My introduction to the concept of emotional kryptonite came early in my graduate school training. I was consulting with a supervisor about a particularly intense case of obsessive-compulsive disorder. Or so I thought…
After 20 minutes or so laying out my client’s struggle with anxiety, my supervisor leaned back in his chair, gazed off dreamily toward the corner of the room behind me, and said:
You know Wignall, here’s the thing most therapists go their whole careers without ever realizing… If you dig far enough beneath depression you’ll find anxiety. And if you dig far enough beneath anxiety, you’ll find depression.
(… long pause…)
See you next week.
I was a little stunned. But it also seemed fitting that we should end our supervision there so that I could chew on this nugget of therapeutic wisdom he has tossed at me…
If you dig far enough beneath depression you’ll find anxiety. And if you dig far enough beneath anxiety, you’ll find depression.
At the time, I remember interpreting it to mean that my supervisor thought I’d somehow got the diagnosis wrong—that my client wasn’t anxious but actually depressed. And while there was some truth to that in this particular case, there was a lot more wisdom in my supervisor’s quip than I appreciated at the time.
Emotional appearances can be deceiving
What I’ve realized over the years working as a therapist isn’t so much that it’s easy to confuse anxiety and depression—although it certainly can be. Instead, my supervisor’s comment contains a much more universal truth about the nature of emotional suffering:
What appears to be the problem is very often a symptom of a deeper issue and our long-standing habit of ignoring it.
In the case of my apparently-anxious client, what I realize now is not that I got the diagnosis wrong—he certainly was dealing with OCD! But I missed the forest for one particular tree…
In addition to his struggles with anxious obsessions and compulsions, this particular client also felt stuck in a very unhealthy relationship and had for many years. Because of his religious beliefs, divorce was not an option he could entertain. But he literally dreaded every moment he spent with his wife who was abusive and struggled with chronic and severe drug issues, and yet, was unwilling to get help.
In retrospect, I can see now that my client’s struggles with anxiety and OCD at his work (which initially seemed unrelated to his issues with his wife) were in fact directly related to his marriage: Because he felt helpless to address this major cause of suffering in his home life, his need for control spilled out into his work life in the form of perfectionism, OCD, and anxiety.
This isn’t to devalue his struggle with OCD which was very real. It’s just to say that the anxiety evolved out of his helplessness and hopelessness in his marriage.
And what do you get when you combine chronic helplessness and hopelessness… Yup, that’s a pretty good recipe for depression.
Emotional sleight of hand
Taking a step back, here’s what I think was going on with my client and why it was a perfect example of my supervisor’s idea that If you dig far enough beneath depression you’ll find anxiety. And if you dig far enough beneath anxiety, you’ll find depression.
My client felt profoundly unhappy in a major aspect of his life—his relationship with his spouse. And because he also felt powerless to ever change that, he was understandably hopeless about things getting better. However, it was too painful for him to actually acknowledge this depressing state of his life—that he either had to get out of his relationship or resign himself to a lifetime of marital unhappiness—so he “chose” to ignore it.
I put “chose” in quotes because it wasn’t like this was one decision he made. It was the accumulation of many tiny and subtle decisions to avoid thinking about a particularly painful aspect of his life, and instead, choosing to focus a little more on another aspect of his life.
In other words, because both possible endings in his marriage were unacceptable to him, he refused to play the game. Or better yet, he put that game on pause and started playing a new game.
He poured all of his desire for control and agency into his work. But eventually, his work couldn’t “handle” the full burden of his need for control and agency in his life, so he ended up developing a kind of perfectionistic attitude about performance, and eventually, a pattern of obsessive-compulsive behavior.
Now, this story might sound somewhat extreme to many of you—after all, the majority of people don’t find themselves utterly unhappy and hopeless in their marriages or developing anxiety to the point of OCD. But that doesn’t mean this same basic dynamic doesn’t play out in our lives…
Here are a couple somewhat less extreme examples of the same emotional sleight of hand we all play on ourselves:
- Procrastination. You sit down to finally start working on that creative project you’ve been meaning to finish. But as soon as you do, some nasty negative self-talk pops up telling you how lazy you are for only starting now instead of three weeks ago like you planned. You immediately feel ashamed of yourself. And in a kind of semi-conscious instinct, you hop over to Facebook as a way to avoid the shame associated with feeling lazy. Of course, later on you end up feeling depressed and disappointed in yourself for procrastinating. But if you think about it, procrastination isn’t the real issue here—it’s just the result of being unwilling to look at and deal with that shame.
