The Cornerstone of Emotional Control
One-year-old children do not control how they express their feelings. These little emotional volcanoes erupt in crying, tantrums, screaming and making a fuss whenever the mood strikes.
But so what. People love one-year-old children. They are cute, innocent, and engaging. As for the outbursts, well, they are only one year old after all. We make allowances.
By contrast, people do not love to be around adults who act like one-year-old children. Most of us do not look at these adults and think they are cute, innocent, or engaging. We cannot reason away their behavior by thinking “They are so young, they haven’t learned how to behave yet.”
Adults who lack the skill, or the desire, to control how they express strong emotions will find it difficult to build close, mature, and rewarding relationships. Those sort of relationships require emotional control.
In Part 1 of this two part series we briefly looked at why emotional control is important for healthy relationships to grow and flourish.
The take away from that article was “Feelings, when given control of behavior, become tyrants. Feelings may lead you to avoid those things you should do. Those things that would be good for you, and are good for others around you.”
Feelings may also lead you to do those things you should not do, which can quickly build a memory chest of regret and grief.
The key to making the most of emotion, of creating a life where emotions enrich your experiences rather than control your experiences, is to learn how best to respond to your feelings. That is, to master your feelings so they do not lead you to behave in ways that are destructive.”
This observation begs the following question: “How does someone go about gaining this sort of control over emotions?” Glad you asked. Below I have listed some simple, common sense steps to get you started.
One caution, however, before we start discussing these steps. The things I recommend doing are not complicated, but they do require consistent effort. If you are willing to put in the time and the work, you will eventually build crazy Jedi Master like control over your feelings (or maybe just semi Jedi like control that is still pretty shock and awe-inspiring).
If you are not willing to put in the time, the effort, and make this a priority, you’re better off not starting down this road. Although gaining better control over your emotions is not rocket science, it is hard work. If you are not willing to do that work, save yourself some frustration.
But, if you are ready to put in the work, keep focused, be persistent, and change your life for the better, that’s terrific! In that case let’s get moving, there’s no time to lose.
Five Skills For Gaining Control Over Emotions
When we think about increasing control over emotions it is helpful to divide this part of life into two realms. The first realm is what occurs in the heat of the moment. When you have just been insulted, disappointed, provoked, frustrated, embarrassed, and so forth. How can you quickly assert control over your emotions in those instances so as to respond in a constructive way. These are ‘in the moment’ skills.
A second set of skills we will look at take aim at lowering the overall stress in your life so that when highly charged situations arise you find it easier to respond effectively. Let’s call these ‘stress reduction skills’ because… well, because that’s precisely what they do.
Each skill will be listed and briefly explained. A short description of the rationale then follows.
SKILLS FOR BEING IN THE MOMENT
SKILL Put everything on hold. When a provocative encounter comes up step away. Don’t continue to engage in conversation at that moment. Tell the other person that you would like to discuss that topic with him or her at a later time, but not now.
You don’t need a rationale. You don’t need to explain (unless the other person is your spouse or close friend). This is one of the best ways to avoid having emotions hijack your interactions. Just say no.
RATIONALE Putting a discussion on hold allows you to pick a better time to confront the issue. A time that is more favorable to maintaining good emotional control. This also gives you time to consider the other person’s perspective, and the best way to respond.
SKILL Gain some perspective. Think of the things that cause your emotions to rise. What remarks, or behaviors, by others cause you to be hurt, angry or embarrassed? Do these interactions really seem worth the energy, and potential conflict, that occurs when you respond with high emotion? Is reacting this way really worth the cost? Are you positive the other person meant to be hurtful, cutting, dismissive?
Not convinced? OK, think of it this way: imagine you are leaving for a two-year journey abroad where there will be no ability to communicate with others (including close friends and relatives). Now imagine that a friend, or relative, just did something to upset you. When you arrive at your destination, no longer able to communicate with anyone in your old life, would you be glad that you had expressed your anger, hurt, resentment?
If the answer is “No, I would not respond with an angry or biting response”, then don’t do it.
RATIONALE Gaining perspective helps pull us back from being caught up in the “emotional vortex of the moment.” During these brief periods of time your lizard brain begins to take over – which means you are more likely to make decisions that an Iguana would find pleasing.
The problem is, you’re not an Iguana, and when the lizard brain settles down and sweet reason resumes in its place, regret is likely to follow.
