Trying to control your emotions might be the problem, not the solution

Feb 2, 2018

By Dennis Tirch, PhD

I have a very clear memory of getting my first report card in kindergarten. I was only five years old, yet I can still see the amber paper and the odd little illustrations printed beside the subjects. While most of the “grades” were good, I was failing in one skill. There was a tiny drawing of a girl having a temper tantrum on the report card, and beside it was printed “fails to control emotions.” I think most of the kids failed in this area that year.

This was only the first in a long series of social messages that told me to suppress my emotional responses. I know that I’m not alone. We live in a culture that emphasizes emotional control far too intensely. However, a large body of psychological research suggests that when we attempt to control or avoid our feelings and thoughts, we can experience even greater emotional suffering and live smaller lives. So most of us are taught strategies for dealing with our emotions that are doomed to fail. No wonder we live in an era marked by epidemic levels of depression and anxiety.

The Persistence of Messages

If you reflect on your own personal history, you might be surprised by how often you’ve been told, directly or indirectly, that your feelings should be hidden or stifled. Some of us might remember crying as small children and being told, “Go to your room and don’t come out until you have a smile on your face.” Some of us heard that “Boys don’t cry.” Others heard that “Good girls don’t have a bad temper.”

“Most of us are taught strategies for dealing with our emotions that are doomed to fail. No wonder we live in an era marked by epidemic levels of depression and anxiety.”

In our adult lives the messages continue. We hear about the “power of positive thinking” and the value of “feeling good.” Our social role models, particularly in competitive business environments, can give us the impression that we must always stay focused and avoid our feelings in order to get ahead. As a result of all this conditioning, many of my therapy clients come to me believing that their emotions make them weak and they need to learn how to “suck it up and deal” in order to succeed.

To be fair, emotions like anxiety, sadness, and rage are powerful neural states that can be extremely challenging to experience. And without the right skills, we can respond to them by acting in ways that bring negative consequences. For example, if you have a paralyzing panic attack while driving to the airport and refuse to get on the plane to your wedding, this will definitely pose problems. If you become enraged at work and flip over your desk while shouting at your supervisor, it probably won’t bode well for your annual review. At first glance, wouldn’t it seem that the logical answer is to suppress these dangerous feelings?

Mindfulness, Acceptance, and Self Compassion

As it turns out, one of the best ways to respond to emotions is to approach them with mindfulness, acceptance, and self-compassion rather than through avoidance or over-control. This kind of response allows greater flexibility and possibilities in our lives. For example, if you’re experiencing a panic attack, you’d be well served to notice the flow of anxiety as it arises and accept it, because panic escalates when you try to shut it down.

So, if you’re on your way to catch an important flight, and your mind tells you it’s time to panic, try practicing a few mindful breaths and intentionally make space for your emotions. You can also speak a few words of encouragement to yourself, much as you would speak to a good friend, and at the same time put one foot in front of the other to get on that plane. As Neslon Mandela said, “I learned that courage is not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. The brave man is not he who does not feel fear, but he who conquers that fear.”

If you experience anger at work, you can practice mindfully noticing the physical sensations and angry thoughts as they arise. Rather than suppressing these feelings to the point of boiling over or acting out your rage, you can slow your breathing while you observe and allow your emotions to run their course. You also can observe your action urges without letting them take over your behavior. You might even take a time out to remove yourself from the situation that is triggering those emotions, perhaps going for a short walk or stepping into a private space.

As you take a moment to breathe you can respond to yourself with kindness. Rather than telling yourself to “get it together” or “calm down,” you can practice self-compassion. You might tell yourself, “I know this is really difficult and you’re feeling angry. It makes so much sense that you are triggered right now. Ride the waves of these feelings and choose to act like the version of yourself you most wish to be. How can you live your values, right here, right now, even in the presence of this anger?”

Treat Your Emotions as Honored Guests

Being able to respond to our feelings with mindfulness, acceptance and self-compassion takes practice and dedication. After all, we’ve undergone decades of social programming telling us to avoid our “bad” feelings. Fortunately, there are an abundance of ways we can learn to have a more healthy and flexible relationship with our emotions – from state-of-the-art acceptance and compassion-based psychotherapies to meditation and yoga practice.

Whatever paths you might choose, the process can be life-changing. In time, you might discover that even your darkest emotions can bring meaning and depth to your life.

If you treat your feelings like honored guests and allow them room to breathe, new possibilities may present themselves. As the poet Rumi wrote, centuries ago, “This being human is a guest house. Every morning a new arrival. A joy, a depression, a meanness, some momentary awareness comes as an unexpected visitor. Welcome and entertain them all. Even if they are a crowd of sorrows, who violently sweep your house empty of its furniture, still, treat each guest honorably. He may be clearing you out for some new delight.”

 

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DISCLAIMER: The content of this blog is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Dennis Tirch, Ph.D. is the founder of The Center for Compassion Focused Therapy in New York City, Associate Clinical Professor at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mt. Sinai, and author of several books on mindfulness and compassion in psychotherapy. He trains therapists and researchers in the science of compassion globally and is an acknowledged expert in Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), and Compassion Focused Therapy (CFT).