Tuesday, July 14, 2020
By Hal Pickett, PsyD, LP, ABPP

At Headway, we are all about emotional health. But what is it, and why is it so important? And how do we improve it?

The Basics

Over our decades of therapy experience, we’ve learned that there are six essential components of a person’s health:

  • Physical health
  • Social health
  • Cognitive health
  • Spiritual health
  • Cultural health
  • Emotional health


The term “emotional health” can be confusing because the word “emotional” has taken on a negative context, suggesting that someone is somehow out of control of their emotions, or that someone’s emotion is too intense for other people to handle.

When we use the word “emotional” at Headway, we mean experiencing a full range of emotions, whether that’s exhilaration, frustration, dysphoria, or anger. Our hope is that defining Emotional Health within the medical, wellness, and mental health communities will clarify that “health” and “sickness” are not opposites.

So what do we mean by “emotional health”? It means

“To care for, build, and maintain yourself from the inside, fostering resiliency to life’s daily challenges, so you can fully experience your life with purpose and in healthy relationships with important others.”


In short, emotional health is your way of navigating through life.

Just as emotional health is one of the six components of a person’s health, emotional health itself has four components: selfulness, resiliency, relationship, and purpose.


What is “selfulness”? It means improving yourself from within, without disregard for others.

It is between selflessness and selfishness — you are not helping others so much that you don’t care for yourself, and you are not helping yourself so much that you don’t care for others. You are caring for both in a healthy way.

As the writer Veronica A. Shoffstall said,

“After a while you learn that even sunshine burns if you get too much. So you plant your own garden and decorate your own soul instead of waiting for someone to bring you flowers. And you learn that you really can endure, that you really are strong, and you really do have worth, and you learn and you learn and with every goodbye you learn.”


How do you improve selfulness in your life?

One, have time for self-care. Feed yourself in a healthy way, be active daily, practice good sleep, be open to laughing and crying with friends, and continue any favorite self-care things that you already have in your life.

Two, be aware of how past negative influences may affect your present thinking in unhelpful ways. It’s natural for the past to affect the present a little. But if you find yourself dwelling on the past so much that it consciously and seriously affects the present, or that you can’t shake the negative effects of a past experience, then you may want to talk with someone about what you’re going through.

Three, understand and seek your own balance. Everyone’s balance between selfishness and selflessness will be different — don’t worry if yours doesn’t look like someone else’s.

Four, have some quiet time for self-reflection and complacency. Build an uncritical satisfaction with yourself and accept yourself.

Five, be self-driven to seek and meet your own needs. Fight to have the life you want and have what you need.


What does “resiliency” mean in the context of emotional health? It means “emotional buoyancy that helps you bounce back from illness and difficulty.”

It’s the ability to recognize and use your unique strengths to overcome life’s challenges, to pick yourself up when you’ve been knocked down. It’s a mixture of self-confidence, critical thinking, humor, and using a personal toolbox of resources like positive distractions and diversions, positive social support networks, and self-balancing techniques.

Part of resiliency means acknowledging and feeling the full spectrum of emotions. It’s difficult, but give yourself permission to experience life with all of its ups and downs.


“Relationship” doesn’t always mean something romantic. In the case of emotional health, it simply means “the way two or more people relate and behave towards one another.”

There are two ways you can improve your emotional health by focusing on your relationships:

One, create and maintain healthy relationships with others. We hear about this a lot, but it can be difficult to know if a relationship is healthy or not. This is where selfulness comes in. If a person needs so much of your time and energy that you don’t have enough for yourself, the relationship is not healthy. On the other hand, if you’re selfish in a relationship, and not putting in effort or caring about the other person, that isn’t healthy either.

If you realize you’re in an unhealthy relationship, you don’t necessarily have to end it right away. That’s the “maintain” part: Relationships are constantly changing as people change and life situations change. If you can change a bad relationship for the better, it could benefit everyone involved. But, if you can’t, know that it is okay to end a relationship.

Two, having the ability to ask for help when you need it, and giving help when asked, is important. It’s a natural part of life and can help keep a relationship in balance.


Purpose is “the reason something is done, created, or exists.” We all have one. As the writer Max Ehrmann said,

“Beyond a wholesome discipline, be gentle with yourself. You are a child of the universe no less than the trees and the stars; you have a right to be here.”


How do you live your life with purpose? What if you don’t feel like you know what your purpose is?

Begin by defining your life as worth living. Live your life with meaning and passion, even if you aren’t completely sure of your direction.

See the good in yourself through your life’s changes, whether they are positive or negative. You are not a bad person if bad things happen to you, and bad things happening does not take away the purpose of your life.

Find some clarity between what is important to you and what is unimportant to you. This will help you find a direction, which will help you discover your sense of purpose.

How to Build and Improve Your Emotional Health

Now that we have the individual parts of emotional health and ways to improve them each, let’s look at the whole. How do you put it all together?

Here are 12 ways you can build and improve your emotional health:

  • Identify your personal strengths, build them, and live from them.
  • Learn optimism. Realistically see the positive, even in bad situations.
  • Develop the courage to define, and then live, your life as worth living.
  • Practice resiliency, your ability to learn and bounce back from setbacks, and be flexible in the face of challenges.
  • See the good in yourself and develop a healthy concept of yourself. Self-worth is something you have, not something you earn.
  • Build a social network of supporters, even if it’s small.
  • Create a set of coping skills to deal with mental health difficulties and external stress.
  • Live your life with a sense of purpose.
  • Make time for hobbies and leisure.
  • Honor your sense of creativity in your hobbies and leisure time.
  • Laugh as often as you can.
  • Cry when the need arises.


A general way to care for your emotional health is through self-care. Self-care has been a popular topic recently, and it’s worth the attention it’s gotten.

Make time for space. You owe it to yourself to set aside “me time.” It doesn’t need to be a lot of time, but it is important you have some time to yourself. Be protective of this time so it doesn’t get negotiated away.

It can be easy to think that “me time” is selfish, but it is really part of selfulness. Mental health professional Elizabeth Kupferman, RN, LMHC, LPC spoke to that feeling when she said

“Caretakers don’t practice self-care because they mistakenly believe it is a selfish act. Caregivers practice self-care unabashedly because they know that keeping themselves happy enables them to be of service to others.”


If you’re always giving all your time away, you will burn out. Focus on quality over quantity in your interactions with both yourself and others, and both will improve.

Self-care and “me time” doesn’t have to mean something big like a full day at the spa. It can be a few minutes of focusing, meditation, mindfulness, or cuddling with a pet. It could be reading the paper over a cup of coffee in the morning, going for a walk, listening to music, reading, writing, or journaling. Just something calming to clear your mind from external distractions.

When should you have your self-care time? It depends on you. Maybe you’d enjoy it most early in the morning before anyone else gets up. Maybe it would help you best if you do it in the middle of the day, either outside in the fresh air or in your office with the door closed and your phone down. Or maybe you’d like it best late at night after everyone else has gone to bed.

Your Emotional Health Is Yours

Like self-care, every aspect of your emotional health is personal. The way for you to build and improve yours will be different than someone else’s — neither way is wrong. As long as you take care of the individual parts of emotional health as well as the whole, you will build a strong emotional foundation that will support and improve your mental health too.

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