No matter how much it may feel like our rational side is pure and in control, our emotions find ways of making things even harder than they need to be. We all have moments when it seems like our brain betrays us and our emotions undercut us.
You’re having a very serious, intense and necessary conversation with someone and you can feel the tears coming on and you know that if you start crying it’s going to undercut your position. You know you’re being irrational, but your girlfriend’s friendship with that guy makes you want to climb the walls with possessive jealousy. You’re trying to go to sleep and suddenly you get to relive every anxiety-provoking moment of your life. You know you should be over your anger at your co-worker but just looking at him makes you want to strangle him.
But as much as you may want to, you can’t just cut your emotions out. One of the hardest – yet most necessary – things to do is learn how to control those inconvenient emotions and make them work for us instead of against us.
You Can’t Force Yourself to Not Feel
The hardest thing about dealing with your emotions is that you end up feeling like you’re at their mercy. That anger, embarrassment, fear, frustration or even that overwhelming feeling of helplessness that leaves you feeling like you’re unable to just be a grown-ass adult, can make you dream of going after those inconvenient parts of your brain with an ice cream scoop.
When we find ourselves confronting a moment when our emotions are getting in our way, there’s a reasonable impulse to want to try to muscle our way past it. After all, we’re intelligent, self-aware beings; it seems only natural to try to slap our brains around and force our emotions into the shape we want. So we try to squeeze that feeling down deep until we don’t notice it any more. We ball up our anger and stuff it into the pit of our stomach. We try to pretend we’re not feeling jealous or hurt and refuse to acknowledge the pain.
SPOILER ALERT: that doesn’t actually work. Like a petulant toddler, our brains will frequently do the opposite of what we want it to. Want proof? Try to not think of Bea Arthur dressed up in Princess Leia’s gold bikini, running her fingers through Donald Trump’s hair and singing “I Wanna Be Loved By You.”
The mistake we make when it comes to trying to control our emotions is that in trying to not feel, all that effort does is make it even more present in our minds. Trying to distract ourselves, trying to push the emotions away or just ignore them means that we’re thinking about them even more than we would be otherwise.
Worse, trying to push them away just makes them more intense. It becomes the emotional equivalent of letting pressure build up in a boiler without any release; it just builds and builds until it explodes – messily and all over the place.
And then just to make things even more complicated, trying to force our emotions away makes us feel bad about feeling them in the first place. We feel ashamed or childish or embarrassed for having those feelings the way we do, which then puts us in a downward spiral of self-reinforcing suck.
Needless to say, that’s not helpful for getting past the issue at hand.
So what do you do instead?
Feel The Fuck out of your Feels
You may have heard the phrase “If you’re going through Hell, keep on going.” The idea behind it is simple: when you’re stuck in a shitty place, standing around to admire the view just means that you’re going to stay in that shitty place. Lingering there just makes the suffering worse, when it doesn’t have to be.
Continuing onward means that you move through it and come out the other end. It’s rough, and it can suck, but it also means that you get to the other side of it and then it’s over.
So it is with emotions. We spend so much time trying to control, shape or direct our emotional states that we often end up making them worse without meaning to. One of the most common examples is how we handle anger. It’s not uncommon to want to vent to other people, to “let off steam” or channel that anger into energy by pounding something with our fists or yelling at somebody who really deserves it. This is actually a mistake; most of the activities we use to stop being angry actually make us angrier. Venting keeps our minds on those thoughts and feelings. In fact, when we vent, we often end up looking for reasons to stay angry instead of letting it go. Similarly, punching a pillow or a heavy bag keeps our bodies in an agitated state, which mimics the physical feelings of anger.
Perversely, the best way get over feeling angry is simple: you do nothing. You feel the anger and you let yourself cool down. By just feeling it, letting it wash over you and through you, you process it without increasing it.
It’s the same with crushes, jealousy or fear or sadness; the more you dwell on it, the more it becomes your central focus. But by just feeling it – not forcing it, not dwelling on it or trying to pick it apart but simply feeling it – it’s just there and it fades. We’re actually very bad at maintaining emotional states, whether positive or negative. Without continual reinforcement, that emotional pendulum tends to swing back towards the middle over time. It’s when we stoke those fires that we end up making them bigger and more intense.
As weird as it may sound, part of this process of simply feeling is how we describe our emotions. Our words shape our reality, and how we describe ourselves affects how we see ourselves. So it’s important to make that verbal change too. You aren’t angry (a state of permanent being), you feel angry (a temporary state that can change). You aren’t jealous, you feel jealous. It’s a small, but distinct difference that can ultimately change how you feel. But while we’re on the subject:
Learn Your Triggers
One of the important things when it comes to emotional maintenance and reining in those inconvenient emotions is to learn what causes you to have them in the first place. You may not be able to control how you feel, but you can learn how to adapt to and avoid the things that make you feel that way.
For all the eye-rolling and dismissive talk about “trigger warnings” and safe-spaces, being aware of the things that set you off – and how they might crop up in your life – is valuable information to have. To use one of the most common examples: if you’ve had trauma or abuse in your past and seeing similar abuse depicted in text or on screen gives you flashbacks, knowing in advance that it may come up in the show you’re watching gives you a chance to brace yourself or to skip over it.
Of course, not every emotionally triggering incident is going to be as intense as reliving trauma in your life. But something doesn’t have to be absolutely devastating to be a serious inconvenience to your life. Incidents that cause you to be intensely jealous, for example, can negatively impact your relationships with other people – particularly if it’s a landmine that you or your partners are unaware of. Making sure that you know what can trigger those emotional moments means that you can attempt to avoid situations that could cause unnecessary stress to you and your partner.
