their Actions
Emotionally sophisticated people take responsibility for the things that are actually under their control — their actions.
But taking responsibility is not a mere intellectual exercise…
Most people understand on a conceptual level that they are responsible for their actions. What differentiates emotionally sophisticated people is that they know that mere understanding isn’t enough. They know that they must remind themselves of it regularly and practice the skill of taking responsibility.
Many people struggle with lateness. They chronically show up late to events, submit work late, and generally just are sluggish about the things they’ve committed to.
Now, most of these people would acknowledge that they should take responsibility for being on time. But they don’t actually do anything differently.
Emotionally sophisticated people know that understanding is necessary but not sufficient for genuine change.
On the other hand, a person with more emotional sophistication would acknowledge that they need to create a plan to incentivize themself do be on time.
If they’re showing up late for work, they might set a recurring alarm in their phone, or prep for their day the evening before, or commit to carpooling so they were forced to be onetime through social accountability.
Emotionally sophisticated people know that understanding is necessary but not sufficient for genuine change. They know that to be truly responsible for our actions, we need to take practical steps to facilitate them.
Instead of relying on willpower, luck, or good intentions, they take responsibility not just for the outcome they wish to achieve, but to building the process they need to get there.
“Most people do not really want freedom, because freedom involves responsibility, and most people are frightened of responsibility.”
― Sigmund Freud
6. They Make Time to Clarify Their Values
Emotionally sophisticated people have a habit of regularly reflecting on and clarifying their values.
While they’re always trying to be aware of what they might be unconsciously avoiding, they’re also striving to be clear about what they want to move toward.
But this can be surprisingly difficult…
For one thing, it’s easy to move toward things that look and feel important or valuable but may not be—perhaps because the tradeoffs would be too great:
All of which means…
It’s essential to regularly clarify what we’re really chasing after in life.
I had a client once who, in order to make sure her marriage was healthy and going in the right direction, created a little ritual with her husband:
Each year on their anniversary, they went out to a nice dinner and checked in with each other about A) what they thought was going really well in their relationship, B) what they thought needed work, and C) what their dreams together were.
This is a great example of a small but powerful habit that increases self-awareness about values and has a real, measurable impact on quality of life.
If this whole discussion of reflecting on your values sounds lofty and complex and maybe a little intimidating, start with a bucket list. Set aside half an hour some Saturday morning and sit down with a nice cup of coffee or tea, a pen, and a blank sheet of paper. And just start jotting down things you’d love to accomplish or learn or do or generally dream about.
Simply being aware of your values and reflecting on them from time to time is a huge step toward realizing them.
“The greater danger for most of us lies not in setting our aim too high and falling short; but in setting our aim too low, and achieving our mark.”
― Michelangelo Buonarroti
Raise your self-awareness with this: