How to Break Through Toxic Emotions

BY: Debbie Ford
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Do you want to find out what it’s like to wake up in the morning free of the burden of trying to “manage” your toxic emotions?

If your answer is yes, now is the time to be straight with yourself. It’s time to admit that certain healthy emotions have turned toxic because you have rejected them, judged them, suppressed them, lied about them, or just decided that you would deal with them later.

Just like detoxifying your physical body, it’s not necessarily easy to detox your emotional body. But it is one of the most important things you will ever do.

Facing the toughest emotions — especially the ones that hijack your happiness when you’re unwilling to deal with them — will change your life for the better.

In writing my next book about why we human beings are so often driven to sabotage ourselves and harm each other, I’ve begun to identify the 11 emotions that universally cause the most personal and collective suffering when they are hidden and denied long enough.

Although some of these 11 are closely interconnected, each has its own uniquely disastrous impact on our lives. 

The Eleven Toxic Emotions

1. Hurt – victimization, helplessness, blame

2. Sadness – self-pity, regret

3. Shame – humiliation, embarrassment

4. Hopelessness – loneliness, despair, desperation

5. Fear – anxiety, panic, immobilization

6. Anger – resentment, bitterness

7. Hate – meanness, vengefulness

8. Jealousy – envy, possessiveness

9. Pride – better than, self-righteousness

10. Greed – insatiability, emotional hunger

11. Guilt – self-blame, false responsibility

The following questions will help you identify which of the 11 toxic emotions are having the biggest impact on the quality of your life and on those around you.

As you answer the questions, remember that no one is looking right now. It’s just you and you. Give yourself permission to be more honest with yourself than you’ve ever been.

My favorite quote from the “I Ching” will help you get started:

It is only when we have the courage
to face things exactly as they are,
without any self-deception or illusion,
that a light will develop out of events,
by which the path to success may be recognized.

Questions to help you identify your toxic emotions

1. Do you see yourself as someone who is “guarded”? Do you keep yourself at a safe distance from others? Do you have a persona that “protects” you — such as self-sufficient, intimidating or superior?  

2. Within 10 minutes of meeting you, do people usually know about the worst thing that ever happened to you?

3. Are the painful things that happened to you in the past your reason for why you don’t have what you want in your life now? And do they keep you from opening up to intimacy with others? 

4. In the privacy of your own heart and mind — despite what you try to project to the outer world — do you actually believe that things won’t get better for you?

5. Do you obsess over what might happen in the future? Do your fears limit what you’re able to experience with others — from emotional intimacy to doing things together in public?

6. Is there someone in your life whom you openly criticize and berate? Do you say things to a loved one that are harsh and judgmental? If so, what are some of the specific things you say to him or her? Also, do you find that you silently say these same kinds of belittling things to yourself?

7. Do you have frequent eruptions of anger — large or small? Do you find yourself yelling at other drivers while you’re driving, picking fights or being “short” with your partner or children, speaking condescendingly to customer service people, or seething at a co-worker who gets under your skin (and then speaking disparagingly about that person to others)?

8. Do you harbor thoughts and feelings of distrust in your partner, looking for evidence that you’re being lied to? 

9. Do you find yourself frequently disagreeing or arguing differing opinions with friends, co-workers and family members?

10. Do you often find yourself comparing yourself to other people and coming out on top?

11. Do you actively look for ways to hurt someone in your life? Do you do things with the intention of sparking jealousy, envy, shame, self-doubt or fear inside of that person?

12. Do you find that no matter how much time, attention or affection your partner gives you, it never feels like enough?

13. Do you feel emotionally and mentally weighed down with responsibilities, and frustrated or angry that you can’t quite fulfill them? 

14. Do you use drugs, alcohol or food to mask any unwelcome emotions? If so, what is the first emotion or feeling that comes to mind? 

15. Do you work long hours, shop, watch TV or surf the Internet to avoid certain feelings? If so, what is the first emotion or feeling that comes to mind?

16. What do you most want people to think about you? Of the 11 toxic emotions listed above, which is closest to the opposite of what you want people to think about you?

17. Which of the questions above triggers an emotional hot button for you? Which one makes you cringe or irritates you the most?

How to put your answers to work for you

Each of the behaviors listed in the questions above and the toxic emotions that fuel them (and that we use to justify them) are the result of a wounded ego — an ego that lives and breathes by the certainty that it is separate, alone, and in a constant state of danger. It wraps itself in layer upon layer of negative beliefs and wears a mask, a false persona, to ensure its safety.

There is much that we could explore about the ego and its many faces and functions. But this is one of the most important things I can tell you: The wounded ego isn’t going away. YOUR wounded ego isn’t going away.

Although your hurt ego will try every trick in the book to have you believe otherwise, there is nothing you can do to fix it, kill it, ignore it or bury it. You can’t make it disappear by achieving, earning, educating, marrying, divorcing, dieting or negotiating your way out of it. You can’t manipulate, manage or control it. But you can give it what it actually wants: safety, compassion, kindness, understanding, love, and reconnection with your whole self.

When this agonized and desperate part of us begins to feel genuinely safe, we start to allow more good things into our lives: more emotional nourishment, more pleasure, more peace.

How to free yourself from your most toxic emotions

One way to start breaking free of your harmful emotions is by identifying the one that has the most power in your life — the toxic emotion that most robs you of your self-confidence and self-esteem; the one that keeps happiness and fulfillment always around the next corner.

Pull that ugly and unwanted emotion out of the dungeon and into the light of day. You’ll start to see the natural transformation that occurs when you bring a fresh awareness to a toxic emotion.

I see how well this works in my experience with clients from every walk of life. Energy, confidence and enthusiasm for life return. Self-sabotaging behaviors begin to fade away. People become free and no longer need to be more than they are or less than they are.

Remember this: Either your toxic emotions are using you, or you’re going to use them. For example, you can either allow your suppressed anger to explode and wreak havoc in your life, or you can harness its inherent power to stand up taller and take on a bigger mission in the world.

Reconnect with your grandest self who feels good inside and is ready to take risks even when there will be challenges; who is inspired and inspiring, powerful and empowered, vulnerable and open while knowing how to set boundaries.

I invite you to transform your painful and difficult emotions from enemies into allies, and start clearing the way for exciting new realties to emerge.


Debbie Ford is founder of The Ford Institute for Integrative Coaching at JFK University and #1 New York Times best-selling author of books including “Spiritual Divorce” and “The Best Year of Your Life.” She holds a degree in psychology and consciousness studies from JFK University as well as two honorary doctorates. Ford is the featured guru on ABC’s The Ex-Wives Club has been a repeat guest on Oprah and Good Morning America. For more information, visit www.debbieford.com.

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