We all have to experience them, and while they often create a rich, dynamic and interesting experience of living, they also can create a whole lot of suffering.
This is why we all want to learn how to control our emotions.
But what I’m going to propose here may be quite different than what you were looking for.
The idea of controlling your emotions comes from a premise that emotions are actually controllable, that you can control your physiology to stop feeling one emotion, and start feeling another.
I’m not a big fan of control, I like the word influence (see my post on designing your life – influence vs. control.
Some people will say you are able to control your emotions, but I disagree, and perhaps it’s just a matter of semantics and we are saying the same thing.
The problem with trying to control emotions, is that the emotional response is built into our human biology. One of the most common emotional responses people want to control is fear.
Overcoming fear itself, is very, very difficult to do. There is a purpose for emotions, they have helped us to survive and to get where we are.
They’re not going away, and honestly they’re not so easy to control.
The good news is that most emotions only actually last about 30 seconds or so, and if we learn a new way to relate to them, we gain more control over our lives.
What you’re more likely looking for is “how to not be controlled by your emotions” or “get more control over my life”.
Doesn’t that sound more accurate? The response can still happen, but you aren’t run by it, and it doesn’t get out of control.
Controlling and managing emotions is like trying to control waves on the ocean, you can’t do it very well if at all.
However how you respond when the emotion hits you, is something you can control.
When we let emotions control us, we actually create a long-standing emotional state called a mood. This is where we are run by our mood – for example depression or anxiety – and our lives seem to be out of control.
Here’s the shortcut:
Don’t try learning how to control your emotions that’s a losing battle. But learn how to not let your emotions control YOU.
Learn how to let your emotional response be there, without it running (or ruining) your life.
So this is how we do it.
Awareness Building / Mindfulness Practice
It all starts with awareness. I don’t know how many times, in how many posts I’ve written this, and will continue to write it.
There’s just no getting around it. We can’t shift our relationship to our emotions if we aren’t aware of them and how they affect us.
Even more importantly how we let them affect us, and take over our lives, how by resisting them we keep ourselves stuck.
Daily meditation is a great place to start.
Also learning how to mindfully do things throughout your day can be a life changing activity.
It can help us get out of our heads, to stop obsessing and thinking all the time. Mindfulness also deepens our power of intention, for leading the lives we want to live.
Watch & Shift Your Physiology
A very simple and often effective way to change your relationship with your emotions, is to shift your body.
Emotion expresses itself through our body, and though not always the same for everyone, there are common facial expressions and dispositions for it.
Research has shown there to be common facial expressions across the world in different cultures. So if you’re wallowing in misery, thinking about that love you’ve lost, or your job is stressing you out, notice your body.
What is it doing, how are you sitting? Are you slumped, or sideways? Are you upright, but tense? Really take an inventory.
Then try shifting your body and notice how your thoughts and feelings shift.
Of course the benefits of regular exercise play into this, as well as arts like Yoga and Tai Chi.
Learning how to relax mind and your body is important for overall well-being, and learning to relate better to your emotional response.
Don’t Resist Your Emotions When They Come
I tried for years and years to control my emotions. While I have gained much greater control over my mood, and how I approach life in general, I don’t believe we can win the battle over emotions.
Judging emotions as bad, especially the negative ones, is the root of this fundamental belief that we can control our emotions.
If we are like a sailboat on the ocean, emotions come and go like the waves, but our mood is like our overall heading to where we want to go.
We can’t control the waves, but we can control our heading. Do we get thrown off course with really big, violent waves at times? Sure.
But we can ride them out turning towards our original (or new) heading, and keep sailing onto what matters in our lives.
Investigate & Shift Your Story
This might be one of the most important factors for changing how you respond to your emotions. What story are you telling yourself about the world, and how you show up?
What we often don’t realize is that language has a powerful effect on our lives.
We often think that language is just for communication, to describe things, and that it is passive.
It is used for these purposes, true, but that’s not all it’s for.
In fact, what if language’s main purpose was to act, when you learned how to use it more powerful.
Language is generative, creative, and ACTION-BASED.
Just think about when you say “I love you” to someone for the first time. Doesn’t the entire relationship change?
The same goes for The Declaration of Independence for the United States. While the document contains gripes against England, it was actually a written document of action.
It DECLARED the colonies into a separate nation called the United States.
So before the declaration, we had 13 colonies. Then a bunch of men with crazy wigs got together, had a lot of conversations, and decided to draw up the document and present it to England.
Poof – the separation was complete, just with a few words on a page. This is also called a speech act – where we act in language.
So what are you telling yourself that is keeping your overall emotional state in place that you want to change (aka mood?)
How has your life story turned out? Now that you begin to build awareness, watch the thoughts and how they generate your story.
What life story do you want to tell, and become?
Dealing with emotions isn’t always easy, especially when difficult challenges arise in life like death of loved ones, financial problems and relationship issues.
But learning to get a handle on how we deal with our emotions, which for all intents and purposes aren’t actually controllable.
P.S. Here’s a great article in Psychology Today about their take on emotional control.