Reasons Why You Feel So Emotional All the Time

6 Psychological Reasons Why You Feel So Emotional All the Time

#1: Unchecked expectations

Shakir Essa 10/17/2020 · 10 min read

Shakir essa
Shakir Essa

Why am I so emotional? has to be one of the most frequently asked questions I hear as a psychologist.

But it’s a tricky question to answer, primarily for two reasons:

  1. Many different factors affect how we feel emotionally. Everything from your genetics and attachment style to what you ate for breakfast and how much sleep you got last night play some role in how you feel emotionally.
  2. There’s no clear standard for how much emotion is “normal.” For example: There’s no rule book that says feeling 6 out of 10 anger is normal, but 8 out of 10 anger is abnormal. Or that feeling angry for a few minutes is normal but feeling it for a few hours is abnormal.

Still, many people do experience higher and more prolonged levels of painful emotion than they need to. And while this excessive emotionality is sometimes due to factors outside their control, frequently that’s not the case.

Often it’s subtle psychological factors that are the real cause of feeling too emotional.

This is good news because, in general, a lot of your psychology is under your control — unlike your genes or what your parents did to you as a child.

What follows is a collection of subtle but powerful psychological causes of excessive emotionality. If you can learn to identify these in your own life, there’s a good chance you can use that knowledge to regulate your emotions more effectively and feel a little more emotionally balanced as a result.

1. Unchecked expectations

Expectations are beliefs about how other people or things in the world should behave or turn out.

There are two major problems with expectations, both of which often lead to heightened levels of emotion:

  1. They’re rarely updated as often as they should be. Suppose you have an expectation of yourself that you do A+ work all the time. While this may have been (sort of) reasonable as a very bright student in a pretty easy school setting when you were 16, it may not be all that reasonable now that you’re a 45-year-old working professional with a mortgage, 4 kids, and sick parents. In other words, your expectation of stellar work all the time is the driving force behind your perfectionism. And your perfectionism is probably driving a lot of excess anxietystress, and self-criticism.
  2. We often use expectations as a defense mechanism. When you believe that something (or someone) should be or act a certain way, it can give a false sense of certainty and control about things that are fundamentally not under your control (and therefore, anxiety-producing). For example: Is your expectation that your children get straight As in school really about your kids’ best interest or is it more about alleviating your anxiety and guilt about not being around your kids enough and this having negative effects on them? The illusion of control and certainty that comes from expectations can make us feel better in the moment. But long term it tends to make us feel worse because it’s a form of denial.

There’s a time and place for expectations. But here’s the thing: If you never check in on your expectations, update them, or investigate what function they’re really serving, they can easily lead to a lot of unnecessary emotional pain and distress.

The trick is to make sure that you are being thoughtful and intentional with your expectations.

Make a time to check in with your expectations for key people and relationships in your life and adjust them to be as realistic and helpful as possible.

2. Worry

When people say they feel so emotional, one of the most common forms is feeling too anxious.

But here’s the thing many people don’t understand about anxiety:

Anxiety doesn’t just happen. It’s created and maintained by the mental habit of worrying.

This distinction between the anxiety you feel and the worry that leads to it is crucial. Because if you want to feel less anxious, the only real solution is to learn to manage your worry habit better.

Ultimately, worry is a form of thinking — a version of negative self-talk, to be more specific. It involves trying to problem-solve things in the future that either A) aren’t really problems, or B) you aren’t capable of solving.

Like all other emotions, anxiety is not something you can influence directly. You can’t decide to be less anxious any more than you can decide to be happier. Emotions don’t work that way.

We can only influence our emotions indirectly, primarily through the way we think.

If you’re constantly worrying about the future, you’re going to constantly feel much more anxious than you need to. On the other hand, if you can reduce your habit of worrying by just 20 or 30%, you’ll take a major chunk out of your excessive feelings of anxiety.

If you often feel too anxious, it’s because you’re worrying too much. The trick is to validate the anxiety and take control of the worry.

3. Rumination

Rumination is the flip-side of worry. When we worry, we engage in unhelpful thinking and problem solving about the future using our imagination. When we ruminate, we think unproductively about the past using our memory.

For example:

  • You get home from work and try to engage with your spouse or play with your kids, but you keep going over and over that nasty comment your manager made to you during a meeting at work.
  • After a fight with your girlfriend, you replay the fight repeatedly and search your memory for all the examples in your past where she’s been just as guilty of the thing she’s criticizing you for.

