‘Unhealthy’ expressions of emotions

Published Categorized as emotional literacy, emotions, Understanding emotions

There is a lot of research ‘out there’ that proves that emotional intelligence makes life easier and more fulfilling for those who possess it. However, despite most people agreeing that emotions can inhibit positive outcomes and cause all kinds of problems if not managed well, the world is still some way from being the emotionally intelligent one it could be.

This leaves me believing that people still need convincing.

I could list all the things research says about the benefits of emotional intelligence (such as increased resilience, great interpersonal skills, greater creativity, more flexibility, good motivation etc – see I couldn’t help myself, I wasn’t going to list them!), but I think unless you can see how EQ does this, it’s hard to believe.

So, I thought I would write a list of unhealthy expressions of emotions (see below) that maybe some people could relate to – either in themselves or others. I have created this from observations of myself and others over the years and applied my knowledge of emotional intelligence to point out how these are a result of poor EQ. By poor EQ I mean: lack of awareness of emotions and the thoughts and behaviours they can automatically trigger in you, because of this lack of awareness.

With poor emotional literacy, we tend to engage in unhelpful behaviours because:

  1. We go to lengths to avoid feeling uncomfortable emotions and overly ‘protect’ ourselves from feeling them – even when these are needed to attain the best solutions.
  2. We have not made ourselves aware of our automatic responses – so we just react impulsively to emotion triggers. E.g. Our shame has been triggered and we become defensive.
  3. We are unaware of our brain’s negativity bias that especially happens when we feel certain emotions like anxiety or even anger, so we buy in fully to what our ‘brain’ is telling us and ignore any evidence to the contrary.

This list of unhelpful behaviours is by no means comprehensive and if you think of any more, please do let me know!

Some examples

Aggressive outbursts

An aggressive outburst nearly always makes circumstances worse and tends to trigger negative emotions in any other people involved. This makes situations more likely to escalate and it rarely means situations are sorted by solutions being found. Some people turn anger into aggression more readily than others. Males often receive the message that anger/aggression is the only acceptable emotion to express so they will express it even when, in reality, they are actually feeling vulnerable. Managing anger starts by being aware of its arrival, avoiding any unhelpful impulses and once calm, working out what needs to be addressed – even if it means you need to process your anger and ‘let it go’.

Avoiding and ignoring someone who has upset you, or sulking

When some people feel emotionally wounded by the words or actions of another, they will punish them by avoiding or ignoring them. This is a very ‘British’ way of dealing with being offended or affronted. It takes EQ to be emotionally brave enough to address the situation and risk further emotional discomfort, rather than let it fester.


Going along with something we really don’t want to do and then expressing our irritation ‘quietly’ by either sabotaging or incessantly moaning about whatever you’re reluctantly doing, is called passive-aggression. It takes awareness of your emotions to realise how much you don’t want to do what has been asked of you and it takes emotional bravery to say, ‘no’ in the first place. We are often reluctant to say, ‘no’ for fear of repercussions that we perceive will trigger further uncomfortable emotions – usually because we are worried about how we will be perceived.

Taking things out on someone else

….for example, if your irritation and anger built up by the traffic jam you were in, the person who cut up in front of you and the fact your neighbour blocked your drive with their bin – and then you snap at the person who greets you at home. Some people might take out their anger on the person at home without any awareness of what they did. This is prevented by ‘managing’ anger resourcefully beforehand. This starts with bringing the anger into full consciousness and owning it -which many of us were not brought up to do.

Deciding you must be completely rubbish!

If someone criticises you or something you have done, instead of being able to consider whether the criticism was valid or not, a tirade of self-loathing is triggered. Most people are unsettled by criticism, so managing it well is about being aware of and managing the emotions it triggers.

Managing criticism well will mean you can receive it without being triggered too much emotionally so you can rationally decide whether you need to act on the criticism or not – with an objectively balanced viewpoint. Not coping well with criticism happens more readily in those with low self-esteem. Methods that improve emotional intelligence, therefore, make negative interpretation less automatic and can result in improved self-esteem.

Assuming everyone else thinks you’re rubbish

If someone criticises something you have done, you decide everyone must think you are rubbish and unable to achieve anything positive. This is similar to ‘deciding you must be completely rubbish’ but with an added component of paranoia! This response is also linked to poor self-esteem.


Some people feel the need to control because they perceive they are unable to manage the emotions triggered by unpredictability. These people tend to unconsciously strive for certainty -which is usually impossible to achieve.

Inability to be assertive

Being assertive takes emotional intelligence.


Often this is a survival behaviour from a childhood filled with intense emotions. This is because unenjoyable emotions cause so much discomfort (due to the lack of regulation offered by the adults around in childhood), the person creates a distraction, often by using humour or a sudden interjection. This distraction aims to move the situation away from whatever is triggering the intense unenjoyable emotions. The problem with this is nothing is addressed or resolved.

Refusing to leave your comfort zone

This is similar to being controlling, as leaving your comfort zone will trigger unpredictable and unenjoyable emotions that you believe you are not able to manage. This can leave a person with fewer options in life as they guard themselves against venturing into the unknown.

Withdrawal from situations and participation

When strong unenjoyable emotions have been triggered, we can decide we can’t cope and simply leave the situation. Or if a strong emotion is triggered during an activity with others, it can trigger us to stop participating as the strong emotion consumes and overwhelms us (often with shame), triggers unhelpful thoughts and make us unable to participate. Making the emotions more conscious and learning to accept and then manage them can help prevent his kind of disabling response.

Rumination and catastrophising

With the brain’s negativity bias, which means ‘bad’ things are magnified much more than ‘good’ things (that evolved to keep us safe), uncomfortable emotions can cause us to ruminate (dwell on negative thoughts or possibilities over and over) and catastrophise (convince ourselves that everything that could go wrong, will go wrong). This can consume us and trigger stress. Even awareness of this tendency can help us to stop doing it.

Becoming unable to act

Stress and overwhelm can trigger us to ‘freeze’ and become unable to know what to do. This is OK if you don’t panic and see it as a need to regroup and break down the issue triggering the emotions into smaller manageable parts.

Giving up easily

Sticking at something we find difficult requires us to be able to endure uncomfortable emotions – albeit quite mild ones. If we feel a strong urge to escape any frustration triggered by something that doesn’t come easily, we will struggle to be determined to achieve some things and giving up will always seem like the more attractive option. Help your child to manage mild emotional discomfort.