Do you believe that controlling your emotions is a virtue?
Many people think it’s only acceptable for children to cry, laugh out loud, openly show disgust or anger. They’re kids — they don’t know any better, right?
But if you want to consider yourself a grown-up, you need to be resilient. The thing is, many people confuse emotional resilience with trying to control their feelings.
I also used to believe in that approach. If I could remain calm through adversity, I thought, this was a sign of strength. The problem was, this usually meant I ignored my feelings.
This undermined many areas of my life — but the one that suffered most was my romantic relationships.
I often felt anxious and insecure next to my partners. But, I worried that mentioning it might destroy our bond. Instead of acknowledging and digesting my feelings, I just pretended I felt fine.
I thought I was “controlling my emotions.” In reality, I was denying them, being dishonest both with myself and my partners.
It took me a long time I can say I finally say I learned my lesson. I don’t intend to control my emotions anymore. Instead, I aim for managing how I respond to the feelings I have.
The Difference Between Controlling Your Emotions and Your Responses
You can’t choose which emotions you experience. You can, however, decide what you do with them.
Emotions are triggered by your unconscious mind, based on the experiences you had in the past. When something reminds you of a memory, your mind elicits the emotional response associated with it.
This process happens very quickly and without your conscious will. Your rational mind — located in your brain’s neocortex — isn’t involved in this. That’s because it’s the newest and most complex part of the brain that doesn’t work as fast as the systems responsible for emotions: the reptilian and the limbic brain.
[DISCLAIMER: The division to neocortex, limbic brain and reptilian brain is a big simplification, used for the purpose of explaining mechanics behind your emotions. It isn’t an accurate description of the human brain’s physical structure.]
The reptilian and limbic parts of the brain are designed to detect threats based on past experiences. When they do, an uncomfortable emotion arises. However, it takes the neocortex about half a second longer to catch up and process what’s going on.
Richard Barrett, the author of Evolutionary Coaching, explains it this way:
“Whenever your limiting fear-based beliefs trigger an emotional reaction, the neo-cortex cannot be accessed. We cannot bring reason to bear on a situation when we are in the midst of an emotional upset. We become unreasonable because we lose our ability to reason. Only when the fear-based reaction has subsided and the emotions dissipated are we able to access our neo-cortex again.”
This shows why controlling your emotions doesn’t work. When you’re in the middle of an emotional upset, no reasoning that “you shouldn’t feel this way” is possible. That’s because the neocortex (the part of the brain qualified to do that such reasoning) is “offline.”
Knowing this, you have three possible courses of action you can take when a challenging emotion comes up:
In this scenario, you’re overridden by your emotions. You react to them on autopilot, according to patterns from the past. For example, you feel angry — therefore you yell at your partner. Or, you feel insecure — therefore you withdraw. You default to automatic behaviors that aren’t serving you.
When you try to control your feelings, you end up suppressing them. As I explained, there’s no way of preventing emotions once the mechanism triggering them is on. When you believe you’re “controlling your emotions,” it usually means you’re doing mental gymnastics to convince yourself everything’s “fine.” This is what I was doing with my romantic partners whenever I felt insecure next to them.
Finally, there’s the third option. By far, I found this to be the healthiest way to deal with my emotions. Responding means that you fully acknowledge how you feel — but, you don’t react to it. Instead, you pause before you elicit any behavior. You give your neocortex a chance to step in and help you make a responsible decision.
Consciously responding to difficult feelings is what emotional resilience means. The idea isn’t to prevent the emotion itself. Rather, it’s preventing the activation of your automatic reaction that matters.
It’s pretty clear why reacting to your emotions isn’t the best course of action. It pushes you to act out of fear-based beliefs and cause drama. Later on, you may feel embarrassed or guilty because of your behavior.
However, controlling your emotions sometimes seems like a good idea. You pretend that “you’re fine” because you don’t want to complicate things. You dismiss your feelings as silly and tell yourself to “just drop it” and “move on.”
These strategies only work short-term — if at all. Let’s see why controlling your emotions usually does more harm than good.
