Have you ever woken up feeling pretty good, and then within hours or even minutes it feels like your positive mood has been destroyed by the people or events around you?
Or found yourself thinking bitterly, ‘I was in a perfectly good mood before I came home to this!’
You might even be stuck in one of those phases where the feeling of calm only lasts a moment or two after waking, before harsh reality floods your mind and you brace yourself to face another day of struggle.
While it’s not realistic to expect to be in a good mood all the time, increasing your emotional independence will help you get back to equilibrium faster when things don’t go your way.
What is Emotional Independence?
Emotional independence doesn’t mean not caring about others or taking their needs into account. It just means looking after our own needs first.
When we take care of ourselves, we’re less vulnerable to being knocked off course by external circumstances. Which actually makes us better able to be there for those around us.
Think about it -
If you were being swept away down a fast-flowing river, who would you trust more - the person standing steady on the bank offering you a branch, or the one so panicked by your predicament that they jump into the river and are now being washed away beside you?
When we have emotional intensity, we can be so tuned in to the people around us that it can feel deeply uncomfortable to be around their negative energy. Combine that with our intuitive understanding of how to help others feel better and it’s all too easy to get into the habit of prioritising others’ needs over our own.
Creating Space Between Stimulus and Response
‘Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.’
The problem is that when we’re stressed, anxious or overwhelmed, this space can be so small as to be imperceptible.
And when we have intensity, our reactions are often quick, strong and overwhelming.
However much personal development you’ve done or therapy you’ve had, if you have emotional intensity it’s not realistic to expect yourself to behave stoically in the face of everyday life, let alone challenging times.
What you can do is improve the way you process the emotions that will be an inevitable and healthy part of your day. By doing so you’ll gradually become aware of and increase that space that Viktor Frankl refers to.
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Here are some practical ways can increase your emotional independence:
1. Get to Know Yourself Better
Being emotionally independent means having good boundaries. That is, knowing what’s your stuff and what’s other people’s.
People with clear boundaries are less triggered by other people’s bad behaviour. And when they are triggered, they know how to wait for strong emotion to pass before they react, instead of lashing out and escalating the situation.
To know what’s your stuff, you need to know yourself – what makes you tick, what soothes you, what irritates you, and all the other things that make you, in your beautiful individuality, different from everyone else.
If that sounds self-absorbed, consider that the more we get to know ourselves, the more we can appreciate that other people have completely different temperaments and motivations from us – which makes it easier not to take their behaviour personally.
There are heaps of free, high-quality personality questionnaires that can help you learn more about yourself. Here are a few of my favourites:
Gretchen Ruben's Four Tendencies Quiz
What are Your Values and Goals?
Values are what's most important to us, the things that get us out of bed in the morning. Goals, meanwhile, are our ideas for the future.
Few people ever take the time to reflect on their values or goals. This is a bit like blindly following your GPS system without having first told it where you want to go, or asking yourself whether you prefer the coast road or the mountain track.
Time you invest in reflecting on what’s important to you and what you want from life will yield bountiful rewards in terms of emotional independence.
The trick is to hold your goals and values lightly but securely, the way you might hold a delicate butterfly between cupped hands. Allow them to light your path, while remembering that even aeroplanes are only on a true course to their destination for a fraction of their flight time – the rest of the time they're making little course corrections to ensure they reach their intended destination.
2. Schedule Personal Time Outs
Once we’ve invested time getting to know ourselves and where we want to go, we need to allow ourselves time to connect with the innate energy that powers us.
It doesn’t matter what you do in your personal time out, as long as it’s meaningful to you, and allows you to hear the still small voice within - the one that too often gets drowned out by the myriad other voices clamouring for our attention.
Many people find meditation the best way to create this space, whether by listening to a guided visualisation or by focusing on a simple sensory experience like a flickering candle, or the sound of a fan. (Use an app if you happen not to have a fan handy. One of my favourites is Sleep Pillow (or android) which also generates brainwaves – theta waves work well for meditating.)
But don’t worry if you don’t get on with meditating. Plenty of people get the same benefits from activities like walking in the woods or on the beach, tending to their gardens, dancing, playing a musical instrument, or swimming.
Less important than what you do is setting a date with yourself to do it regularly – daily, if possible.
The busier you are, the more important it is to take this time. During my years home-educating two intense young children, meditation was such a key part of my day that my kids would remind me to do it if they noticed me getting a little frayed around the edges.
A busy life is like living in a snow globe that’s constantly being shaken about. Without taking the time to occasionally be still and let the snow settle, it's impossible to move forward in the direction we want to go.
3. Stay on Track by Noticing your Language
How often do you find yourself using phrases like these?
I must …
I have to …
I should …
I ought to …
Any time we find ourselves using this kind of language – whether out loud or in our own heads - it's a sign we're not on our own path, but rather trying to live up to someone else’s expectations.
Next time you hear yourself saying, ‘I should…’, check in with yourself and gently ask yourself,
Who says I have to?
Why must I?
Is this something I actually want to do? Does it align with my goals and values?
What will happen if I don’t?
I’m not suggesting that you stop going to work or feeding your children. Just that you become more mindful about how you invest your precious time and energy.
Choose Guilt Over Resentment
It's common to think of 'good' and 'bad' emotions. We all want more of the 'good' ones, like joy, happiness and peace, and less of the 'bad' ones, such as fear, anger and sadness.
But really there are no ‘bad’ emotions. While negative emotions can feel unpleasant, all emotions give us useful feedback about where we are in relation to where we want to be.
Guilt, for instance, can be a useful indicator that we’re not acting in accordance with our values. You might feel guilty, say, that you’ve been spending too much time working lately at the expense of hanging out with your family.
But many people, especially those with emotional intensity, feel guilty whenever anyone around them has an unmet need. This sense of guilt can feel so uncomfortable that we wear ourselves out trying to sort out everyone else’s problems.
If this sounds like you, next time you feel guilty ask yourself, ‘Is this feeling just an indicator that I’m meeting my own needs for once?’ And if the answer’s yes, celebrate!
‘If you face the choice between feeling guilt and resentment, choose the guilt every time... Resentment is soul suicide.
~Gabor Maté, MD
Change ‘I Have to’ to ‘I Get to’
Language can also remind us of choices we sometimes forget we have.
As Viktor Frankl writes, even prisoners are free to choose their thought and to find meaning in their experiences.
One easy way to remind ourselves of our choices is to change, ‘I have to’ into ‘I get to’.
Give it a try. Think of something you ‘have to’ do, like going grocery shopping, and say, ‘I get to go to the supermarket’ instead.
Doesn't 'I get to go to work' make you feel quite different from, 'I have to go to work?'
James Clear tells a story he heard from a therapist about a man who uses a wheelchair:
‘When asked if it was difficult being confined, he responded, “I’m not confined to my wheelchair—I am liberated by it. If it wasn’t for my wheelchair, I would be bed-bound and never able to leave my house.” This shift in perspective completely transformed how he lived each day.’
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The path to emotional independence is lifelong.
The goal isn’t to become an emotionaless automaton. It's to be free to feel and act in accordance with what’s important to us, instead of ricocheting through our days like a ball in a pinball machine, perpetually reacting to what’s going on around us.
Taking the time to know ourselves, scheduling personal time outs, and noticing the language we use are just three of the many ways we can train our ‘emotional independence’ muscles.
What helps you to be more emotionally independent? I’d love to hear from you.
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