Bottom line, work hard to gain perspective. This goes a long way toward helping you think rationally even when emotions begin to surge. With sweet reason guiding your responses, better decisions will be made (i.e., you will overcome the lizard brain).
SKILL Channel your inner Mr. Miyagi (pop culture reference alert… see also Karate Kid). That is, muster all the will power available and respond in ways that are guided by your higher principles.
Some people suffer from the mistaken idea that they have no control over their will power. They will say “I just can’t help myself from behaving this way.”
What this usually means (when any of us use this explanation) is that the effort it took to employ will power was more than we wanted to expend at that time. For example, think of driving home from work when suddenly you slam on the brakes because someone cut into your lane. Everything goes from your car seat to the floor. Your heart is racing. It would feel good, and right, to lean out the window and scream. Yelling would be a relief. If a couple of well-chosen curse words were added the relief might be even greater.
The force of willpower, however, is pushing back against this urge. “Stay calm. Focus on the traffic. Be the master of your feelings.”
None of that feels very appealing at the moment. That way of responding does not offer immediate relief from the tension. And this is the point when we make a decision: do we shoulder the cost of exercising willpower, or decide it is not worth the price extracted (i.e., the price of living with the intense anger we experience at that moment).
The key point here is that it is a decision that each of us makes. Something that is under our control.
I remember working with a young man in his 20s who lived at home with his mother. Let’s call him Lester (not his real name). He would demand that his mum serve him meals in his room, clean up after him, do the shopping, and wash his clothes. When she failed to meet his expectations he would scream at her with profanity laced criticisms.
Lester said he would like to change his behavior but, to be honest, it was impossible. “I’ve tried. Gave it my best shot.” he said to me, looking pained at the memory of his failed yet herculean efforts.
“There are some things in life that just are not under my control. Wish they were… but they’re not. Once my mom sets me off, I lose it. There is nothing I can do.”
A short time after Lester and I had that conversation his mother came in and recounted the following. One of the mother’s friends had dropped by unexpectedly. Lester was unaware of the friend’s presence in the house when he called out from his bedroom that he wanted lunch to be ready within ten minutes. His mother, in the living room with her guest, called back that she was busy and would make lunch later.
Lester was furious. How dare his mother delay lunch. Without leaving his bedroom he began to yell out his typical litany of profanities. Not receiving a response from his mother he decided to march out of his room and give her a proper dressing down. Loudly stomping into the living room Lester was suddenly brought up short when he saw that there was a guest in the home. Remarkably, in that instant all profanities stopped.
What’s more, Lester managed a painful smile, then said hello to the guest before scampering back to his bedroom. Later that evening he scolded his mother for not informing him that a guest was in the house. “If I had known I would never have spoken that way. It’s so embarrassing, why didn’t you tell me?”
Clearly, Lester was able to choose how he would express his feelings of anger. The idea that he had tried to peddle earlier regarding this being outside of his control was an excuse for not doing the hard work of using self-control. Lester needed to channel his inner Mr. Miyagi (he also needed to be shown the front door, but that is a topic for another day).
Had Lester been interested in learning self control I would have given him the following advice. The key to strengthening will power is to pick one or two areas of life where you think it would be easy to assert more self-control. Set a couple of modest goals for doing so, practice some skills that could be of help, and begin to apply yourself.
Once those initial goals have been reached move forward by making new ones that are a little more difficult. When these goals have been conquered just repeat the steps until self control is well established in that part of your life.
Eventually you will select a new area of self control that you wish to strengthen. Follow the same steps as before. It’s OK to be slow and methodical. Just make sure you are always headed in the direction of progress.
An example might help make this more clear. Let’s say you, like Lester, have trouble with your temper. But you also have trouble with a sweet tooth. To pass by the donuts at church without snagging one or two is torture. The candy jar at the office is your BFF. A second helping of pie or cake each night has become a sacred tradition.
You figure that between your temper and your sweet tooth, it would be easier to gain control over cravings for all things sugar related. How does this help you exercise control over anger? By building self restraint in one area of life you indirectly enhance your ability to show restraint in other areas. Simple as that.
So once you had developed some pretty strong control over your sweet tooth cravings, you would move on to tackling some other area of self control. This might be your anger, but it might be something else. The key is to continue to build self control throughout your life so it become a part of your daily habits and mindset.
And just to be clear, at some point you will need to directly focus on controlling your anger.