Like, worry, rumination often feels good or helpful because it feels like you’re doing work and solving problems. But in reality, you can’t control the past any more than you can control the future.

When you get stuck in a habit of rumination, it only fuels your anger and shame in the long run. And as a result, keeps you feeling more emotionally volatile.

Also like worry, rumination tends to be compulsive because — very briefly — it makes us feel good. It gives us a sense of control that temporarily alleviates our anxieties or insecurities.

  • Rather than accepting the fact that your manager doesn’t really like you, you temporarily make yourself feel better by analyzing the situation over and over to try and find out what you could have done or said that would have made things better.
  • Rather than exploring the possibility that maybe your girlfriend was right to criticize you, you distract yourself from your feelings of shame by getting defensive and angry and making her out to be the bad gal.

Now, this doesn’t mean thinking about the past can’t be helpful sometimes. To the contrary, calmly and objectively reflecting back on our past can be enormously helpful and productive.

So how do you know if you’re doing unhelpful rumination or helpful reflection?

The best indicator I’ve found to distinguish helpful reflection from unhelpful rumination is intentionality. When we get stuck in cycles of unhelpful rumination, it’s typically a relatively mindless and reactive process — we just find ourselves rumination. On the other hand, genuine reflection is usually very intentional — it’s initiated deliberately and thoughtfully.

Finally, helpful reflection is always aimed at understanding not feeling.

So ask yourself:

Am I dwelling on the past to genuinely understand something better, or am I doing this to make myself feel better or avoid dealing with some other uncomfortable situation or reality?

4. Waiting for motivation

Most people look at motivation as fuel — when you feel good enough, inspired enough, or motivated enough, it gives you the energy to do things:

  • If you feel energetic enough, you go for a run.
  • If you feel inspired enough, you work on that creative project.
  • If you feel motivated enough, you write a new blog post.

And while there’s certainly some truth to this idea that feeling good helps us take action, when viewed in isolation, it’s actually dangerous.

Feeling good does make it easier to do hard things, but it’s not a requirement for doing hard things.

Which makes sense if you really think about it…

  • If someone held a gun to your head and said to go to the gym and walk on the treadmill for 20 minutes, you could do it… regardless of how you felt initially.
  • If someone said here’s a check for $1,000,000 if you finish that blog post you’ve been meaning to write, you could do it… regardless of whether you were feeling inspired or not.

The point is simple:

We are perfectly capable of doing difficult things despite not feeling like it.

But here’s the most important implication of this idea: Doing important things makes us feel good!

  • Working on a creative project regardless of how you feel will lead to you feeling more inspired.
  • Going to the gym regardless of how you feel will lead to you feeling more energized.

Action leads to motivation at least as often as motivation leads to action.

The problem is, most people don’t really believe this. And so they sit around waiting to do important things until they feel like it.

Unfortunately, this habit of waiting for motivation leads to a lot of chronic shame, sadness, and self-criticism. Because you’re essentially living in a chronic state of procrastination — putting off the things you know you should do and doing something easier instead.

When this habit gets really entrenched, it leads to a state of perpetually low self-esteem and poor self-worth, which makes you keenly vulnerable to difficult emotions and bad moods.

On the other hand, when you stop waiting around for motivation and learn to make your own by taking good action regardless of how you feel, you buffer yourself from the effects of stress and painful emotion.

5. Passive communication

Passive communication is a tendency to ignore your own wants and needs and “go with the flow” of other people’s wishes in order to avoid conflict.

For example:

Your spouse suggests going to a movie for date night. You think to yourself, It’d be nice to go to dinner instead so we can actually talk. But then you think to yourself, No, he always complains about “fancy restaurants” and how expensive they are. Better just do a movie. At which point you find yourself saying, Sure, honey.

Obviously, deferring what you want and doing what someone else wants isn’t a bad thing necessarily. In fact, for any relationship to function healthily we need to be able to sacrifice and compromise sometimes.

But many people have gotten into a habit of always compromising on what they want and always deferring their needs to those of others. And for most significant relationships in our lives, this is just as unhealthy as never compromising.

The reason is, it leads to chronic resentment and anxiety. And when you’re chronically resentful of people and at the same time anxious, it’s very difficult to maintain a balanced, non-reactive emotional life.

