How to practice effective emotional self-control

Do your emotions run away with you?

To many people, difficult emotions like anger or anxiety often feel as if they have a will of their own. They can get out of hand and take over from your usual rational self.

In the case of for instance anger, the emotion often appears to happen suddenly. So suddenly that it becomes difficult to control the intensity of the emotion, and you behave inappropriately.

With anxiety, the emotion crops up whenever you are confronted with the situation or person that triggers the anxiety. The result can be paralyzing. Even when it doesn’t go that far, at the least it hurts your effectiveness.

In work situations, an inability to manage distressing emotions can have a major negative impact, ranging from embarrassment, damaged work relations, to underperformance and ineffectiveness.

It seems sensible to look at how you can rein these runaway emotions in, and learn to manage them when they crop up. The easiest way to do so is to look at what happens when we experience emotions.

Managing distressing emotions

Strong emotions, despite appearances, are of course not uncontrollable backlashes to circumstances that are hardwired physically. They just assault your mind as a consequence of how you define what something means.

Emotions are usually the product of a particular moment, and certain specific circumstances. Take someone else in the same situation or you in a different one, and the same emotion won’t happen.

This implies you have much greater influence and even positive control over your difficult emotions than you might think. To get a grip on your emotions and acquire a positive approach to dealing with the difficult ones, you just need to know what happens when you feel an emotion.

What happens??

To learn to manage your emotions, you need to know how your emotions come into being. Any emotion, not just a difficult one or a seemingly uncontrollable one, basically emerges in a similar way. The following is an approximate description of the process.

  1. Interpret emotions as a state of feeling.
  2. These feelings are mainly responses to something that happens, either literally at that moment, or as a thought in your mind. This ‘what happens’ is the trigger.
  3. The response to the trigger (in fact, why it acts as a trigger at all…) is driven by the meaning you give to what happens.
  4. The meaning you give to ‘what happens’ influences the feeling you experience, and also the strength of feeling you experience.
  5. Stronger emotions reduce the degree in which you are able to take spontaneous positive and effective action.

The process of trigger, response and emotions of course isn’t such a clear-cut sequence of 100% cause and effect. Yet this description comes close enough to reality to make it workable in practicing emotional self-control. In order to get a grip on your emotions, you have to remember first of all that they are the product of how you give meaning to the situation.

How to practice emotional self-control

Strong negative emotions of anger, anxiety or grief will happen to you. They are part of life.

The question is: how do you deal with them? How do you catch the meaning you give to something and turn it around in time to be able to manage the emotion?

Here is a rational process to learn to practice emotional self-control.

Step 1: Catch yourself

  1. The first step is to catch yourself before it’s too late. As you know when you’ve ever experienced out-of-control emotions, that’s not as easy as it sounds. However, it’s possible. It takes practice, though, and a willingness to pay attention.

Most people have one or two emotions that are stronger than others. Think back to earlier situations where you experienced difficulty in controlling that particular emotion. See if you can remember ‘early warning signals’, such as for instance recurring negative thoughts about a particular person or situation, churning stomach, inability to pay attention to other people or the situation, etc.

It’s also a good idea to think about what would trigger you theoretically to get angry, anxious or sad. This tells you something about potential triggers.

Learning to pay attention to these signals and acting on them (see the following steps) is the first and arguably the most important step in practicing emotional self-control. Once you have a fairly good idea of your triggers, you need not get out of control at all.

Step 2: Give yourself some air

When you detect signals in your early warning system, do something to vent the upcoming emotion. Talk to friends, take a walk, do a work-out, do some breathing, … It doesn’t matter what you do, as long as you do something to relax your body. You mind will usually follow.

Of course it’s very important to do this in an appropriate manner, at an appropriate time and place, and with the appropriate people. That’s the whole point, after all.

Step 3: Reinterpret the situation

We posited that the way you give meaning to the situation triggers the emotion and the intensity of the emotion. It stands to reason that in order to manage your emotions, you have to do something about the way you give meaning.

We do not advocate for you to change the way you interpret the situation in a positive way. When you are angry, you are angry for a reason that is valid to you at that moment. When you are anxious, it usually doesn’t help to tell yourself you are not.

What you can do, however, is to reinterpret the situation. You have to find a reason to accept and deal with the situation in an appropriate manner. You do this by looking at what is more or even most important to you.

What is really important to me here?

What is most important to your identity identifies always where you find a reason to react differently. You will see the meaning shift when you look at your most important values, or your most important interests at the moments when you would usually be triggered to react in a certain way.

When you know what you deem positive enough to trump the negative, this allows you to control your emotions and follow that positive impulse. The effect of difficult emotions will decrease and rational inquiry about what happens will increase.

Following these steps is not sure-fire – it won’t work always. But it will certainly help you to practice emotional self-control in many situations when you need it. 

© Iris Dorreboom and Rudi de Graaf

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