Two hands cradle wooden dice with happy and sad faces painted on them, to illustrate the concept of emotional health.

What do a vacation to Tahiti, a bubble bath and having an assertive relationship with your emotions have in common? They are all acts of self-care. That last one about emotions may have surprised you—but developing vibrant emotional health is a key to getting your needs met and developing vibrant emotional health.

Recently, I had the opportunity to interview self-care expert Robyn Gobin, PhD, author of “The Self-Care Prescription:  Powerful Solutions to Manage Stress, Reduce Anxiety & Increase Wellbeing,” an interview I conducted for the First International Take Care of You Conference for Massage Therapists, on March 28, 2022.

In this article, I share Gobin’s strategies on emotional self-care that will help protect your time, silence your inner critic and challenge feelings of low self-worth. But first, we need to look at the origins of emotions.

The Importance of Emotions

Why do we have emotions? One way to answer that question is to ask another question: What if we didn’t have emotions?

At the most basic level, emotions help us survive, Gobin explained during our interview. If you had no fear of fire, for example, you wouldn’t have the motivation to run out of the burning building.

Emotions also help us take inspired action. For example, the anxiety you may feel before a big test can motivate you to prepare for the test. Lastly, emotions help us communicate effectively, both verbally and non-verbally. This is why a sad or distressed look on an infant’s face immediately sends a mom or dad into action.

Understanding emotions from an origin’s standpoint—emotions are essential for our survival and therefore, neither good nor bad—makes it easier to acknowledge and accept all emotions, both pleasant and unpleasant, which is a core concept for good emotional hygiene.

Your Relationship with Your Emotions

You may have guessed by now that emotional self-care is going to involve some work. The good news is it can be rewarding work. To start, Gobin suggests examining your current relationship with your emotions. Do you have a passive, aggressive or assertive relationship with your emotions?

You have a passive relationship with your emotions if you don’t acknowledge what you’re feeling. An example of this is avoiding the feeling of anger if you grew up in a household where anger wasn’t expressed.

If you’re sad and you think “Suck it up, buttercup!” you have an aggressive relationship with your emotions. This relationship can be critical and mean.

In an assertive relationship with your emotions, the gold standard, you acknowledge the emotion present, no matter if you like it or not, and seek to find out what it can teach you about yourself.

If you’re like me and are angry at yourself for having both passive and aggressive relationships with emotions, don’t sweat it. You have already taken the first step toward an assertive relationship with your emotions, and developing vibrant emotional health, by simply identifying your relationship with your emotions.

As you start to understand your relationship with your emotions, Gobin also suggests expanding your vocabulary around emotions so you can identify what you’re feeling and articulate what you need.

By the way, if you ever had the feeling of not being heard, maybe you really weren’t heard because you didn’t have the words to accurately express what you were feeling.

Feelings Wheel

To expand your emotional vocabulary, Gobin suggests Googling “feelings wheel” to help you find the right words to describe your feelings. By laying out the framework for developing vibrant emotional health, we’ve already started to work on it. Let’s continue with learning how to say “no.”

How to Say No and build Vibrant Emotional Health

A client, Marti, texts you. She is in pain and wants to come in, but you’re booked. You could stay after your normal work hours, but then you would not be able to make dinner. Recently, you had made a commitment to eat healthier, which means cooking meals.

You watch yourself get angry as you consider making an accommodation for Marti. In addition, you feel guilty for thinking about saying no because Marti is in pain.

How do you say no without feeling guilty? The answer is you can’t. Instead, Gobin says, accept the fact that you feel guilty—it doesn’t mean you did something wrong.

Personally, I’d text Marti back with options: Hi, Marti. I’m really sorry but I am booked today. My colleague, Nefri, may have time. Do you want her number? Also, I have availability tomorrow in the afternoon.

I would still feel guilty, but at least I’d know I did everything I could to help Marti without breaking my commitment to myself.

