I struggled with this title because I don’t believe we can ever gain full control of our emotions. I do, however, believe we can gain some control as long as we develop certain skills. That’s what this week’s podcast episode is about.
Gaining control of your emotions is not about being happy all the time. It’s about learning how to extract the value from your emotional experiences and maintain a level of peace regardless of what those experiences bring.
As soon as you begin the process of observing your thoughts, feelings and emotions, you step outside their patterns and enter a space from which it is possible to break those patterns that no longer serve you.
SKILL 1: Deconstructing Emotions
Last week I shared Dr Lisa Feldman Barrett’s theory that emotions are constructed unconsciously from three ingredients:
- Body Budget – everything necessary to keep you alive
- Current Situation
When you’re able to ‘deconstruct’ your emotions, you can make better decisions about what you need in that moment.
When your brain has to work harder to keep your body in balance, your stress levels rise. Eating healthily, sleeping well, exercising and drinking enough water can help balance the budget. This is one of the most straightforward ways to manage emotions because a balanced body is less likely to trigger unnecessary emotional alarms.
If your emotions are triggered by a particular situation, control comes in the form of finding a way to limit exposure to the stressor or removing yourself from the situation if possible.
- Stop what you’re doing and take a break
- Go outside
- Introduce a new stimulus – talk to someone outside the situation / change tasks etc.
- Spend time alone or with others in ways that help you experience your emotions productively (i.e. when things don’t feel great, you’re moving towards healing, letting go etc.)
This is the toughest part to change because so much of it happens below the level of consciousness. That said, predictions are based on history so changing today will change the predictions your brain makes tomorrow.
Allow yourself to create new experiences, interact with new people or spend more (or less) time alone. Create experiences that build new, helpful patterns.
SKILL 2: Defusion
Sometimes we identify with our emotions so strongly we think they are us.
“I’m just an anxious person,” or “I have a short fuse”.
Although it can be very difficult to do, it is possible to gain enough distance from those feelings by learning to see ourselves as separate from them. The most helpful techniques I have found for this come from Acceptance and Commitment Therapy. The techniques are referred to as defusion techniques and there are dozens of different ones. Some examples include:
- Labelling your thoughts. What sort of thoughts are they? Random thoughts? Worrying? Day dreaming? Planning? etc.
- Saying to yourself, “I’m just…”. I’m just worrying. I’m just thinking.
- Playing with the thought – You do this by turning the thought into a song, giving it a funny voice or a persona etc.
There are loads of different techniques and you can also adapt them and create your own. When you find the strategies that work for you, it gradually gets easier to become an observer of your thougths and feelings as they arise. Even if you can’t manage to turn things around, gaining some distance between you and your thoughts still provides a better experience and can help you you feel more in control.
SKILL 3: Letting Go
I can’t offer a “How To” guide on this one. Much like defusion, this is a work in progress for me but it’s one of the most powerful skills to learn when it comes to managing emotions.
Learning to detach from the thoughts that feed emotions is part of letting go.
My favourite source of advice for learning and audiobook titled “The Journey into Yourself“. It’s not really an audiobook. It’s a series of recordings taken from a retreat hosted by Eckhart Tolle. I’m listening to it for the third time now and will keep listening to it on loop until I get the hang of letting go.
Skill 4: Ask Better Quality Questions
Your brain will answer any question you pose.
“Why do I feel so stressed?”
“What’s wrong with me?”
The questions you ask determine the direction of your thoughts. Some lead you to feel better. Others lead you to feel worse. Developing your ability to ask better quality questions means your answers lead you to better feeling thoughts more of the time.
“What can I do to feel more in control?”
“What am I learning about myself through this experience?”
SKILL 5: Comfort with Discomfort
Working through emotions is more uncomfortable than numbing them. That’s why so many of us eat badly, drink too much alcohol and engage in other unhealthy habits and numbing strategies.
Skills to manage emotional discomfort include:
- Mindful practices – breathing, meditation etc.
- Focus on now – most discomfort comes from thoughts that bounce into the past or future. The ability to focus on the here and now helps keep things in perspective.
- Acceptance – letting things be as they are. Thoughts about what should be are very uncomfortable because they usually leave you feeling powerless. It takes enormous skill to let go of judgements and accept yourself, other people and the situation but once you do, it’s enormously freeing.
- Practicing the other skills mentioned here.
It is very difficult to control our thoughts and emotions because many elements of how they arise are unconscious. We do, however, have some control if we place ourselves in the role of the observer.
The observer has the power of perspective and with that comes the power to make changes. Over time, small changes add up and can change how the subconscious systems predict the mind and body’s requirements. When that happens, you start to see big changes and that’s when you begin to feel in control.