Controlling Your Emotions Makes You Weaker, Not Stronger
One of the intimate relationships I had was particularly challenging. My partner was 12 years older than me, with pretty strong patriarchal opinions.
I often felt insecure around him but at the time, I didn’t understand why. On the surface, the relationship was perfect. My friends and family thought that as well. So, for a long time, I was denying my insecurity to keep things between us smooth and pretty.
I told myself I needed to be strong. Our relationship was long-distance and this was a challenge already. I didn’t want to add my emotional burden to it. I thought that by “controlling my emotions,” I was displaying maturity and resilience.
In reality, controlling your emotions makes you weaker, not stronger. That’s because it’s a huge energy expense. When you aspire to be in control of your feelings, you find yourself doing things like:
- Putting a smile on your face when all you want to do is cry.
- Pretending you’re interested in what someone’s saying instead of sharing how it makes you feel.
- Distracting yourself with meaningless activities that don’t bring you joy.
- Numbing yourself with alcohol, drugs, food or another way of self-medicating.
These kinds of behaviors are energetically draining. They disguise themselves as strategies to help you “stay strong” — but often, they leave you feeling even more exhausted.
Another thing is that if you don’t consciously process your feelings, you drag them with you into future experiences. Sometimes, this means that the upset you felt in the morning will resurface later in the afternoon. Other times, “unfinished” emotions may compound and disrupt your life in the years to come.
Why’s that? Because, at the basic level, all emotions correspond to bodily sensations. When you suppress them, they get stuck in your body in the form of trapped energy.
Then, those unacknowledged emotions chase you until you learn how to release them.
Brianna Wiest explains it in detail:
“Emotions are physical experiences. We flush our bodies of everything, and regularly so. We defecate, we sweat, we cry, we literally shed our entire skin once a month. Feelings are no different, they are experiences that must likewise be released.
Emotions, when not felt, become embodied. They become literally stuck in your body. This is because they have something called a motor component, which means that the minute they begin — before you can suppress or ignore them — they create a micro-muscular activation. Our bodies respond instantaneously.
We often store pain and tension in the area of the body where an expression began, but was never fully materialized.
This is because, neurologically speaking, the part of your brain that regulates emotions, the anterior cingulate, is next to the premotor area, which means that when a feeling is processed, it immediately begins to generate a physical, bodied response. The premotor area connects to the motor cortex, and then spans back into the specific muscles that are going to express the emotion.”
Controlling your emotions doesn’t allow you to release them the way your body is supposed to do. This causes you to re-experience stuck emotions over and over. You have to go through way more pain and suffering than necessary.
Knowing that controlling your emotions isn’t effective, what should you do instead? What does a healthy way of managing your feelings look like?
Emotional Resilience, Not Emotional Control
The fact that I was resisting my feelings in intimate relationships led to their disruption. By trying to pretend I was fine, I sabotaged myself and my relationships.
As I realized what I was doing, I started looking for a healthier way of dealing with my emotions.
This was when I discovered mindfulness and meditation. One of the first things I learned was to take my attention off the person that was “causing” me to feel insecure. Instead, I turned inward to take a closer look at what was really going on.
In other words, instead of controlling my emotions, I went on a quest to familiarize myself with them. Taking responsibility for my feelings of insecurity and anxiety (the consistent disruptions of my romantic relationships) was the first step to prevent them from poisoning my life.
What happens in my body when I enter an emotional upset? And what happens in my mind? What are the fear-based beliefs from the past that are driving those emotions?
I started asking such questions whenever I felt the familiar knot in my throat and tightness in my chest.
The idea isn’t to be able to answer those questions immediately. Rather, it’s about creating a moment of pause between the feeling and what you do next. This is the key to emotional resilience:
Feeling the emotion without reacting for long enough to give your neocortex a chance to catch up.
In a way, it’s the opposite of controlling your emotions. Instead, you need to feel them without resisting and be honest with yourself. This won’t necessarily change how you feel. But, if you do it consistently, it’ll help you transform the way you respond to your emotions.
