There’s a German saying that translates like this: The worst way of missing someone is to sit next to them, knowing they’ll never be with you.
For three years, I had sat next to her, and it was never going to work. Three long years of being in love with my best friend, that’s what it took for me to finally admit: “I will never be with this girl.”
I distinctly remember the day. It’s one of those rare memories you can access like a Youtube video. You click a button, and, instantly, you can see it. Clearly.
When I hit play on this one, I see myself sitting at my desk, crying. I was 18 years old. I don’t cry a lot, but this one hurt. Deep down, I had known for a while we’d never be together, but it was still overwhelming.
As much as I felt sad, I also felt relieved. Finally, I was free. Finally, I could move on. Some of my tears were happy tears. This is the most distinct part of the memory. I sat in my desk chair, thinking: “Well, at least I still have myself. I guess I’ll always have myself.”
Sometimes, I joke that, whenever I have to be alone, at least I’ll be in good company. It’s funny, but it’s also true. I can’t trace back this feeling any further than that memory. That day, I understood a huge emotional investment had failed, but I also realized my parents raised me to be my own best friend.
That’s a lot to take in, and that’s why I was crying.
Emotional self-sufficiency is the foundation of good mental health. It’s also fertile ground for happiness. The better you can deal with your emotions, the more positive moments you can extract from even the worst of situations.
Finally, emotional maturity is attractive in the most literal sense of the world. When you can identify, analyze, process, and manage your feelings well, the world takes notice. Opportunities, responsibilities, and relationships start gravitating towards you because people know you can handle them.
I was lucky. I lived a sheltered, complete childhood. Few people get that. But I also never stopped working on myself. In the ten years that followed that memory, I maintained and improved my ability to identify, accept, act on and move on from my emotions.
You can’t change your upbringing after the fact, but you can work on emotional self-sufficiency. Emotionally mature people have certain traits. By emulating them as best as you can, you can learn to take responsibility for your feelings.
It’s a slow process, not always easy, and there is no one right way to do it, but here are three exercises that have given me strength and stability throughout the years.
1. Sit with your emotions
The hardest and most important part of emotional self-sufficiency is not running away when your feelings make you uncomfortable.
It’s easy to gloss over negative emotions and “try to stay positive,” as we’re often told. Sadly, doing so further obfuscates our feelings rather than clarify them. We may think we’ve handled our sadness, fear, or disappointment when, actually, we haven’t even identified which one causes our discomfort.
This is the first task of emotional self-sufficiency: finding emotional clarity. It requires spending time with yourself, thinking, and holding off on judgments so you don’t jump to false conclusions.
Our age affects our ability to label emotionally laden situations, and, usually, we become worse at it as we grow up. When do you ever hear an adult say, “I’m afraid?” Children, however, confess to being scared all the time. Of course, they are less burdened with responsibilities. Kids have time. As adults, we must make said time to gain emotional clarity.
Before I had my “breakthrough,” I spent many nights sitting by myself, mulling over the situation with my then-best friend. Few of them led to tangible answers, but they all fed into the final revelation.
The second part of being emotionally responsible is sitting with what you have identified. Like waiting for the initial fog to clear, this requires emotional tolerance. Your feelings can’t kill you, but it is only when you sit with the bad ones and realize the world keeps turning that you start trusting in this fact.
Today, our challenges are almost exclusively emotional. Leaning into your feelings gives you the power to accept them without letting them hijack your behavior. You want to act, not react. What distinguishes the two is a plan; a plan formed with time.
Sitting with your emotions as a standalone activity is crucial to separating other people’s behavior from how you feel about said behavior. Initially, our gut tells us the two are one and the same, but they’re not. For example, while I was angry that the girl I was in love with didn’t reciprocate my feelings, I had no idea what she felt or why she acted the way she did. So who was I to judge? It was my anger, and all I could do was resolve it — and that took time.
The next time you feel particularly uncomfortable, tempted to act on an impulse, or as if you’re on the verge of a nervous breakdown, go home. Sit. Make some tea. Put on some music. Think. Rest. Let your true feelings bubble to the surface, and then take a bath inside those emotions.
It may still feel uncomfortable at first, but after a while, you’ll get a sense of relief and new clarity on what’s going on inside your body and mind.
2. Journaling (or any other kind of writing)
Writing is thinking. Every sentence has structure. You can’t write without structuring your thoughts, and since your thoughts are your responses to your emotions, writing is structuring your emotional responses.
There are countless forms of writing. None of them demand you publicly post your results, but almost all of them let you shape your emotional landscape.
There’s journaling, which you can do in a five-minute format, by answering a single question, along certain themes, like Stoicism, or in a free-writing style where you document your stream of consciousness in real-time. There are quizzes and personality tests, the idea of a personal manifesto, and many lists of values, rules, and principles, all of which can facilitate emotional clarity.
Once you’ve picked up on certain character traits, attitudes, or beliefs you hold — if even just for a period of time — identifying how you feel about and want to handle things gets easier in similar, future situations.
Meditation is humility in its purest form. You just sit there. You don’t act. You don’t think. At least, you’re not trying to. For a few minutes a day, you allow yourself to merely exist, and you teach yourself that that’s actually okay.
I used to think meditation was about self-awareness, but it’s also about non-judgment. You’ll learn to not label your thoughts, feelings, and experiences so quickly. Sometimes, you’ll even realize you can’t decide if something is good or bad at all — and you just accept it as is.
For the past 150 days, I have meditated each day. Usually, I do it for 15 minutes after waking up, but even as little as five minutes helps.
By tuning in to yourself and listening to what comes to the surface, you gain emotional clarity. You also practice emotional tolerance, as you’re literally just tolerating the passage of time. Finally, it lets you approach situations more humbly, as you’re not so quick to judge.
There are many ways to meditate, but I like the simple version: Just sit comfortably, close your eyes, and reset your train of thought when you catch yourself chasing a mental path. Sometimes, I focus on my breath or the noises in my environment, but as long as I make an effort to stay present, it works.
Start with a few minutes a day, ease in to what might feel uncomfortable at first, and then go from there.
Emotional self-sufficiency isn’t being immune to losing your shit. We all have moments of overwhelm and despair. It’s about not letting those moments dictate your life.
It takes a lot of standing up to catch yourself when you fall, but if you can do both, you’ll always land safely, even when the touchdown isn’t soft. You’ll have faith in yourself and feel you can handle whatever life throws at you. You’ll be calmer, more stable, and attract many good things in your life, from happiness to opportunities and relationships.
Get a journal. Meditate a little. Make time to sit with your emotions. Give these exercises a try. The next time you find yourself shedding a tear, maybe you’ll remember that, at least you’ll always have yourself.