Other times, it’s the reaction to those intense emotions that can be problematic. Many people tear up as a reaction to feeling strong emotions. It’s a simple, autonomic reaction to stimuli, but to an outside observer, it can seem like a sign of weakness or instability or even trying to manipulate people. By being aware of what might trigger those reactions, you’re better prepared to – if not avoid the situation entirely – at least put yourself in a position where you can control the acuteness of your reaction. If you’re stressed out by confrontation and that stress makes you tear up, then making arrangements to feel less on the spot or less pressured can allow you to get the results you want without being undermined by a reaction you can’t control.
When it comes to understanding your triggers, it’s a good idea to get as granular as possible. The more detail we can have about why we react a certain way, the more we can use that information to shape our lives. If, for example, you have an intense emotional reaction when you discuss politics with your family, it’s good to know just why you have that reaction. Is it because of the subject matter itself, or is it because of the way your family handles political discourse? It may be one thing if it’s an intense-yet-respectful debate; it’s another if you’re the only liberal or conservative in your family and you feel ganged up on when the subject comes up. In that case, having strong boundaries can make your life easier; you make certain topics off limits under those circumstances because you don’t want to put up with being your family’s punching bag.
Another benefit of knowing your triggers: knowing yourself lets you warn your partners in advance. That, in turn, gives the people in your life a road map to helping you recognize and diffuse tense or otherwise painful situations. Understanding that some things will set you off means that they can understand when the issue is an accident or a mistake and when things are legitimately wrong and need to be resolved. If your partner knows that certain behaviors make you feel like you’re being ignored or mocked or that your relationship is in jeopardy, it also helps them learn how to ease you down from that emotional ledge.
Don’t Control Your Emotions, Control Your Body
You can’t control how you feel. You can’t make yourself not hate someone or not be afraid. You can’t logic yourself into not being angry or frustrated. You can’t make those emotions go away.
You can, however, control how you respond to them.
Humans are very bad at understanding why we feel the way that we feel. It’s not just a matter of our brains telling our bodies how to react; our brains also respond to our bodies. And while we can’t control our emotions, we can control the physical responses. Changing our physical reactions affects how we feel; it may not give us control over our emotions, but it does mean that the emotions don’t overwhelm us.
One of the most important things you can do to control your emotions is to simply control your breathing. When we’re feeling stressed, anxious or scared, we tend to take more frequent, shallower breaths. This can intensify those feelings of stress and anxiety by setting our hearts to racing and making us feel dizzy or light-headed. It makes us shake and our hands get clammy. Anger on the other hand, can get us keyed up and restless and leave us full of nervous energy… often with the same elevated heart beat and shaky limbs. In fact anger and fear frequently feed on one another; being scared frequently makes us angry at the same time.
Controlling your breathing forces your body to relax. It slows your heart rate, which, in turn, forces the rest of your nervous system to stand down. Your muscles de-clench and stop trembling, your thoughts stop racing and you become calmer and more in control.
Breathe in slowly but deeply through the nose, to the count of five. Hold your breath for the count of two, then breathe out through your mouth slowly to the count of five. Repeat this – slowly – and let your body simply relax. You won’t completely erase your anxiety or anger or fear, but you will make it far more manageable.
You can use your body language to control your emotional state as well. Our bodies will naturally contort themselves into certain positions depending on how we feel – hunched over and tilted away from others when we’re ashamed, folding in on ourselves when we’re scared, etc. By forcing yourself to stand up straight, with your shoulders back and your limbs relaxed, you start to feel more in control and self-assured; your brain sees your posture and assumes a corresponding attitude.
You also want to move slower and more deliberately. Take time to pause and think instead of responding immediately, especially if you’re feeling like you’re about to cry or you’re getting angry. Slow your movements and let your limbs relax. This physical control of your body makes you feel more in control, even in such a minor way. That little bit of control helps push back at the idea that you’re helpless or at someone else’s mercy.
It’s a very minor thing, but every victory is made of minor things that add up to big things.
Don’t Be Ashamed Of Your Emotions
One of the most important parts of handling your inconvenient emotions is simple but frequently the hardest thing to do: don’t let yourself feel bad that you have them.
There’s a popular belief that being emotional is a sign of weakness or an indication that you’ve “lost” somehow. If you get upset about something then you’re being “irrational” or you’ve lost control.
It’s bullshit. We’re emotional beings, not Vulcans. The fact that something affects you emotionally doesn’t mean it’s not legitimate or that your argument is the weaker for it. The problem isn’t that you have emotions, it’s that we’re frequently so uncomfortable with expressing them. Men are taught that only certain emotions are acceptable to express; all others are to be repressed lest you end up giving up your man card. As a result, feeling emotions becomes something to be embarrassed about.
This socialized discomfort with emotion leads us to greater levels of anxiety because it becomes another way of shaming ourselves. That 3 AM wake-up call when our brain reminds us of all the ways we fucked up? That’s another example. We feel embarrassed and then ashamed for feeling embarrassed in the first place.
I was going to get out of bed but then I remembered something embarrassing I did 7 years ago.
— Adam Ellis (@moby_dickhead) April 23, 2016
We need to be kinder to ourselves instead of punishing ourselves for feeling things, even if those feelings may not be convenient or “manly” or fall within any other self-imposed restrictions. Don’t be down on yourself for feeling those inconvenient emotions; give yourself credit for handling them. Forgive yourself for feeling in a way that isn’t helpful or for being imperfect. Instead of fighting them, work with them.
Those feelings may be inconvenient, but they don’t have to rule you. Learn to handle them, control what you can, give yourself credit for doing so and let the rest go.
You’ll find yourself much happier and more secure for doing so.