No one likes to experience uncomfortable emotions like anxiety, fear, embarrassment, and disappointment. But those feelings are inevitable.

Dealing with that discomfort can drive you to do whatever it takes to get relief fast. Turning to food or alcohol, for example, might get you some momentary relief. But in the long run, unhealthy coping skills do more harm than good.

The way you cope with uncomfortable emotions can either help you build mental muscle or it can drain you of mental strength you need to reach your greatest potential.

Are Your Emotions Helping or Hurting?

Emotions are often discussed in terms of being positive or negative. Many people think anxiety is bad and happiness is good. But every emotion can have positive or negative consequences.

Take excitement, for example. When you’re excited about an upcoming vacation, you may experience more optimism about life. But, if you’re excited about a get-rich-quick-scheme, your excitement may cause you to overlook the risks you face.

Similarly, anxiety might prevent you from doing things where you might fail, in which case it could be hurtful. But, it may also alert you to danger, which makes it helpful.

So in therapy, I often ask clients, “Are your feelings a friend or an enemy right now?” The answer to that question helps them decide how to proceed.

Here are some examples of how certain emotions can be a friend or an enemy:

  • Sadness - Sadness can be a friend when it helps you honor something or someone you’re grieving. It’s an enemy when it causes you to isolate yourself and makes you want to stay in bed all the time.
  • Anger - Anger might be your friend when it helps you stand up to social injustice. It could be an enemy when it causes you to say something hurtful to someone you love.
  • Disappointment - Disappointment is a friend when it drives you to try harder next time. It’s an enemy when it causes you to declare yourself a failure.

Responding to Your Emotions

When you notice that you’re feeling uncomfortable, take a minute to try and label the emotion you’re experiencing. Just putting a name to the feeling can be a powerful way to reduce some of your discomfort.

Then, ask yourself if your feeling is a friend or an enemy. If it’s a friend, sitting with that discomfort might be the best option.

You might even find you’re better off leaning into that emotion. Facing your fears head-on, for example, can be key to helping you overcome them.

If your feelings are an enemy, take action to change your emotional state. Calm yourself down, cheer yourself up, or engage in some relaxation exercises to help you feel better.

Knowing when and how to regulate your emotions will make you mentally stronger. And, as you develop more mental strength, the easier it is to manage your feelings. Start creating that positive cycle in your life today by asking yourself whether your feelings are a friend or an enemy.