When you habitually avoiding external conflict, you’re simply shifting all that conflict inside yourself.

And when you’re full of inner conflict, your emotions are going to feel all over the place and extreme.

If you want to cultivate true emotional peace and stability, you must learn to be assertive. You must learn to express your wants and needs clearly and honestly.

6. Unclear values

Answer this question to yourself honestly:

How much of your time do you spend doing things you genuinely want to do?

If we’re honest with ourselves, I think it’s probably a lower number than we’re comfortable admitting.

Of course, there’s boatloads of privilege wrapped up in that idea: Many people, out of sheer necessity, have to spend nearly all their time doing things they don’t especially want to do.

That being said, it’s a strange phenomenon that so many of us actually have the freedom to spend time doing things we really care about, believe in, and are passionate about, and yet… we don’t. And as a result, we live in this state of constant low-level shame about ourselves.

This perpetual sense of feeling like we’re not spending our time wisely is a huge vulnerability to feeling overly emotional.

Think about it: If you’re already feeling bad about yourself for wasting time, procrastinating, or indulging superficial goals at the expense of genuine ones, even small stressors and setbacks are going to hit you that much harder.

Part of this chronic procrastination is a result of the waiting for motivationproblem described above in #4. But I think there’s actually a deeper reason why we live in this perpetual state of self-disappointment where we’ve got a list of things we should be doing or working on and yet we find ourselves wasting time on things that don’t really matter to us…

We don’t really know what our values are.

I mean, we kind of do. We know the vague outlines of our values and what we want:

  • You know you want to get in shape and be healthy.
  • You know you want to spend more quality time with your family.
  • You know you want to be more creative.
  • You know you want to travel more.
  • Etc.

The problem is, these are all incredibly vague, non-specific ideas. And that lack of specificity makes it extremely hard to actually move forward on any of them and gain the emotional benefits of doing so.

If you think about the most emotionally resilient people you know, I bet most of them have this in common:

They have specific, clear goals and values and make steady progress toward them.

Because when we spend our time and energy doing the things that really matter to us — the things we really value — it’s like a super injection of emotional stability and energy.

But the trick to getting there — the trick to getting over the chronic procrastination hump — is to get really clear about your values. And to make extremely clear, specific plans and systems that will help you move toward these values.

So, don’t be satisfied with vague values. Take the time to really get to know your values in a clear, concrete way.

When you do, you’ll find that you’re able to make much better progress toward them; and as a result, feel more confident and emotionally stable as a result.

All You Need to Know

If you chronically feel more emotional than you think you should, there’s a good chance one or more of these habits may be a significant cause:

  • Unchecked expectations
  • Worry
  • Rumination
  • Waiting for motivation
  • Passive communication
  • Unclear values


Somaliland: East Africa’s largest conduit for illicit cheetah trafficking to the Gulf

Somaliland: East Africa’s largest conduit for illicit cheetah trafficking to the Gulf
Global Initiative Against Transnational Organised Crime
Somaliland: East Africa’s largest conduit for illicit cheetah trafficking to the Gulf

A cheetah cub receives care from representatives of Somaliland’s Ministry of Environment and Rural Development, in a village near Erigavo, Sanaag, in August 2020. According to reports, the cubs were being held by local farmers who surrendered them to the authorities, as the result of conflict with the mother cheetah near their livestock. (Photo: Twitter / Ministry of Environment and Rural Development)

A recent spate of cheetahs being seized in Somaliland has shown that the illicit demand for these animals remains strong. Cheetahs are highly prized as exotic pets in the Gulf states, and in supplying this market, traffickers have heavily impacted local cheetah populations in Africa, a situation compounded by the fact that many animals die en route.

In late July, two cheetah cubs were rescued from a 25-day ordeal at the hands of wildlife traffickers by the Awdal region police in Borama, a city in Somaliland not far from the Ethiopian border. Members of the local community helped look after the dehydrated and underweight cubs until the rescue team arrived. The cubs were then given care by Cheetah Conservation Fund (CCF) staff before being transported to a CCF safe house.