Sometimes losing control of a schedule occurs with an impulsive “yes.” For example, Kendal works for a spa. The spa owner offers her lead massage therapist, which requires more hours at the spa. Kendal is excited, flattered and ready to say yes without understanding how additional hours at the spa will impact her life.

When you are impulsively ready to say yes, Gobin suggests giving yourself 24 hours to make a decision. While you are deciding, you should ask yourself: What will I be saying no to if I say yes to this opportunity?

If you say “no” and a thought like “That was selfish!” pops into your head, you are probably encountering the inner critic.

Deciding to Not Listen to the Inner Critic

According to Gobin, the inner critic is not out to get you, but probably serves as a protection mechanism. For example, if you never open the massage practice you have been dreaming about since massage school because your inner critic is telling you you’re not a good massage therapist, you can never actually fail and feel bad.

Besides thwarting goals, the inner critic can be harmful to your sense of self. For example, if you failed the massage licensing board test, your inner critic may call you a loser. If you hear that enough, you may start to believe the inner critic’s chatter. But the truth is, you’re not a loser. You just didn’t prepare for the test adequately.

So what do you do when the inner critic is ranting? Take the inner critic out to coffee, says Gobin with a smile. Specifically, listen to the inner critic, give the inner critic space, and then you decide who you’re going to listen to.

During this process, a helpful question to ask yourself is: Am I going to let the inner critic run my life or am I going to pursue this emotionally scary thing?

As you can see by now, Gobin’s approach to self-care is based on kindness. Nothing exemplifies this more than the well-wishing exercise she suggested during our interview.

How to Be Your Own Best Friend

I have to admit that when I first tried the well-wishing exercise, it stopped me dead in my tracks. Apparently, I am not the only one who feels this way, according to Gobin. Here’s how you do the well-wishing exercise:

1. Close your eyes and picture a living being, a person or pet, you love. As you picture that living being, start thinking well-wishes. Here are some suggestions: May you be happy. May you be safe. May you be healthy. May you know your worth. That wasn’t bad, right?

2. Next, imagine someone you’re not close to, like a cashier at a grocery store you see once a week. Now send that person well-wishes by thinking: May you be happy. May you be safe. May you be healthy. May you know your worth.

3. Lastly, picture yourself. Wait, what? Me thinking well-wishing for me? Yep, you’re going to wish yourself happiness, safety, health and worth, like you did with the others. Gobin explains this can be challenging because of our negativity bias, a tendency to register negative stimuli more readily than positive stimuli.

If you struggled with self-well-wishing, think about why it was hard and stick with the exercise, even though it may feel icky. If you see it through once, it will be easier the next time. For additional self-worth help, you could try meditation or affirmations, or seek out a therapist for talk therapy.

One Small Step toward Vibrant Emotional Health

Emotional self-care starts with acknowledgment and acceptance of all feelings even if you don’t like them. As you stay with your feelings without judging them, you will begin the work of establishing an assertive relationship with your emotions. An assertive relationship means you’re finding out what your emotions can teach you about yourself.

When you have an assertive relationship with your emotions, you’ll have opportunities to protect your time, manage the inner critic and address feelings of low self-worth.

If you are fired up to be your own best friend, don’t set your sights on having a perfect relationship with your emotions. It doesn’t exist, Gobin says. Becoming your own best friend is aspirational, and simply moving in the direction of having a better relationship with your emotions is where the best work is done.

Gobin also recommends setting the bar low so you make emotional self-care accessible and manageable. For instance, to get started with emotional self-care try Googling “feelings wheel” and then identify what you’re feeling once a week.

Just once a week?

Yep. The point is to take a first step—and experience a moment of emotional self-care. My guess is that it will leave you wanting more.

Mark Liskey

About the Author

Mark Liskey, LMT, CNMT, is a massage therapist, business owner, teacher and blogger. You can access his free, massage-business crash course on his business page.