5 Skills to Add to Your Emotional Toolbox

Do you know what emotional tools you already have?

Posted Jan 20, 2019

Stefan Repka Tomasevic/Shutterstock
Source: Stefan Repka Tomasevic/Shutterstock

As a child and adolescent clinical psychologist, I'm a huge fan of using metaphors and analogies when I'm explaining a wide range of psychological facts. I've found that no matter the age, metaphors and analogies are just easier to process. 

Therefore, whenever I'm talking to someone else about what I do in therapy, I really enjoying referencing an imaginary emotional toolbox. In simple words, my job is to help whoever walks into my office refine that emotional toolbox. Together, we: 

  • Find what tools and/or resources they already own 
  • Explore which areas of their lives they'd like to improve
  • Identify which tools and/or resources they need to get there 
  • Discover ways in which we can self-compassionately add these resources to their toolbox 

And, while each toolbox is different (because each person and the emotional needs they might have are different), there are certain skills I think everyone should have in their emotional toolbox.

Here are my top five: 

1. Resilience

According to Psychology Today, "resilience is that ineffable quality that allows some people to be knocked down by life and come back at least as strong as before . . . rather than letting difficulties or failure overcome them and drain their resolve, they find a way to rise from the ashes." It's that skill that allows you to get through the rough times and find "the silver lining." 

Where does this skill come from? An article, written for the Harvard Graduate School of Education, explains that “resilience depends on supportive, responsive relationships and mastering a set of capabilities that can help us respond and adapt to adversity in healthy ways.” Dr. Jack Shonkoff, director of the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard, says, “It’s those capacities and relationships that can turn toxic stress into tolerable stress.” 

However, when these relationships aren't present, it's more difficult to build resilience. The brain associates that danger and stress are present at all times, making it impossible for the young child to deal with it in a healthy way. The same article cited earlier identifies four characteristics that can help build this necessary skill: 

  • At least one caring and supportive relationship between a child and caregiver 
  • The person must feel able to have a degree of "control" over life's difficulties. 
  • A strong ability to self-regulate 
  • A strong system of religious beliefs or faith 

2. Creativity 

A lot has been said about the link between creativity and mental illness. Several studies have explained the relationship between the two, offering numerous resources to take corrective actions towards it. "Nanette," Hannah Gadsby's 2018 Netflix special, demystified the romanticization that society has with these two topics. But, in this post, I want to write about the ways creativity boosts our mental health and how we can use it as an asset and a resource in our toolbox. 

A study published in the Creativity Research Journal explored the different ways in which creativity influences our daily life. According to the authors, "everyday creativity involves attacking day-to-day activities in a divergent way: It derives from a complex of cognitive, affective, personal, motivational, and social factors, and is characterized by openness, flexibility, autonomy, playfulness, humor, willingness to take risks, and perseverance."

When we look at it this way, creativity refers to the ability with which we tackle life's conundrums. The way that we perceive our daily situations. The perspective we use when we are feeling the unpleasant emotions we so desperately want to get rid of. The outlook we have on our jobs, our relationships, our inner world, our emotions. And how we pursue our goals

3. Assertiveness

Assertiveness is such an important, and often overlooked, skill to have in our toolbox. According to Psychology Today, it refers to "a social skill that relies heavily on effective communication, while simultaneously respecting the thoughts and wishes of others . . . people who are assertive clearly and respectfully communicate their wants, needs, positions, and boundaries to others." For many people, this is easier said than done. 

Often, we may struggle to express our unpleasant emotions, especially to people close to us who have made us feel that way (parents, children, partner, boss, close coworkers, friends). When we are assertive, we communicate to others in a way that is clear and empathetic. We don't use violent language and don't resort to shaming to get our message across. On the contrary, when we are assertive, we communicate what we need or want in such a way that we can be respectful to others. 

A study published in the Journal of Clinical Psychology Science and Practice found that assertiveness training could be potentially beneficial for people who tend to internalize their emotions. People who experience strong feelings of anxiety or overwhelming sadness might benefit from working on this particular skill for their emotional toolbox. Not only does this help us express our emotions, needs, and desires in a healthy and clear way, but it also has rippling positive effects in our relationships, at home, and work. 

4. Mental Flexibility 

Have you ever had a situation where you have invested a lot of time to plan something, only to realize that the timing just doesn't work out for you? How have you responded? How have you dealt with it? What did you end up doing? How did you deal with that frustration? 

The answers to these questions can help us identify how "flexible" your thinking is. If, for example: 

  • you felt a tinge of frustration, but then quickly work towards re-arranging those plans 
  • or you pulled yourself together to re-organize your plans 
  • or you expressed your frustration in a healthy way and then figured out a plan B 

...then you are probably a flexible thinker. That ability to discover a Plan B is what mental flexibility is all about. According to Dr. Clifford Lazarus, some ways you can increase that flexibility are learning something new every day, often doing something different, and intentionally getting out of your comfort zone. All the skills I'm mentioning in these articles are ones you can practice and refine, and mental flexibility is no exception. 

5. Self-Awareness

Last, but certainly not less important, is self-awareness. This is the one that's often the most difficult to get, but when practiced and incorporated into your toolbox can make the refining of the other skills mentioned in this article much easier. 

Self-awareness is the ability to pay attention to yourself, your thoughts, actions, behaviors, emotions, and ways of relating to other people to make an actionable improvement. From a self-compassion perspective, self-awareness is not about nitpicking what's wrong with you and what needs to get "fixed." Rather, it's about looking at your inner world from a point of curiosity and exploration. Asking yourself, often and frequently, things like: 

  • Are people perceiving me the way I'd like to be perceived? 
  • Am I communicating with people the way I'd like to? 
  • Am I expressing my emotions in a way that is healthy and non-threatening to others? 

While also incorporating a self-compassionate lens that helps you realize that if any of these are not working out for you, it is not your fault. The way we relate to others is an extension of our early relationships and what we received or did not receive from our caregivers. And while there's always room for improvement, the fact that you take time to think about the way you relate to others is remarkable on its own. Self-awareness is opening yourself to the possibility of looking at yourself — your upbringing, your inner world, your coping mechanisms — before you look at others. But never forget to do it from a place of compassion, patience, and understanding. 

What other tools would you include in this emotional toolbox? Let me know in the comments below.


Cropley, A.J. (1990) Creativity and mental health in everyday life, Creativity Research Journal, 3:3, 167-178, DOI: 10.1080/10400419009534351

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