Two cubs rescued near Borama, 24 July 2020. The cubs had reportedly been in the hands of traffickers for 25 days before their rescue. (Photo: CCF)

These cubs were part of a series of recent seizures of cheetahs in Somaliland. Through July and August, 20 cheetah cubs were rescued over five missions jointly conducted by the ministry of environment and rural development, the Selel regional administration and the Somaliland police, with support from the CCF and Torrid Analytics. 

On 14 September, two cheetah cubs were seized in the Sool region in the south-east: the youngest was only two weeks old. In total, 25 cubs have been reported as seized or rescued in Somaliland so far this year.

A six-month-old cheetah cub, in the care of Somaliland’s Ministry of Environment and Rural Development and the Cheetah Conservation Fund, en route to Hargeisa, 29 July 2020. The cub was one of eight rescued over three missions in Somaliland in late July. (Photo: Cheetah Conservation Fund)

Cheetah trafficking in Somaliland is not a new issue. Since 2010, when reporting became more consistent, there have been 193 rescued or surrendered cheetahs. Nearly a third of these occurred after the country ratified its Forestry and Wildlife Conservation Law in August 2018, which has reportedly led to increased awareness and better coordination between wildlife officials, police and the army.

Many of the cheetahs seized in Somaliland are believed to originate in Ethiopia, which shares an 800km border with the self-declared state. At least 25% of seized cheetahs in Somaliland have been found at or near the Ethiopian border – the two cubs intercepted near Borama in August, for example, were less than 15km from the border. 

As known cheetah populations in Ethiopia total no more than 300 adolescent and adult specimens, it is clear that the trafficking of cubs is taking a significant toll on cheetah populations. Ethiopia and South Sudan, along with Somalia/Somaliland where cheetah populations are unknown, are also the last remaining stronghold of the North East African cheetah subspecies, Acinonyx jubatus soemmeringii.

Cheetah cubs are mostly taken from the wild when the mother hides them to go hunting, either opportunistically by nomadic herders or by poachers. A cub can sell for between $200 and $300 in Somaliland, although prices vary greatly: an unhealthy cub can be bought for as little as $80, while a healthy, older cub can cost up to $1,000. The same cheetah can be sold for up to $15,000 in the Gulf states. 

Mortality is high, as most cubs are removed from the wild at only two to eight weeks from birth and are subjected to maltreatment and poor nutrition in the hands of poachers and dealers, compounded with the rigours of the trip across the Gulf of Aden. While difficult to estimate, it is thought that more than 60% of cheetah cubs die before they reach the market to be sold.

Somaliland is vulnerable as a conduit for the illegal wildlife trade not only due to its proximity to the Arabian Peninsula’s wealthy consumer markets for exotic wildlife, but also due to the country’s rampant poverty, weak legal frameworks and a lack of environmental awareness. 

Corruption also drives the cheetah trade. There are instances of illegally obtained cheetah cubs being sold back to smugglers by corrupt officials after a confiscation has been reported. That being said, Somaliland’s cheetah trade has been more extensively researched than other countries and regions of Somalia. Its relative importance as the main cheetah trafficking route into the Middle East might be in part connected to underreporting from other countries.

Across the Gulf of Aden

From Somaliland, cheetahs are transported by boat – hidden in hampers, crates or cardboard boxes – from the northern coastline across the Gulf of Aden to Yemen at an estimated rate of 300 cubs per year. The 140 nautical miles between the ports of Berbera in Somaliland and Aden in Yemen can be covered in just over seven hours at a dhow’s average speed of 20 knots.

Once in Yemen, cheetahs are reportedly transported by boat or road across the Saudi border to animal markets such as Al-Jazan or Al-Khouba, or delivered to Saudi traders, who will then offer them throughout the Gulf states to known buyers on ecommerce and social media platforms such as Instagram and Snapchat, or, more recently, through private chat groups. 

Research carried out by CCF researchers found that at least 2,000 cheetahs had been advertised online between 2010 and 2019. Most were found on Instagram, with sellers offering cheetahs in Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Kuwait.

Delivery to the UAE, Qatar or Kuwait from Saudi Arabia can be made by road or air. An investigative report published by Le Figaro quoted an employee at the Kuwait airport who stated that:

“It is enough to mention that they are ‘cats’ on the box and to pay certain people I know. It is easy for me because I work there and I know who will take the money. I give them between KWD500 and KWD1000 ($1,600–$3,200 to allow illegal animals (through the country).”

