Trying to Control Your Emotions Only Helps Them Control You

Control Your Emotions

When you try to control your emotions

Try to remember the last time you felt an uncomfortable emotion. It could be anything, from mild embarrassment to severe depression. Try to remember what your first instincts were in response to how to deal with the emotion. For many people, their first instinct is to try and make it stop. You might try to control your emotions in this way. There is pressure in our culture to not show our emotions, for fear of appearing “weak” or perhaps even just impolite. We may even forget that everyone experiences them, and feel like there’s something “wrong” with us for feeling however we feel. So we tell ourselves to “stop”, which is about as effective as someone telling you to “calm down” when you’re angry.

Basically, it boils down to this: Trying to avoid your thoughts or emotions only calls your attention to them. The more you struggle to avoid or control them, the more you feed into them, and the stronger they become.

When people are struggling with their emotions, they often get told the wrong advice. It intuitively makes sense to want to control something that is bothering us. But the recent school of thought (known, among psychologists, as the third wave of Cognitive Behavioural Therapies) proposes that the answer is completely counter intuitive. Instead of trying to control your emotions, you should be accepting them.

The bad friend:

Think of your uncomfortable emotions as a bad friend who is really argumentative and craves your attention. This friend sometimes helps you problem-solve things or even gives you compliments, but, most of the time, they criticise you. Maybe they tell you you’re worthless, or that people don’t like you, or that the world is a horrible or dangerous place. You’re first instinct might be to tell them to leave you alone. But, they just see this as an opportunity to try harder to convince you of what they’re saying. So then, maybe, you argue with them, in the same way that you might try to control your emotions. This is what they want you to do. You tell them, ‘People do like me. Just the other day Jane from work invited me to have drinks with her and her friends for her birthday”. Then your friend takes this as an opportunity to think of every other possible reason Jane may have invited you. “She felt forced to invite you because everyone else in your team is going”. Or, “She probably just felt sorry for you.” The more you interact with this friend, the worse it gets. Even when you tell them to stop or you avoid them altogether, they just come at you harder. They want a reaction from you. All you can do is ignore them. And the only way to ignore them is to accept them for what they are. Yes, they’re annoying and negative, but they’re not necessarily right. They just like arguing with you. It’s easy to forget that your thoughts are just words in your head.

When you’re afraid of your demons, they have all the power over you. On the other hand, when you try to control them, you only feed them. When you bravely face them head-on, and realise that you don’t have to feed them, it becomes apparent that they can’t really hurt you. Your friend may be annoying, but they’re weak. You are always much stronger than them. No matter how overwhelming your emotions feel, or how critical your thoughts can be, they are always just a part of you. You are always bigger than them and when you face them without fear, you realise the limits of their power. Your friend doesn’t want you to realise that. They want you to keep arguing with them or pushing them away. They want your attention and your energy.

The solution:

The next time you feel an uncomfortable emotion, try this. Instead of telling it to stop, trying to control your emotions, or struggling with them in any way, just allow them to be however they are, and know that you will be ok. Know that emotions are normal and only become a problem when we struggle with them. Instead of trying to control your emotions, try accepting them in that moment, knowing that they will eventually pass. Then, without pushing them away, just focus on whatever else you need to be focusing on. Let the emotions just be in the background while you’re focusing on what’s important to you. You’ll find that the demon loses most of it’s power.

Image by Pavel Arsenyev and Fedorova Olga