Every now and then, an insecure friend or partner might ask “Are you okay? Are you mad at me? Are you sure?” If this line of questioning sounds familiar, then you’ve likely encountered a behavior called emotional monitoring, whether you were the one asking or on the receiving end. These sorts of questions could be sent through text, lining up like an army of unanswered blue bubbles, or peppered at a romantic partner over dinner. It can also look like spending the rest of the night fixating on what someone said, their facial expression, or their body language, wondering if you did something wrong.


Experts In This Article

  • Israa Nasir, MHC, Israa Nasir is the founder of Well.Guide, a mental health platform focused on transforming the way we talk about mental health, taking it from a place of shame to a place of empowerment. As a psychotherapist, mental health coach, and…
  • Pamela Orren, PhD, clinical psychologist at Kaiser Permanente in Walnut Creek, California
  • Tirrell De Gannes, PsyD, licensed clinical psychologist with Thriving Center of Psychology

Emotional monitoring—not to be confused with empathy or people-pleasing—is when you’re scanning the emotions of other people and trying to learn how you should respond based on what you perceive vs. what you’re feeling yourself, explains Pamela Orren, PhD, clinical psychologist at Kaiser Permanente in Walnut Creek, California. “It’s about putting other people’s emotional experience above your own.”

Not only can it lead you to emotional burnout, but it can also keep you stuck in a vicious cycle of unhealthy relationships and communication problems. Emotional monitoring can start in childhood and stick with you into your adult relationships, but there is a way to break out. Here, therapists discuss what causes emotional monitoring and how to break the pattern.

In This Article

What is emotional monitoring in a relationship?

“Emotional monitoring, at its core, is a response to trauma where a person is consistently assessing and tracking the emotions of people around them,” explains Tirrell De Gannes, PsyD, a licensed clinical psychologist with the Thriving Center of Psychology. “This often reads to others as insecurity or anxiety.” It can show up in romantic relationships, but also in family, friend, or work dynamics, too, Dr. Orren says.

Emotional monitoring is a type of hypervigilance, which means that you’re scanning the environment for potential threats, explains psychotherapist and author Israa Nasir. “It’s a naturally-occurring process in our minds. But for certain people, especially those who have a trauma history, it can go into overdrive. We’re looking to see if the emotional environment around us is going to continue to be safe. So we start looking for disappointment, anger, fear, shame, all of those things. Or we start looking for approval and then base our own emotions or behaviors around those perceptions.

Emotional monitoring vs. empathy vs. people-pleasing

Emotional monitoring can be part of the cluster of behaviors under the umbrella of people-pleasing. It’s somewhat related to fawning (or over-explaining trauma), which is when you seek safety by trying to please others. And it’s different from empathizing, which is generally considered a positive and useful emotional intelligence skill.

“Empathizing with others is noticing others’ emotions in order to be supportive of them, whereas emotional monitoring is a desire to use others to self-soothe,” De Gannes explains. Unlike empathy, “emotional monitoring is an attempt to either predict what’s gonna happen so you can adjust your behavior and cope for safety, or adjust the other person’s emotional behaviors and emotional experience,” says Nasir.

In other words, empathy is under your control; emotional monitoring feels like giving someone else the reigns. “It is absolutely amazing that we’re able to assess people’s emotions, but emotional intelligence is when it doesn’t disrupt your own system,” says Nasir.

Signs of emotional monitoring

  • High level of preoccupation with other people’s thoughts and feelings—before, during, and after interactions
  • Inability to be present when interacting with other people; instead, constantly assessing body language, facial expressions, etc.
  • A constant desire for emotional reassurance
  • Inability to self-soothe
  • Difficulty believing positive things about yourself or your behaviors
  • Trouble expressing yourself
  • Adjusting emotions or responses based on others’ perceived emotions
  • Prioritizing other people’s emotions
  • Feeling the need to prepare for a person’s potential emotions (in the case of a more extreme power dynamic)

Why do I emotionally monitor my partner?

