How to Change Your Emotional Habits

Perhaps you've never really thought about it, but, just as you have behavioral habits, which you call your routine, you also have certain emotional habits. What are they? Do you know how they affect you?
How to Change Your Emotional Habits
Elena Sanz

Written and verified by the psychologist Elena Sanz.

Last update: 21 December, 2022

If you were asked about your habits, you’d probably examine your routine before you answered. You might say you have a coffee when you wake up, exercise in the afternoon, and read for a while before going to sleep. However, would you be able to identify your emotional habits with the same precision? Even if you don’t recognize it, your emotions also follow a pattern. In fact, in each individual, the same emotional circuits tend to activate and repeat themselves.

It’s probably not difficult for you to identify certain emotional tendencies in those around you. For example, there are those who tend to be energetic and optimistic and others who adopt a more passive or pessimistic role. On the other hand, some tend to be suspicious or anxious while others are calm and relaxed. Nevertheless, although we all experience a wide range of emotions, the truth is that there are some that we adopt more than others. In effect, they’ve become emotional habits.

The acquisition of emotional habits

A habit can be defined as a certain way of behaving or acting that’s been acquired by repetition. It’s become a trend, which is reproduced automatically and without deliberation on the part of the individual.

Habits permeate our lives, making our daily routine easier by allowing us to save energy. You’re probably largely unaware of many of your actions. For instance, brushing your teeth, driving to work, or making breakfast. The sequence is so ingrained that your body knows how to do it practically on its own. Something similar happens with your emotional state. You’ve acquired certain patterns or tendencies of response on this particular plane as well.

When you were born you were practically a ‘blank slate’. You paid special attention to your main caregivers to write your first lines down. Among many other things, you learned how you should feel. By observation and imitation, you assimilated certain emotional states and ways of reacting; and, as you repeated and practiced them, they became more ingrained in you.

These automatic emotions are programmed and come to light with you having no choice in the matter. For example, as much as you don’t like it, you might find yourself responding with anger or feeling fearful or hopeless much of the time. Fortunately, you can unlearn these emotional habits and acquire more useful ones.

woman worrying
Emotional habits are learned from education and lived experiences.

Discover your emotional habits

Like other habits, your emotional habits can be changed by following a series of steps. First of all, you must identify them and understand what their triggers are. Then, you’ll be able to deliberately act differently at those times and establish a new emotional reaction in its place.

For example, imagine that you have the habit of having a coffee every morning sitting on your sofa, and you do this automatically. If you want to change this routine into the habit of exercising every morning, you’ll need to make a deliberate effort to engage in that activity when you wake up until it becomes second nature.

Changing your emotional habits

The same is true if you want to change your emotional habits. The first step will be to recognize what they are so that they stop being automatic and you become aware of them. It might be helpful to answer the following questions:

  • What has been your predominant mood over the last few days? The last month? The last year? This shouldn’t be too difficult for you to answer as you’ll find you have a specific emotional tendency.
  • What are your typical reactions to certain situations? Emotional habits are really easy to detect if you look at how you react to challenging events. For example, if your child leaves their room untidy, you may be seized by anger and react with yelling and threats. If you argue with a friend, you might find yourself holding back, inhibiting, and isolating yourself instead of being assertive. Or, if you’re offered a new job challenge, you could react with fear, anxiety, and a lack of confidence. If you frequently repeat these reactions in similar situations, they’re your emotional habits.

If you still have trouble identifying them, you can ask the people closest to you for help. That’s because it’s often easier for outsiders to recognize what’s happening when it comes to your behavior.

Angry woman who needs to change her emotional habits.
Emotional habits can be detected by looking at how you react to certain situations.

You can modify your emotional tendencies

Once you’ve identified your tendency to feel or react in a certain way, you must make a conscious effort to replace it. To do this, find a quiet moment and write down how you’d like to react or feel the next time you find yourself in one of those challenging situations. For example, perhaps you’d like to feel optimistic instead of fearful.

Keep in mind that your emotions are the result of a thought process. Therefore, it’s your interpretation of the situation and your internal dialogue that you have to change. Instead of thinking “I can’t”, “It won’t work”, or “I’m not ready”, deliberately choose other types of thoughts. For instance, “This new challenge is exciting”, “I’m going to do my best”, or “I’ll find a way to overcome the obstacles.”

Obviously, at first, this change of thoughts will feel forced but it’s simply a matter of repetition so that you establish your new mental and emotional habits. You should practice on every occasion that comes your way. When you’ve automated this new way of thinking and feeling, you’ll start to recognize that the change you’ve made is a really positive one.

All cited sources were thoroughly reviewed by our team to ensure their quality, reliability, currency, and validity. The bibliography of this article was considered reliable and of academic or scientific accuracy.

  • Atkinson, B. J. (2010). Rewiring Emotional Habits. Clinical casebook of couple therapy, 181.
  • Barnes, T. D., Kubota, Y., Hu, D., Jin, D. Z., & Graybiel, A. M. (2005). Activity of striatal neurons reflects dynamic encoding and recoding of procedural memories. Nature437(7062), 1158-1161.
  • Yin, H. H., & Knowlton, B. J. (2006). The role of the basal ganglia in habit formation. Nature Reviews Neuroscience7(6), 464-476.

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.