A lot of people think that I teach others how to control their emotions in order to improve their communication and people skills. I don’t. And let me make it clear right off the bat: I believe that trying to control your emotions is messy, dangerous and ineffective stuff.
Emotions are not meant to be controlled
Emotions are not supposed to be something we have direct and instant power over. That would defeat their purpose. Imagine one of our ancestors in the Stone Age who is attacked by a hungry bear, feels fear and has the impulse to run like hell.
But then, he decides: “Hey, I’m gonna control my fear and try to negotiate with this bear.” And he somehow switches off his fear just like that. You would have a dead caveman in the next 5 seconds, regardless of his people skills (a… bear skills). Our species would be extinct if we could all command emotions like that.
So, what is it that I teach within my attitude-based approach? What is it that you can effectively do about those nasty negative emotions you don’t want? The point is this:
Instead of trying to control your emotions, learn to manage them.
Controlling emotions vs. Managing emotions
Managing your emotions is subtly but meaningfully different than trying to control them. When you try to control your emotions, you do so by rejecting and repressing them. It’s like putting a cap over a pot of boiling water and pretending the water isn’t boiling. I see this as a bad idea for several reasons:
- It requires a lot of effort and is intrinsically painful;
- It doesn’t really work; you can only control your emotions to a small degree;
- The emotions eventually bottle up and they overwhelm you;
- In the long term, the whole process is stressful and damaging to your health.
Managing your emotions is not about trying to reject them or repress them. It’s not a combative process, it’s a transformational process. To manage your emotions means to:
- Accept they are there and there’s a positive intention behind them;
- Understand both the external aspects of your life and the internal aspects of your thinking which create them, amplify them and sustain them;
- Address these aspects and change them, in order to change your emotional reactions.
When you manage your emotions, they do not change all of a sudden. There are leaps in awareness in this process which can create instant emotional changes, but for the most part, the whole process is gradual. It takes place step by step, as you either change how your life is or how you habitually think about it.
Sometimes, negative emotions are just signals that you’re doing things that are not aligned with your values and an external change is required; sometimes they are signals that your thinking in certain situations is irrational and an internal change is required.
Either way, by managing you are not addressing your emotions head on and you are not fighting them. You are going to the root of your emotions, you are pulling out the weeds and you are planting new seeds. This is why in a very Zen way, managing your emotions makes a lot more sense than trying to control your emotions.