If you find yourself emotionally monitoring your partner (or boss, or parent, or friends), first of all, give yourself some grace. The truth is that you likely developed this behavior to cope with or protect yourself in a relationship you had earlier in life that didn’t feel safe and secure, Nasir explains: “Anybody who develops this skill is doing it because it protected them at a time when they needed it.”

Emotional monitoring is often caused by “some form of traumatic event or lifestyle that leads a person to have low faith in the security and consistency of relationships,” says De Gannes. This can be “capital T Trauma” (like sexual assault or interpersonal violence) or “little t trauma,” which includes events that aren’t considered big trauma but can still be highly distressing, Nasir says.

The behavior is often rooted in childhood. “Children are so resilient; we learn how to cope fast because our brain cells are new,” Nasir explains. What likely happened is that you encountered someone in your life who taught you that emotions were unpredictable, contagious, and volatile, whether it was a parent, sibling, coach, or even peers, for example, if you were bullied, Nasir explains. You may have learned how to avoid their negative emotions by staying hypervigilant and trying to predict and control the other person’s emotional response. “If you can pick up on everyone’s emotions, then you can behave in a way that doesn’t trigger somebody, into rage, sadness, grief, whatever it is,” Nasir says. “And so we learned that, and it became the foundation of emotional monitoring.”

Some dynamics that may trigger emotional monitoring in another person can include if someone is abusive, emotionally neglectful, emotionally manipulative, or has substance abuse issues. They may not have good emotional regulation skills, not know how to set proper emotional boundaries, or have a severely anxious attachment or avoidant attachment style, and not communicate their emotions, Nasir explains.

All that said, it’s important to know that not everybody who activates this behavior in you is necessarily malicious, says Nasir. “It can be your emotionally immature parent who doesn’t know how to regulate their emotions, or a new guy you met who comes from a family that never talked about emotions, so he doesn’t have an emotional vocabulary.”

In general, a history of insecure attachments with other people can also cause emotional monitoring, Dr. Orren says. “If there are two people in a relationship who both have an anxious attachment style and are not very clear in expressing themselves, then this can kind of become a cycle, and set the stage for future relationships where you’re like, ‘This is how it has to be because this is how it was with my ex,’ and you don’t realize that this is not the healthiest way to communicate,” Nasir adds.

Finally, anxiety can factor in, too. “A person with high anxiety may latch onto others in search of external validation and a sense of safety,” De Gannes says.

Why does my partner constantly ask if I’m okay?

Constantly asking, “Are you okay?” can be a common manifestation of emotional monitoring. At the most basic, it’s because the person is seeking validation and a sense of safety. When a relationship has an insecure attachment, it lacks trust and a secure base, so you need constant reassurance from the other person that everything is okay, Dr. Orren says.

The question is also about putting the other person’s emotional experience first, Dr. Orren explains. “Instead of asking themselves, ‘Am I okay in this relationship? How do I feel about our relationship?’, it’s about asking the other person, ‘Am I doing enough for you? Are you okay? Are there things I could be doing better for you?’” she says.

“Are you okay?” is also vague—but that’s kind of the point, says Dr. Orren. When someone asks their partner if they’re “okay”, rather than something more specific, it’s likely because they don’t actually want to dive into the details of how they are. Instead, the question is asked in the hopes of receiving a superficial response instead of something constructive.

What are the effects of emotional monitoring?

First and foremost, emotional monitoring is exhausting for the person doing it. The amygdala is the fear center1 in the brain, and its job is to scan for threats, Nasir explains. So when someone is emotionally monitoring, it often means theirs is hyperactive.

“You’re in the fear center all the time, scanning, scanning, scanning, scanning, which can cause a lot of burnout and emotional and physiological stress,” Nasir says. The adrenal system, which handles the stress response, is running nonstop, and you can become really fragile. This can only worsen the problem, as you may start to absorb others’ emotions more easily and learn to disregard your own, she says.