- Burnout. You’re getting ready to leave work for the weekend. And for once you’ve got no extra work to do over the weekend. But literally on your way out of the office, your manager asks you to run some numbers for a report and have them in by Monday morning. Your immediate reaction is anger and annoyance that your manager keeps unfairly burdening you with extra work. But because you’re afraid to express your anger with him, you say “sure” and once again take on more work than you should, leading to chronic stress, fatigue, and burnout. Now, if you think about it, the stress here isn’t really the underlying problem—it’s just the result of not being able to assertively say no, even if it means a confrontation.
- Chronic Worry & Anxiety. You watch your 18-year-old daughter walk away from you and into her new dorm on her first day of college. Quickly, a wave of sadness and regret flows over you about all the things you won’t be able to do with her anymore and all the things you wish you had made time for when she was younger. But like a reflex, you find your mind worrying about all the things that might happen to her now that you’re not able to be there. Two hours later on your plane flight home and you’re still worrying, overloaded with anxiety and stress. Because you didn’t want to deal with the sadness and regret you felt (which by definition involves a sense of helplessness), your mind turns to something that does at least give the illusion of feeling in control—worry. Running through hypotheticals and planning for negative outcomes makes you feel like you’ve got a job to do and alleviates that sense of helplessness and regret. Unfortunately, the side effect—perpetual anxiety—is starting to become debilitating.
In all three of these examples—and the case of my former client—the same pattern emerges: Our immediate emotion feels too painful so we instinctively avoid it and preoccupy ourselves with something else that, while initially serving as a distraction, eventually creates its own set of problems.
And whether it’s the result of early life struggles or sheer force of habit, the core problem here is simple enough:
You’ve trained yourself to believe that certain emotions are intolerable.
You’re so allergic to a particular painful feeling that you’ll go to some pretty extreme lengths to avoid even acknowledging it—much less working through it.
I like to think of these “too painful” emotions as emotional kryptonite.
What is Emotional Kryptonite?
Emotional kryptonite is the specific emotion in your life that you’re most afraid of feeling and try hardest to avoid—often to the point where you do so unconsciously and habitually.
Frequently, this excessive fear of a particular emotion comes from your early life experiences. For example: If you were criticized and punished each time you got angry as a kid, you might grow up becoming especially afraid of anger.
Emotional kryptonite becomes a problem because of this:
The instinctive avoidance of any emotion often leads to a set of behaviors and habits that produce even greater emotional suffering in the long-run.
In other words, the side effects of the cure become worse than the disease.
- Feeling ashamed of procrastinating feels bad. But the cycle of avoidance, further procrastination, and the disappointment that follows is often a lot worse than the initial feeling.
- Getting angry can be scary in the moment. But the years of chronic stress, resentment, and burnout that result from avoiding that anger and being unwilling to have difficult conversations are likely a lot worse in the long-run.
- Confronting and working through your sadness at your child leaving home is tough, no doubt. But in the long-run it’s probably easier than the chronic worry and anxiety you use as an avoidance strategy to get out of feeling sad.
The solution to the problem of emotional kryptonite is conceptually simple but practical challenging:
Developing the courage to tolerate seemingly intolerable feelings.
Again, easier said than done. But with a few basic principles (and plenty of practice) you can learn to confront those painful feelings in a healthy way—and as a result, eliminate the need for those avoidance behaviors and all the excess emotional suffering they produce.
NOTE: If you don’t get the kryptonite metaphor, this page should catch you up.
How to Deal with Your Emotional Kryptonite: Six Practical Steps
Of course, there are many ways to deal with difficult emotions. But I’ve found the following steps to be helpful for many people who struggle with some form of emotional kryptonite.
1. Read between the lines to identify your emotional kryptonite
Some people are perfectly clear about what their emotional kryptonite is. If that’s you, just skip to step two below.
But if you’re not quite sure, this little technique might help…
First of all, start by tracking your emotions over the course of a couple weeks. You can do this with pen and paper or electronically, but the idea is to simply keep track of what emotions you experience on a regular basis. Just like you would track your expenses before creating a budget, it’s important to get the “lay of the land” when it comes to your emotional life.
