We all set aside a few minutes a day to brush our teeth and take care of small physical injuries like cuts, scrapes, or sprains — but how many minutes a day do we set aside to take care of our emotional health? For most of us, the answer is: none.
Yet, we sustain psychological injuries just as often as we do physical ones — injuries like rejection, failure, or loss. While we all know how to take care of a cold or a cut so they don’t get worse or infected, we have no clue how to treat the most common psychological wounds we all experience on a regular basis.
This competence gap between our ability to care for our physical health and our ability to care for our psychological health is both unfortunate and puzzling. How is it we spend more time taking care of our teeth than we do our emotional well-being? After all, which would you rather lose — a tooth or your mind?
I recently gave a very personal TED Talk (”Why We All Need to Practice Emotional First Aid,” which you can watch above), in which I illustrated the heavy price we pay for ignoring our emotional health. I discussed how developing emotional hygiene habits could improve our life satisfaction and emotional resilience, as well as our physical health and longevity. The talk amassed over a million views in just over two weeks — to me, this is evidence that the primary problem is not a lack of willingness to prioritize our emotional health, but rather a lack of awareness and know-how.
So what is it that people who practice good emotional hygiene do differently from the rest? Here are seven of their good habits — and how all of us can adopt them.
1. They pay attention to emotional pain. Emotional pain is a sign of a psychological injury, just as physical pain is a sign of a physical injury. Don’t ignore psychological pain when you feel it, especially if the emotional distress you feel is strong, lasting, or distracting.
2. They learn to distinguish mild emotional wounds from those that require “treatment.” Most of us can tell if a cut is deep enough to require stitches or if a bandage would be sufficient. We need to develop the same know-how when it comes to psychological wounds. Generally, if you’re in emotional distress and the emotional pain you feel is not easing, you might need to take action to “treat” the injury.
3. They boost their self-esteem after a rejection. Rejections hurt our feelings and our confidence, but they can also do some real damage to our self-esteem. Avoid becoming self-critical after a rejection and, instead, try to boost your self-esteem by focusing on your strengths rather than your weaknesses.
4. They regain feelings of control after experiencing failure. Failures can make us feel helpless and hopeless and they can sap our motivation. One of the most important things you can do to counter these reactions is to focus on aspects of the task you can improve and approach differently were you to try again. In other words, don’t just look at the hurdle and feel bad that it’s there — figure out your way around it.
5. They do not let unresolved feelings of guilt linger. Guilty feelings can be useful in small doses. But when your guilty feelings are unresolved, they can be incredibly distracting and severely limit your ability to thrive and enjoy life. Therefore, it is important to take action and address unresolved guilty feelings by trying to receive forgiveness from the person you’ve wronged, or from yourself if your guilt is self-generated (such as in the case of survivor guilt).
6. They fill the voids after experiencing loss. It can take time to get over a loss, especially when it’s significant. But while time does heal, you also need to fill in the voids the loss created. Give thought to various aspects of your life the loss has impacted and when you feel ready, consider ways to add activities, passions, or people to address any unmet needs the loss has created.
7. They change rumination and brooding into constructive problem-solving. Replaying the same distressing events in your head can lead to both passivity and depression. Make sure to use problem-solving approaches to gain insight and learn what you can from the incident, and then avoid getting stuck in an emotionally painful loop by distracting yourself when the same thought or feeling pops into your mind. Developing new habits is never easy, but adopting strong emotional hygiene will set you on the path to greater psychological resilience, health, and life-satisfaction — so it’s very much worth the effort required.
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