The core of that transformation is to take action as the person you are today, rather than based on past memories. Here are a few techniques you can use to learn that.
If you don’t remember anything else from this article, remember this one word: pause. By pausing to take a few breaths before you react to your emotions, you disrupt the automatic reaction derived from old beliefs.
Even if your behavior won’t change immediately, be pausing for a few seconds, you give your neocortex a chance to participate in the process. Over time, this will bring more awareness of what’s going on when you get emotionally triggered. You’ll gain clarity about how to respond and drop the reaction.
2. Name the feeling
By giving names to your emotions, you frame your experience in a new way. Whenever you name something, you make it clear that this thing isn’t you. This helps you stop identifying with your feelings and treat them as passing experiences instead.
On top of that, if you name your feelings often, you’ll start recognizing patterns. You’ll be able to say to yourself: “Oh, I know this! That’s insecurity — I’ve felt that before.” By getting familiar with your feelings, you’ll realize you’ve dealt with them in the past. That gives you confidence that you can handle them this time around, too.
3. Become aware of your surroundings
Practicing mindfulness of your physical surroundings can help when your feelings seem unbearable. When you notice thoughts such as “This is too hard, I can’t take it anymore” — shift your attention to your sensations.
Become aware of the furniture in the room. Investigate the texture of the clothes you’re wearing. Take a moment to tune into the sounds. Becoming aware of the tangible material reality helps you anchor yourself in where you are right now.
Thanks to that, you detach from the fear-driven stories arising in your mind — e.g. that it’s all the other person’s fault, or that you’re completely worthless. You realize that, right here, right now, you’re safe and nothing horrible is happening.
4. Shift your attention
When you’re deep in our feelings, you may give yourself more pain than necessary. Instead of simply experiencing the emotion and moving on, you drag it into the next moment. And then, the next. Sometimes, you let it define the hours or even days to come.
When this happens, remind yourself that you’re free to shift your attention to the next thing. The fact that you felt angry a minute ago doesn’t mean you have to hold a grudge right now. This isn’t about denying your feelings. Rather, it’s reminding yourself that every moment is an opportunity to experience something new.
5. Use reminders
Emotional upsets are a part of life. You won’t be able to feel “good” or “fine” all the time.
Knowing this, you can prepare in advance — and have helpful reminders helping you through the darkest moments.
One of my favorite “mantras” is reminding myself that whatever I feel, it’s a temporary state. Not even the most horrible feeling lasts forever. When I manage to remember this when I’m at my lowest, I move through the experience more gracefully — and without denying my emotions.
Find reminders, quotes or mantras that resonate with you — and have them ready when you need them. You can make up your own, or use available resources featuring inspirational quotes and aphorisms - for example, the books from the Big Self School book store.
You Don’t Need To Control Your Emotions To Live a Good Life
Self-control and resilience are crucial skills. You need them to manage your feelings, deal with adversity and grow by overcoming obstacles — instead of allowing them to hold you back.
However, emotional resilience isn’t the same as controlling your emotions. Nor is it about feeling calm all the time. The purpose of life isn’t to feel “good.” Rather, it’s to refine ways of conducting yourself so that you can grow and find meaning.
To do this, becoming familiar with all emotions is key. When you allow yourself to feel the whole spectrum of feelings — rage, sadness, excitement, anxiety, peacefulness, jealousy and others — you prepare yourself for anything and everything.
Because you know you can handle all emotional states, you’re not running away from any experiences. You’re open to possibilities and this enriches your life.
I still haven’t met a romantic partner with whom I wouldn’t feel anxious or insecure from time to time. But at least, I no longer allow those feelings to hold me back. Even when they arise, I don’t see them as threatening. I don’t have to control them or allow them to control me.
Rather, I can just let them be, without making fear-based assumptions. I can engage with different people, simply observing how that makes me feel. I don’t run away and hide as soon as discomfort arises. Instead, I become curious about it.
In short, fear isn’t the driving force of my life anymore. This is a huge transformation — and you can experience it, too. All it takes is to change your relationship with emotions instead of controlling them.
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