Three Habits That Can Leave You Emotionally Exhausted

Thinking patterns that contribute to excess emotional weight.

Posted Sep 15, 2019

There are certain foods that, when eaten in copious amounts, we know will bring consequences: Our waists will expand, our cholesterol levels will skyrocket, and our doctors will give us a lecture. With respect to our nutritional practices, we are aware of which foods contribute positively to our physical wellness and which detract.

Similar to how eating certain foods can have a long-term effect on our physical wellness, thinking in certain ways can have a long-term effect on our emotional wellness. If these practices, these mental habits, were foods, we would say that they make us gain a lot of emotional weight. While there is no such metric, think of emotional weight as a state of negative affect that consists of a mix of worry, stress, and disappointment. Emotional weight can become as stubborn and tough to lose as body weight. And just like body weight can pose restrictions on the kind and intensity of physical activity we engage in, emotional weight can make it difficult to feel joy and appreciation, to be open and accessible, and to be motivated and engaged.

Here are some common practices that can add emotional weight and make a dent in our emotional wellness.

1. Setting unrealistic expectations

Expectations are beliefs about the way the world should look; for example, how we should feel, what we should have achieved, and how other people should be treating us. When expectations are unmet, they can become a significant source of frustration. When setting unrealistically high expectations, the chances of failing to meet them are also higher, which means more frustration. We typically think of unrealistic expectations in terms of setting high performance standards in certain areas of life. For example, maintaining a 4.0 GPA, getting offers from any job we apply for, or making a sale after each contact with a lead. These are relatively high standards to meet.

Unrealistic expectations extend beyond bigger goals like those. Believing that you should be able to wake up early every morning to work out because this is what successful people do, that replies to your emails should come within minutes because this is what respectful people do, or that you should be happy with what you have because this is what grateful people feel, are expectations that we set about daily things based on arbitrary rules, which can become emotional traps when things are not happening the way we think they “should.”

These tiny failures in which we or others are not doing what “should” be done can have an insidious toxic effect on our emotional wellness. Making “should” statements is often cited as one of the cognitive distortions – a pattern of illogical thinking – that contributes to the onset and maintenance of emotional challenges, like anxiety and depression. You may ask who’s to decide what is realistic and unrealistic. This is true, and labeling something unrealistic can become a deterrent for trying harder. While defining the term deserves a longer discussion, thinking of unrealistic as something that is not supported by either effort or evidence is a good rule of thumb. In other words, if we are not working diligently toward something or if there is no proof or rationale for what we expect, then it may be unrealistic.

2. Making unfair comparisons

Social comparison is a common practice and a useful tool to place ourselves in a continuum of psychosocial indicators. While there are advantages to social comparison, like ensuring that we are hitting certain developmental milestones or that we are performing well in different areas of life, like work or school, when these comparisons are unfair, they can have a negative impact on our well-being.

Studies show that unfair comparisons can raise anxiety and depression, deplete motivation, and reduce self-esteem. Regardless of how amazing you are, there will always be people who are smarter, richer, and prettier. Upward comparison – comparing yourself to the people in a higher position on the list – could have a positive or a negative effect. It could either inspire and motivate you or it could make you feel inadequate, incompetent, and unaccomplished. Similarly, there are people who are less smart, less wealthy, and less attractive than you. Comparing yourself to them – downward comparison – tends to make a positive contribution to your self-esteem.

High school reunions used to be a great occasion for social comparison, sometimes leaving us feeling great and sometimes miserable. But in the last few years, an even more massive opportunity for social comparisons has emerged, one that you don’t have to wait for once every decade: online social networks. These networks provide a readily available platform for social comparison, a quick way to look at how other people are doing: how many friends they have, how many great vacations they go on, how much they love their job, or how adorable their cats are. Frequent users of online social networks report a persistent feeling of disappointment and dissatisfaction with their own lives, because other people’s lives seem so much better. The important question to ask is what purpose does this kind of comparison serve and how does it contribute to growth? What can you learn from comparing yourself to others and how will it affect what you actually do, not only how you feel?

While we have a choice of either upward or downward comparison, it is important to keep in mind that comparisons, in general, are unfair because (a) we only get a glimpse of what someone has achieved but we know very little about how they achieved it, and (b) while we can compare our current state with someone else’s, we do not compare the circumstances that led to that state. Your best friend from college, for example, may have been able to buy her own home, while you are still a renter, which may make you feel frustrated and disappointed with yourself and your lack of achievement. However, (a) your friend may be working two (unfulfilling) jobs to pay the mortgage, and (b) she may be living somewhere where the cost of buying a home is much lower. To avoid a blow to your well-being make social comparisons that are both purposeful and fair.

3. Overcommitting

Some of us have a tendency to sign up for more than we can handle. We agree to participate in new and exciting projects, take on more responsibilities at work, volunteer for good causes, and fill our schedules with more activities than there is time to do them. We overcommit.

Overcommitting can cause overwhelming anxiety, cognitive overload, and mental fatigue. Taking on more responsibilities than we can carry out reduces the chances that any one job will get the attention it deserves and get done really well. But why do we keep doing it? There are two thinking patterns that contribute to overcommitting. First is the belief that busy is good. Busy people are considered more successful, more competent, and more important. Therefore, staying and sounding busy is more socially desirable than having too much free time and nothing to do. And while we can impress ourselves and others with how busy we are, the price we pay is that we now have to pencil in downtime in our schedules, we have to set reminders on our phones that tell us to take a break, and we have to use meditation apps to clear our heads so we can be even more effective at staying busy.

The other way of thinking that contributes to overcommitting is the fear of missing out (FOMO). Life is full of exciting opportunities and if you start saying no, you risk being left out and excluded from something groundbreaking, life-changing, or history-making. So, say yes now, and figure out how to work it into your schedule later. Ironically, the brief anxiety caused by FOMO is now replaced by the chronic stress that comes with having overcommitted. Focusing on finding a balance between doing too much and doing too little may take time, but it will offset the emotional weight added by the stress of overcommitting.

A good starting point to prevent emotional weight gain is awareness—becoming able to identify these practices as we engage in them. It is easy to identify foods that contribute to weight gain. We recognize a cupcake when we see it, and then we choose whether to eat it or not. But thought patterns are often hidden behind clouds of words and habits, which makes it harder to identify and change. Therefore, a first step to avoid the excess emotional weight is to begin recognizing when we engage in these practices, by asking ourselves questions like: Is this expectation realistic? Is this comparison fair? Is this commitment wise? After we recognize them, we can make better choices.

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