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6 Tips for Building Emotional Muscle When Life Gets Tough

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If your emotional muscle is damaged from the past, it’s up to you to build it back up.

The scenario happens so often, it’s practically cliche:

A woman or man in an “unhappy” marriage meets someone new. Instantly, there’s a powerful connection, and maybe even an affair occurs; and, instantly, this person thinks she or he now knows how to be happy again.

It feels like animal magnetism meets love at first sight, as if soulmates have found one another. Sometimes, as a result, a marriage ends; but soon enough, the “new couple” spends all their time fighting.

Fights are about anything — a tone of voice, a missed phone call — but underneath they are really about painful emotions, jealousy, insecurity, hurt, anger that may predate the affair, or even the marriage the affair broke up.

Something deep is coming up in these moments of conflict, something that could lead to healing if people had the courage to lean into it — like leaning into a stormy sea and learning to ride waves.

Check out YourTango for relationship advice

Unlocking the Past

A lot of times we’re magnetized by someone who excites emotions that we bypassed long ago. We find someone who prompts emotional eruptions in us so that we touch again our own buried feelings.

Our culture treats feelings as an illness instead of as a strong natural force. Granted, most of us have never learned to handle that force.

The good news? We can master the raw power brought to the surface in these “crazy” relationships. Then we can feel truly confident and alive.

The bad news? It’s way easier to get a PhD in astrophysics than to master the strong energy inside of us.

Seriously. Think about it. Before you go for a PhD, you’ve spent 16 years learning to study and picking your field. With emotions and the energy they contain, you’ve spent your life doing the opposite.

As kids, we learn what’s okay to feel and how to feel it. Good and bad feelings are as natural as good and bad weather, but we learn to run from the emotional waves and wind. Then, as adults we’re thrown into a stormy sea without knowing how to swim.

This happened to my client Marta who turned her life upside down for a man who seemed perfect — until she found herself so anxious and insecure she thought she was going crazy. Old feelings surfaced — not “issues” she had with her mom and dad — but, unaddressed feelings.

When she was a kid, everyone knew that her father had another woman, and everyone pretended things were fine. That was the unstated emotional rule of the house.

Marta deeply absorbed her family’s unstated rules, as we all do. Those rules then seem as natural to us in adulthood as the air we breathe.

Consciously, Marta hated her mother’s resignation. Unconsciously, she buried the insecurity, jealousy and anger that she absorbed. Then, she found a man who evoked exactly those feelings in her.

Her lover wasn’t cheating, but he responded to her raw emotions with his own raw emotions. Marta’s conscious choice was her husband, who talked feelings out; but her unconscious choice was different and she drew this new lover to her from that energy.

Building Emotional Muscle

If, like Marta, you’ve found someone who fires your most difficult feelings, do you want to get stronger? Are you up to it? You can’t get emotionally strong by just talking or using a technique like tapping. If you’ve ever lashed out or wept, you know that emotions have physical power.

Emotional energy is real, and strengthening is not just numbing out or getting rid of feelings, but containing and integrating them. Like Marta, we usually follow deeply laid patterns. How we handle basic feelings tells us a great deal about our pasts.

If you want to build emotional muscle, here are 6 things to keep in mind:

1. Remember, strong body responses are natural with strong feelings.

You may feel like hitting or crying, or maybe butterflies are beating against your stomach. This doesn’t mean there’s something wrong with you. You need a healthy way of containing and releasing the currents of feeling — hit a punching bag, run, write furiously, cry with a trusted friend.

2. Name the feeling and recall times you’ve felt it before.

You think this problem is all about your new lover, but I guarantee it’s not. Talk to someone trusted and not involved. Or write, paint, sing to get closer to what’s inside.

3. Answer negative thoughts without judgment.

Respond to “I’m being a baby” with the truth: “No, I’m feeling hurt and insecure.” Judging is easy, but harder is experiencing your forceful emotions without just reacting.

4. Pull back from your lover in these moments.

Fighting will make you too needy. You want a response that you’re probably not going to get.

5. Expand, don’t contract.

Remember, you’re trying to learn new responses, not limit what you feel. Maybe you don’t like sadness, but think of it like rain. Even if you don’t like rain, it’s pretty limiting to never go out in it.

6. Feelings, like ocean waves, peak and subside.

Overthinking at the peak of conflict isn’t wise. In a stormy ocean, you need physical strength to remain oriented and to get to shore. Same with a “feelings storm.” Afterwards, you’ll probably feel exhilarated and confident. You may decide this is not a good relationship for you, but that’s not because you couldn’t handle the storm.

Feelings contain the energy of life. The more you can experience and choose your action, the stronger you will be.

This guest article originally appeared on 6 Super Smart Ways to Stay Happy Even When Life Gets Hard.

6 Tips for Building Emotional Muscle When Life Gets Tough

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APA Reference
Sparks, A. (2018). 6 Tips for Building Emotional Muscle When Life Gets Tough. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 1, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Jul 2018 (Originally: 15 Jan 2015)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Jul 2018
Published on Psych All rights reserved.