I often get the impression that clients don’t really understand what it looks or feels like to be emotionally healthy. Of course, emotional health runs on a continuum; there is no one person who exemplifies it to perfection. But, the same way that people may eat differently yet “normally,” emotional health has certain hallmarks. Here are examples:

You take the long view of your wildly dysfunctional childhood and don’t let it get in the way of having a functional adulthood. That was then and this is now. The pain and suffering you endured through absolutely no fault of your own but through random bad luck is over because you avoid dwelling on painful memories, avoid people who hurt you, and know how to handle emotional wounding better than you did as a child. You blame neither your parents nor yourself for your deficits, but strive to overcome them. You know your parents did the best they could even if it wasn’t good enough.

When you’re with family members who are mentally unhealthy, you keep your distance and your expectations low. You don’t get sucked back into childhood dynamics and, even when relatives act like children or treat you poorly, you act like an adult and treat them civilly. They can’t hurt you because you know that what they say is about them not you. Sometimes you let their hurting you go by and sometimes you let them know it’s not okay to mistreat you. Basically you are indifferent to them and don’t invest much energy in your relationship with them. You maintain what’s called a caring distance.

You expect to feel a full range of emotions, recognize that bad things happen to good people, and know that life isn’t fair. Except for rare terrible events—death, divorce, bankruptcy, eviction, rape, assault, etc.—you view disappointments, failures, and inconvenience as low-level irritations. You walk around neither in fear nor naïve to the potential of emotional harm. You recognize that you are your primary care-taker and can’t expect people to do for you what you refuse to do for yourself. You see the world as it is, not as you wish it could be or should be.

You don’t fear confrontation, but rather engage in it whenever necessary to take care of yourself and those you love. For the most part, you act peacefully and cooperatively and take good care of the planet and its inhabitants. You try to do things on your own, but are fine asking for help. You don’t think of yourself or act as a victim, choosing empowerment whenever you can, but also recognizing that individuals have limited power. Rather than live in the past or the future, you stay present and conscious.