After a week or two of tracking, review your list and read between the lines by asking yourself: Which emotion is conspicuously absent?
It’s normal to experience a wide range of emotions on a regular basis, so if one basic emotion seems to be consistently absent, it’s possible that’s because on a less-than-conscious level, you’re avoiding it.
For example, let’s say over the course of the last week you noted plenty of times where you felt angry or irritated, a good amount of anxiety and nervousness, as well as smaller amounts but still a handful of times when you felt ashamed or embarrassed.
Well, looking at that list, the emotion that seems conspicuously absent to me is sadness. So you might ask yourself, did I really have no occasion to be even a little bit sad?
Of course, just because you don’t recall feeling an emotion over the course of a week or two doesn’t mean it is your emotional kryptonite. But it’s a good start if you suspect you do have an emotional kryptonite but aren’t very clear on what it might be.
2. Elaborate on your emotional kryptonite
A lot of people have a pretty limited emotional vocabulary, especially when it comes to the emotions we really dislike feeling.
This means that one of the ways we keep ourselves in the dark about our emotional kryptonite is through our language. If you really hate feeling anxious, for example, one way you might avoid anxiety is by using a term like stressed to describe how you feel when you are in fact anxious.
This process is something I call intellectualizing your emotions and breaking out of it is key to identifying and facing up to your emotional kryptonite.
To counteract this effect, you can work to build your emotional vocabulary by elaborating on your emotions with more specific and nuanced language.
For example, let’s say you’ve identified anger as your emotional kryptonite. Well, there are actually a lot of different forms anger can take: annoyance, irritability, rage, frustration, resentment, exasperation, bitterness, etc.
When you increase your emotional vocabulary around a particular emotion, you’re more likely to notice subtle variants of it. This is especially useful when it comes to emotional kryptonite because, by definition, it’s already subtle.
So, while it may be very hard to notice yourself getting angry, it might be a little easier to notice moments when you feel annoyed or irritated. Then, as you get better at noticing these variants of anger, you will start to get better at noticing stronger variants of it like resentment or frustration.
If you think you know your emotional kryptonite, pull out your thesaurus (or use one online) and type in your emotional kryptonite. Then, make a list of all the synonyms for that emotion so you can keep an eye out for them throughout your days.
3. Talk about your emotional kryptonite with a trusted person
Once you’ve identified your emotional kryptonite and armed yourself with a more nuanced vocabulary for thinking about, the next step is to actually confront it.
Of course, this will be understandably difficult: If you’ve spent most of your life avoiding this emotion, just facing up to it is going to be scary.
Which is why I usually recommend easing into it with a trusted person in your life. This could be a spouse, a best friend, a parent, a therapist/counselor/mentor, etc. But whomever you choose, make sure it really is someone you feel comfortable being vulnerable with. And if you don’t have someone like this in your life, it’s an excellent reason to get a therapist or coach.
If you’re not sure how to start talking about your emotional kryptonite, here’s a little script you could use with your trusted person:
Hey, so I read this article the other day about “emotional kryptonite.” The basic idea is that most of us have a particular emotion that we really don’t like and tend to ignore. But it’s helpful to explore it and confront it. I think I might know what mine is, can I run it by you?
So give that a shot and most likely a natural conversation around your emotional kryptonite will follow. And once it’s out in the open, it will be much easier to confront it in other ways.
4. Validate your emotional kryptonite
Once you get better at identifying your emotional kryptonite and start to feel more comfortable talking about it to yourself and being more open about it, the next thing you want to do is practice validating that emotion.
To validate your emotions means to remind yourself that it’s okay and understandable that you feel the way you do.
So, if you were to feel anxious all of a sudden, validating your anxiety might look like this:
I feel anxious right now. And even though I really dislike feeling this way, I know it’s not dangerous or bad to feel anxious. It doesn’t mean there’s something wrong with me for feeling this way even though it hurts.
Emotional validation is key because it builds your emotional confidence. By reminding yourself that just because something feels bad doesn’t mean it is bad, you will be more able to identify and face up to difficult emotions in the future.