RATIONALE There is a Mr. Miyagi within each one of us. OK, that sounds a little odd. Bad metaphor. Let me rephrase.
There is a grown up side to each of us. Let that grown up side emerge and take control of your responses. This usually requires that we put injured pride to the side (i.e., “My spouse said something that hurt my feelings so now I’m going to hurt him/her back… but even worse”).
It may also require that we put resentments, insecurities, and selfish ambition in the ‘time out room.’ Fine.
The main thing is to focus your full effort on exerting self-control when you begin to feel emotions breaking free from your ability to restrain their expression. Many people can maintain control - but lack the desire. Feed the desire and you will strengthen your control.
SKILL Reduce the overall stress in your life. As much as possible you should remove stressful situations, overly demanding people, and unrealistic expectations from your life. All of these build stress, reducing your ability to maintain emotional control.
Likewise, meditation, exercise, yoga, and hobbies may also reduce your stress. But many of us think of these things as luxuries. Indulgences. Consequently, they are low on our list of priorities. Because of this, these stress reduction approaches are often ignored.
Don’t make that mistake. Swim against the tide. Schedule one or more of these activities into your week. You’ll be glad you did.
RATIONALE Activities that allow you to feel relaxed and at peace have a ripple effect. The benefits do not stop the moment you roll up your yoga mat, or put away the golf clubs. The psychological and neurological changes that occur while being engaged in these activities continue to be felt later in the day as well.
The islands of calm created by activities like meditation, exercise, etc., allow us to restore depleted psychological resources. We recharge our energy, and return to face life’s challenges with a greater sense of equilibrium and confidence. Then, when emotionally charged interactions arise with others, it is becomes easier to respond in ways that are effective.
This is similar to walking a tightrope. Difficult under the best of circumstances. But attempting it while carrying a squirming chimp on your shoulders and luggage tucked under each arm gets even dicier. Vegas odds makers grimace and clutch their chest. The first gust of wind that comes your way means the walk is over. Gravity wins.
If, however, you were to ditch the luggage, and set aside the annoying chimp, your odds suddenly look a whole lot better. Without these impediments, it is much easier to deal with that gust of wind when it rushes at you.
So dump the stress. Find ways to set it aside. You’ll find it much easier to gain control over those intense feelings that give you grief.
SKILL Identify situations and people that trigger strong emotions in you.
RATIONALE This allows you to avoid encountering those situations/people that give rise to pitched emotions. Not fully perhaps, but at least enough to reduce the frequency of such encounters. That is a huge gain.
It is obvious, however, that some stressful situations and people cannot be avoided. In fact, more importantly they should not be avoided. What then?
The answer is that because you have identified these “triggers” ahead of time, you can clearly anticipate what response you would like to have in those situations. Knowing how you would like to respond will allow you to mentally rehearse that desired reaction. In other words, it allows you to prepare.
Preparation gives you an advantage. It puts the odds of a good outcome in your favor. Don’t ignore this step.
Emotional control brings added richness to life, and opens doors to deeper longer lasting relationships
There is a difference between having emotional control and being emotionally repressed. The person with control still experiences strong emotions, but he or she is not overwhelmed by their feelings. Neither anger, jealousy, sadness, elation, nor joy results in a loss of self-control.
This is the sort of person who, when faced with strong emotion, is still able to express him/herself in constructive ways. At times that response might express supreme patience, at other times it might exude icy cold assertiveness. In any case, it will be controlled and harnessed to reason and character.
The repressed individual, on the other hand, simply stuffs emotions so deeply into the recesses of the psyche that he, or she, fails to experience strong feelings. This way of gaining emotional control is detrimental to relationships.
It also fails to work. Let me emphasize, it fails much more often than it succeeds. Repressing emotions is about as effective as a Ford Edsel. The floodgates of repressed emotions have a way of unexpectedly opening. Emotions that have for ages been held underground suddenly surge to the surface like a geyser. Similar to Old Faithful, this makes quite a spectacle – one that is usually followed by regret.
By contrast, the sort of mature self-control we have looked at does not result in these sudden emotional eruptions. What’s more, with persistence and practice anyone is capable of gaining better control of this part of their life.
It may be that for some people a coach (i.e., therapist) will be helpful. Terrific, go for it. But whether you take that route, or prefer to go it alone, don’t wait another day to get started. Less stress and more rewarding relationships are right around the corner.