Imagine for a moment how different life would be it you could flip a mental switch to turn off negative emotions.
Look at these specific emotions and ponder the idea for a second:
In situations when you’ve felt these emotions, consider how they impacted you and the outcome of the event that produced them. These strong feelings blind you to anything else, especially rational thought.
You’re so overwhelmed you can hardly think at all.
- When you feel anger or rage, it’s all you can do not to scream your lungs out and pummel something (or someone) until your knuckles bleed.
- When someone intentionally wounds you, you’re knocked to the ground in a breathless heap, and you just want to crawl in a hole and die.
- Rejection and jealously send you spiraling into despair, unsure of your own lovability.
- Harsh judgment slaps you with self-righteous indignation, followed by quavering uncertainty about your own integrity or values.
But if you could set the emotions aside . . .
If you could flip a switch to turn them off, imagine how different life would be for you and everyone you encounter.
- In moments when someone offends or hurts you, you could step back and assess the truth of the situation.
- You could respond calmly, using your inner wisdom and sound judgment.
- Or you could just walk away unaffected and proceed with your life, as though you’d encountered an irritating bug.
- In situations when you feel anxious or insecure, you could confidently take action or make a decision without fear or doubt holding you back.
- You could accomplish ten times more in your life, because you aren’t spending hours or days in your head worrying or feeling bad.
- You don’t replay situations over and over, thinking about how wronged you were or how ashamed you feel.
But alas, that switch doesn’t exist. Emotions overtake us before we have a chance to think. We react quickly and often poorly to an emotion-producing event, adding more pain, shame, or guilt to our already overloaded psyches.
We are emotional beings, and our feelings exist for a purpose. They’re part of our evolutionary survival mechanism, warning us of impending threats or imminent danger. But humans are wired for much more complex emotions than your average saber-toothed tiger or velociraptor.
Because we’re self-aware and can imagine our own past and future selves, we’ve been able to dominate the food chain and survive longer, using our highly-developed system of emotions and rational thought.
But when this balance gets tipped too far on the emotional side, mental illnesses, like generalized anxiety and depression, begin to appear. Our ability to project into an unknown future or dwell in the painful past creates plenty of negative emotions, but we don’t have a real-time outlet for venting them.
The key is developing the “wise mind” in which we integrate our emotional and rational selves. This allows us to distance ourselves from our emotions long enough reason with them. But without the aforementioned “switch” to flip, what can we do?
Here’s how to control your emotions without letting them control you:
You can’t help the feelings you have in a given situation. Feelings arise spontaneously and are packed history and past pain. It doesn’t help to deny your feelings, so accept them, and acknowledge you’re feeling them. If you repress your feelings, you’re setting yourself up for mental and physical illness, as emotions have a sneaky way of reappearing in other unpleasant disguises.
Accepting your feelings doesn’t mean you wallow in them or allow them to overtake you. It simply means you give them a place at the table — but you invite them to speak only when you decide you want to hear from them.
Step back from them.
At the height of an emotional deluge, try to pretend your “wise mind” is a separate person. Step back, look at the emotion and name it. “Oh look, I’m feeling anger. This encounter has made me angry. I wonder why.”
By separating yourself from the feelings, you see them more objectively. You become the psychiatrist looking at your patient (the feelings) lying on the couch, and it’s your job to analyze them. You may not be able to manage all of this in the moment when the emotions are triggered, but you can step back just enough to label the emotion and remind yourself to examine it once you are calmer.
Just this small amount of distance gives you enough time to manage your visible reactions so you don’t say or do anything you’ll later regret.
In moments of extreme emotion, when you don’t want to fall apart in front of others or say terrible, awful things, simply excuse yourself. Leave the situation and go to a private place where you can cry, scream, and pound your chest.
Even though it might feel immensely satisfying to lash out, this generally turns out badly. You unleash more negative emotions on top of the angst you’re already feeling. Save yourself the extra heartache and step away if you can.