5. Create an emotional kryptonite ladder
Our emotions come in various shapes and sizes and this is no less true of our emotional kryptonite.
As you start to become more aware of and open to your emotional kryptonite, what you’ll find is that it shows up in small ways, big ways, and many ways in between.
For example, if your emotional kryptonite is sadness it might well show up in a big way if you lose someone close to you—the death of a family member or beloved pet, for instance. But sadness could also show up in relatively small ways—when a good friend cancels a date you had set together, for example.
Creating an emotional kryptonite “ladder” means you get a sense for the full spectrum of shapes and sizes your emotional kryptonite shows up in your life.
So here’s what you do:
First, get a blank sheet of paper and list the numbers 10, 9, 8, etc. down the left-hand side until you get to 1.
As you go through your days being more aware of your emotional kryptonite, start to classify your experiences with that emotion in terms of how intense it was and then list it next to the number.
For example, if your emotional kryptonite is shame, and a coworker makes a sarcastic comment about you during a meeting at work, you would identify the shame, validate it, and then rank how intense it was on a scale from one to 10. If you decide it was a 7 out of 10, then you would briefly describe what happened and list it next to the 7 on your ladder.
Filling out your emotional kryptonite ladder is important because it will give you a way to slowly practice and get better at dealing with your emotional kryptonite.
This is important because if you’ve been terrified of a particular emotion your whole life, you can’t just expect to be able to deal with a huge burst of that emotion all of a sudden. You have to work your way up.
Like any skill, it’s important to start small and slowly build your skill and confidence. The emotional kryptonite ladder gives you examples of what 3/10 versions of that emotion look like so you can practice on them. Then once you get more comfortable and confident working with those 3/10s, you can move up to 4 or 5 out of 10s.
6. Slowly build your emotional kryptonite tolerance
If the core belief behind emotional kryptonite is that certain emotions are intolerable, then the only way to free yourself is to create a new opposing belief:
No matter how painful an emotion feels, I can handle it.
This is the essence of emotional confidence. And the only way to get there is to slowly practice tolerating your most painful emotions and proving to yourself that you can in fact handle them without resorting to avoidance or coping.
The key is to start very small and very slow.
Here’s an example: Let’s say your emotional kryptonite is anger. You’re at the grocery store and someone cuts in front of you in line. You start to notice the anger and immediately feel afraid of that anger and start pulling out your phone to check Facebook and distract yourself.
Instead, you could pause, acknowledge the anger, validate it, and then tell yourself: Here’s what I’m gonna do… I’m going to set a timer on my phone for 30 seconds. And for that 30 seconds, I’m going to allow my anger to just be there. I’m not going to think about it and what it means or do anything in response to it. I’m just gonna let it hang out for 30 seconds. And after that, I’ll check Facebook.
Do this a few times, and you’ll be able to bump it up to a minute. Get more confident with a minute and you’ll be able to do a few minutes. And once you can tolerate your emotional kryptonite at a certain level for a few minutes, that means you can work on tolerating a higher level of the emotion—in other words, you can start working your way up your emotional kryptonite ladder.
If you think about it, this is the exact same process we use for learning any kind of hard skill whether it’s playing the piano, running a marathon, or learning how to write code. You only become confident and proficient by slowly and surely working your way up through harder and more difficult challenges.
It’s no different when it comes to responding confidently and competently to your most difficult and painful emotions—even your emotional kryptonite.
All You Need to Know
Emotional kryptonite is the specific emotion in your life that you’re most afraid of feeling and try hardest to avoid—often to the point where you do so unconsciously and habitually.
The problem is that the cost of chronically avoiding this painful emotion ends up becoming worse than experiencing the emotion in the first place. Many of our most common self-sabotaging behaviors are the result of not dealing with our emotional kryptonite head-on.
In order to build your emotional confidence and deal with your emotional kryptonite in a healthy way, I recommend these six steps:
- Read between the lines to identify your emotional kryptonite
- Elaborate on your emotional kryptonite
- Talk about your emotional kryptonite with a trusted person
- Validate your emotional kryptonite
- Create an emotional kryptonite ladder
- Slowly build your emotional kryptonite tolerance
Nick Wignall is a clinical psychologist and writer interested in practical psychology for meaningful personal growth. You can find more of his writing at NickWignall.com.
Image courtesy of Alex Green.