It can also push people away, only making the dynamic of a relationship feel worse for the person who’s emotionally monitoring. “People are not always patient or tolerant with the response style and frequent monitoring, and therefore will become upset at those looking for affirmation,” Dr. De Gannes says. “Relationships can suffer from what is viewed as insecurity, and then the failing relationships can only exacerbate the symptoms.”

Truthfully, if you’re engaging in emotional monitoring, you’re not showing up authentically in a relationship because you’re not expressing yourself or your emotions, Nasir says. “It impacts your emotional intimacy with people.” You’re doing a lot of assuming and calculating, and that can be tiresome for both parties.

“It becomes really challenging to be in a relationship with somebody who is constantly emotionally monitoring because so much is going on in their brain,” Nasir says. “The other person can sometimes feel like they’re always needing to watch out for the emotional monitor, because they might misconstrue, for example, the punctuation in a text message as them being angry.”

How do I stop monitoring the emotions of others?

If you’re now realizing that you tend to emotionally monitor others, the good news is that you’re likely past the hardest part: awareness. That’s typically quite difficult since many people do it subconsciously, Dr. Orren says. Here’s what you can do next to break the pattern.

Consult a mental health professional

First and foremost, Dr. De Gannes recommends seeing a therapist who is well-trained with anxiety and/or codependent tendencies. This is especially true for people whose emotional monitoring comes from trauma or those who feel like it’s taking over their life, Nasir adds.

Set boundaries for yourself

Setting boundaries may seem like it’s for other people, but when you emotionally monitor others, they’re for yourself. For example, Dr. Orren recommends that the next time you go into a social situation, try to catch yourself anytime you’re becoming too invested in what someone else is feeling. Limit yourself to three instances or give yourself three minutes at the beginning of the encounter, and then try to spend the rest of the experience being mindful and focusing on yourself.

Make a mind-body connection

Mindfulness is a big theme here since many emotional monitors are so busy worrying about everyone else’s inner worlds, that they neglect to acknowledge their own.

“Prioritize making a mind-body connection,” Nasir says. “Do whatever makes you more connected to your body, whether it’s playing a sport, going to Pilates, or cooking.” Dr. Orren seconds this. “Through things like mindfulness, meditation, reflection, even some calming and breathing techniques, people can help center themselves in their own body and their own person.”

Learn how to name and regulate your emotions

“Really lean into emotional regulation skills,” Nasir recommends. It will be uncomfortable at times, but that’s part of the process. “Learning how to regulate your uncomfortable emotions is honestly a superpower,” she says.

Part of emotional regulation is being able to name what you’re feeling—something many emotional monitors can’t do. “A lot of people who practice emotional monitoring often have a very limited emotional vocabulary,” she says. Using resources like the feelings wheel can help you expand your emotional vocabulary so you can name and acknowledge your emotions.

Journal

Both Nasir and Orren recommend journaling. If you’re used to bulldozing your own thoughts and feelings when you’re around others, journaling helps you learn to let them see the light of day. “There’s a form of journaling known as thought dumping, where you’re just writing out every single thing that’s in your mind,” Nasir says. “The habit of doing that at least daily for five minutes will help you clear your mind of clutter.

Try to disconnect from others’ opinions of you

Disconnecting your sense of self-worth from other people’s opinions is difficult. Working on this skill is a long-term journey, Nasir says, but it can help with anxiety, self-esteem, catastrophizing, and people-pleasing, in addition to emotional monitoring. It can help you stop seeking approval or validation, or worrying about being “good enough” or “liked enough,” Dr. De Gannes says, which all go hand in hand with emotional monitoring.


Well+Good articles reference scientific, reliable, recent, robust studies to back up the information we share. You can trust us along your wellness journey.

  1. Šimić, Goran et al. “Understanding Emotions: Origins and Roles of the Amygdala.” Biomolecules vol. 11,6 823. 31 May. 2021, doi:10.3390/biom11060823


Source: Well and Good

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