What if you can’t step away? What if you’re trapped in a room with others or with the person who triggered the feelings? Do nothing. Say nothing. Just breathe. Turn your attention immediately to your breathing, and count in your head with each breath. This keeps the tiny shred of control you have left focused on something really basic and easy.
If you’re forced to speak, say something like, “I’ll have to discuss this later,” or “I’ll have to get back to you on this. I need to think about it.” Remember, the intense feelings generally pass within a short amount of time. Allow yourself to calm down before you address the triggering situation.
Examine the feelings.
After you’ve calmed down, allow your rational self to examine what triggered the emotions and why they were triggered. Your feelings of anger may have a legitimate cause. If someone intentionally offends you, then your anger is justified. But sometimes we feel angry about things that aren’t intentional or that trigger our own insecurities.
An innocent remark can make us bristle. We can feel guilt about something that isn’t our fault. We might feel jealous when there’s no real reason to be jealous.
Part of managing your emotions involves seeking to understand them, rather than simply defending and expressing them. Some emotions are appropriate to express and others are not. Learn to distinguish between feelings that have an actual cause and those that are paper tigers, roaring out your internal fears and doubts. This takes practice and honesty, but it is a huge step in emotional maturity and personal growth.
Vent your feelings safely.
Examining your feelings can help you better understand them, but it doesn’t necessarily get rid of them. You have to express and vent your feelings in a safe and reasonable way in order to move past them.
If someone has done something hurtful or thoughtless to provoke your feelings, often the best way to vent them is to address the offender directly. You don’t need aggressively confront the person to be powerful and firm in your expression. Simply state what happened, how it made YOU feel, and what your boundaries are for the future.
For example, if your spouse criticized you in front of your family, you might say, “When you put me down in front of my family the other night, I felt hurt and embarrassed. It felt like you didn’t respect me. I don’t like that so please don’t do it again.”
By stating how the behavior made you feel and setting your boundaries, rather than pointing the finger of blame, you prevent the conversation from becoming another battle. The other person may not respond appropriately, but you’ve kept your cool and vented your feelings — which makes you feel more in control and empowered.
Are your emotions are frequently triggered by innocent comments or situations? Do you suspect your strong feelings are related more to your past history or insecurities? If so, it’s really important to meet with a trained therapist to help you understand the root cause of your feelings, work on healing the past, and find strategies for building your confidence and self-esteem.
Reframe your thoughts.
It’s easy to get caught in negative thought patterns when a powerful emotion has been triggered. We replay the situation over and over, reliving it and experiencing the feelings again as though they just happened. We can get caught on this cycle for weeks or months.
Negative thinking is a bad habit. We tend to believe we have no control over our thoughts, but we do. It takes practice and discipline to break the hold of negative thought patterns, but once you’re aware that you’re creating your own living hell by engaging in them, you’ll be more motivated to escape the cycle.
Put a rubber band on your wrist, and every time you catch yourself in negative thinking, gently pop the rubber band. This isn’t to punish yourself, but rather to interrupt the pattern with a physical reminder.
Once you interrupt the thoughts, replace them. Start by acknowledging that the thoughts aren’t reality. See them for what they are — mental constructs that have gone out-of-control because you’ve allowed them to. They are wild monkeys that need to be tamed.
Replace your negative thoughts with something positive. If you can distract yourself with productive work or something fun and relaxing, then do that. If you are alone in your car or somewhere else by yourself, go through a gratitude list in your mind or write a mental love letter to someone you care about.
The goal is to focus your thoughts and attention on something positive, productive, or inspiring rather than your spinning negative thoughts.
You don’t have to be a slave to your emotions or a victim to their torments. You are in charge of your thoughts, and you can use your rational mind to tame your emotions and express them at the right time and in the right place.
Emotions are valuable teachers and allow us to vent the poisonous steam of our inner angst, but they don’t have to be in the driver’s seat of your life.