There have also been isolated reports of cheetahs arriving in Oman from Yemen, as well as being transported from Oman into the UAE via the Hatta border crossing.

An illegal status symbol

Cheetahs have long been popular household pets or hunting companions in the Gulf states, where they are viewed as status symbols. This popularity has been boosted in recent years by wealthy or famous individuals posing with their exotic pets on social media

However, few cheetah owners know how to provide the proper care for these animals, with some social media posts advertising cheetahs that have been declawed – an extremely painful process for the animals. 

Many pet cheetahs in the Gulf states do not live beyond the first year, and few live longer than five years, according to information collected by CCF.

CCF veterinarian Dr Asma Bile prepares cubs rescued from traffickers to make the journey to Hargeisa to the CCF safe house. (Photo: CCF)

Trade in wild cheetahs for commercial purposes is illegal in all the Gulf states, either through the states being party to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) or through domestic legislation. 

In December 2016, the UAE enacted a law banning the private possession of exotic and dangerous pets, although only one seizure (of four cheetahs) has been made since 2015, suggesting that the ban is seldom enforced. 

In Kuwait, where no cheetahs have been seized in the past five years, the National Assembly approved a draft animal welfare law that penalises illegal trade or possession of predators in December 2015. In Qatar – where discussions continue over a law regulating the trade and ownership of dangerous animals – the ministry of municipality and environment announced the arrest of an Arab national in July 2016 for trading in cheetahs.

Under CITES regulations, however, captive-bred cheetahs can be traded commercially by registered facilities. The CITES trade database reports that 16 “captive-bred” cheetahs were exported into Armenia from Bahrain and the UAE between 2009 and 2015.

However, the probability that cheetahs in the Gulf (both those kept as pets and those exported) are truly bred in captivity or traded in compliance with national laws or CITES regulations is low.

First, only two such registered breeding facilities exist worldwide – both are in South Africa.

Second, cheetahs do not breed well in captivity. Based on information from the International Cheetah Studbook, a voluntary register of captive cheetahs worldwide, the first report of captive-bred cheetahs in the Gulf states was in 1994. Since then, six facilities have reported a total of 304 cheetah births in captivity, with a 31% mortality rate for cubs under six months. 

No births have been reported by these facilities since 2016.

It is therefore more likely that purportedly “captive-bred” cheetahs in the Gulf come from elsewhere, as suggested by the “captive-bred” cheetahs exported from Bahrain to Armenia. There are no known cheetah breeding facilities in Bahrain, suggesting that the cheetahs’ real origins were masked.

A contentious issue

The issue of the illegal cheetah trade has been on the CITES agenda since 2013, when it commissioned a study that led to decisions and recommendations aimed at reducing demand and encouraging international collaboration. However, the 18th Conference of the Parties (CoP), held in August 2019, voted to delete these decisions based on a report from the standing committee to the secretariat

The report concluded that the illegal cheetah trade was limited, based on official seizure reports from nine countries that cited 32 specimens (13 live, 19 parts or products) between 2015 and mid-2018. Based on this, the CoP agreed that matters related to the illegal cheetah trade could be addressed by a Big Cat Task Force, jointly run by CITES and the Convention for Migratory Species, which is currently in the process of being implemented.

However, Kenya and Ethiopia – two cheetah-range countries – argued that the numbers reported by CITES “underestimate the full extent of the trade, since they only include confiscated animals appearing in official records and omit data from many countries, including key primary source countries for trafficked cheetah”. They cited information showing 393 cheetah specimens (274 live animals and 119 parts), including the 32 seized specimens reported to CITES, during the same period.

The countries’ joint statement – submitted to the CITES CoP – went on to add: “Given the perilous state of [East African] cheetah populations that are the source of illegal trade, any ongoing trade in wild cheetah is alarming.”

The recent spate of seizures in Somaliland seems to confirm those fears. The illegal trade in wild cheetahs appears to be continuing apace, with potentially grave consequences for East African cheetah populations. DM

This article appears in the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organised Crime’s monthly East and Southern Africa Risk Bulletin. The Global Initiative is a network of more than 500 experts on organised crime drawn from law enforcement, academia, conservation, technology, media, the private sector and development agencies. It publishes research and analysis on emerging criminal threats and works to develop innovative strategies to counter organised crime globally. To receive monthly Risk Bulletin updates, please sign up here.

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