THE BLOG
10/24/2013 09:25 pm ET Updated Dec 24, 2013

5 Common Habits That Damage Your Emotional Health

When we think of unhealthy habits, items such as cigarette smoking, midnight snacking or a sedentary lifestyle are often the first that come to mind. Yet, many of our unhealthiest habits are not behavioral but psychological in nature. Unhealthy psychological habits tend to fly beneath our radars either because we're unaware of the damage they do to our psychological and physical health, or because we (falsely) believe they serve some beneficial purpose.

In order to change these unhealthy habits, we must become informed about the damage they do and realize that despite our previous assumptions, they serve no useful purpose whatsoever.

We push people away when we feel lonely.
Loneliness is extremely damaging to our emotional and physical health and we should make every effort to emerge from its clutches as soon as we can. However, loneliness makes us feel so raw and vulnerable, so fearful that others will hurt our feelings or disappoint us, that we tend to approach others with suspicion and caution or avoid social situations altogether. We tell ourselves we're being "wise" by avoiding potential hurt when, in fact, our defensive posture only pushes away the very people with whom we might create new social bonds or deepen existing ones.

We demoralize ourselves after we fail.
Failure can be extremely instructive as it allows us to derive vital lessons that increase our likelihood of future success. Unfortunately, our habitual response to failure is to convince ourselves our goals are too hard and that we lack the ability to attain them, even when we plan persisting toward them. We tell ourselves we are being "realistic" and "pragmatic" even though demoralizing ourselves and lowering our expectations is neither realistic nor useful. Creating a mindset of passivity, pessimism, and hopelessness only prevents us from learning from our mistakes and improving the many variables that are in our control such as our planning, preparation, and effort.

We become self-critical after a blow to our self-esteem.
Having higher self-esteem makes us more resilient to common psychological injuries such as rejection and failure. Yet, we often respond to blows to our self-esteem by becoming self-critical, and damaging our self-esteem even further. We list our faults, bemoan our shortcomings, and employ a negative internal dialogue that is punitive, harsh, and even abusive. We rationalize doing so because we feel we "deserve it" and believe that by lowering our expectations we can minimize our future vulnerability. However, stomping on our self-esteem and damaging our confidence and self-worth only increases our emotional vulnerability and hampers our ability to utilize our skills, intelligence, creativity, willpower and other internal resources going forward.

We distance ourselves when we feel guilt instead of repairing the relationship.
Guilt is a useful emotion in small doses as it alerts us to when our intentions or actions might harm another person. Once we avoid the intended action or apologize to the harmed person and gain their forgiveness, the relationship recovers and our guilt dissolves. But tensions often linger in such situations because our apologies are usually both inadequate and ineffective, and as a result, the other person never truly forgives us. Unless our apology includes a compelling empathy statement that conveys we really "get" how we harmed the other person from their perspective, we are unlikely to get their authentic forgiveness. Yet instead of issuing a better apology, we convince ourselves our apology was perfectly sufficient, blame the other person for the guilt we feel, and distance ourselves from them, damaging the relationship even further.

We succumb to the urge to brood.
When upsetting or distressing events occur it is natural for us to make sense of them by trying to gain insight and understanding or by figuring out potential actions we might need to take. Doing so allows us to put the events behind us and move on. But sometimes we get stuck and simply replay the same scenes, thoughts, or worries over and over again in our minds. We justify this kind of compulsive brooding by telling ourselves that we are purging our feelings by doing so and "getting them out." However, brooding in this way does not purge our feelings, it does the opposite -- it increases the urge to think about the distressing thought and deepens the distress we feel when we do. Picking at our emotional scabs in this way not only affects our current mood, it also triggers a stress response that, over time, puts us at greater risk for depression, alcoholism, eating disorders and cardiovascular disease.

For more by Guy Winch, Ph.D., click here.

For more on emotional wellness, click here.

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