How To Stop Letting Your Emotions Control You
The way we act on a daily basis is often based on mindlessness. Most people don’t stop to think too much about what they say or do; rather, their words and behaviors are based on patterns or habits, as well as on the emotional state they’re in at the time. Ending this “automatic pilot” behavior, however, will not only help you feel better about yourself but will also improve your relationships and reduce conflict and misunderstandings. This article will introduce you to some skills that will help you reduce the intensity of your reactions, thereby improving your ability to interact with others in healthy ways.
The Thinking Styles
It’s important to recognize that we all have three ways of thinking about situations: from our reasoning self, from our emotional self, and from our wise self. In this section, we’ll look at each of these perspectives or thinking styles, and you’ll learn how to identify them—as well as how to get to the preferred way of thinking about a situation, which is by using your own inner wisdom.
The Reasoning Self
When you’re in your reasoning self, you’re using straightforward, logical thinking; either there are no emotions involved, or they’re minimal and not influencing your behavior or thought process. You might be using this thinking style when, for example, you’re sitting in math class trying to figure out a problem; you’re doing research for an essay or studying for an exam; or you’re making a list of the things you need to buy for the party your parents are letting you throw for graduation. When you’re engaged in such activities, your emotions, if there are any, aren’t influencing how you behave. Rather, you’re focusing on the task at hand and the steps you need to take to complete it. Here’s an example.
Rebecca Uses Her Reasoning Self
After Rebecca asserted herself effectively, her mother agreed to spend the weekend with her, and asked her to make the plans. Usually Rebecca would rely on her mother to do this. But, wanting to make their weekend successful, Rebecca did some Googling to find activities in their area and made a list of possibilities. She then spoke with her aunt to get her opinion on what activity her mom might enjoy the most. Based on her aunt’s opinion, the cost of the activities she was considering, and the distance they would have to travel to do the various activities, Rebecca decided she and her mom would go to the zoo for the day. Next, she went online to purchase the tickets and even planned out the bus and subway route they would need to take to get there.
The fact that Rebecca was weighing the options—comparing one activity to another based on cost and distance, and so on—means she was largely using her reasoning self when she was planning this activity. Deciding on the route and purchasing the tickets online would also involve her reasoning self, as she gathered her information and decided what type of tickets they would need; these activities would likely be done without emotion, using strictly logical thinking.
As you can see from this example, using your reasoning self isn’t a negative thing. However, some people have a tendency to rely on their reasoning selves too much, not allowing their emotions to play a role in their behavior or decision making. Remember earlier on this blog when we talked about balance? Acting from only one thinking style isn’t balanced, and doing this too often can be problematic.
The Emotional Self And Controlling Your Emotions
The emotional self is the flip side to the reasoning self. While spending too much time in your reasoning self can cause problems, the problems of acting from the emotional self are usually more noticeable because its style of thinking often tends to get you into trouble. You know you’re thinking from this perspective when your behaviors are being controlled by your emotions. Typical examples of this would be when you’re feeling angry at someone and you talk about him behind his back or post something hurtful about him on Facebook, or when you’re feeling anxious and you avoid what’s causing the anxiety.
But you might also act from your emotional self with pleasant emotions—for example, if you get a letter of acceptance from your first-choice college and call all your friends and family to share your excitement. When you act from your emotional self when overtaken by a pleasant emotion, though, it doesn’t usually have the negative consequences that acting from a painful emotion does. Think back to Carter and Caitlyn for more examples of this state of mind.
Carter experiences a lot of anger and lashes out at whomever is closest—this is how he ended up alienating his friends and his girlfriend, and how the band’s equipment ended up trashed. In these instances, Carter allowed his emotional self to take over, simply reacting from the anger he was experiencing without thought of what the consequences might be. Likewise, Caitlyn allows her emotional self to control her, resulting in her avoiding any kind of social situation because she feels anxious. In both these examples, Carter and Caitlyn don’t allow their reasoning selves to contribute to their actions; they simply act on the urges that result from their emotions in the moment.
Just like with your reasoning self, acting from your emotional self isn’t necessarily a negative thing, but when you’re regularly responding from this thinking style, it will likely become problematic. So what’s the solution? Again, it’s aiming for balance.
The Wise Self
Thinking about things from your wise self is taking the balanced perspective. When you’re thinking from your wise self, you’re allowing both your reasoning and your emotions to influence you, and you’re adding to this your inner wisdom—something everyone has. Think of a time when you had an urge to do something, but a little voice within you—whether you call it your wise self, your intuition, your gut, or something else—made you decide not to act on the urge. Instead, you realized This isn’t a good idea, or I’m going to regret this later , or I don’t really want to do this , or something similar. This is your wise self speaking.
Acting from your wise self might not be the easy thing to do, and it might not be the thing you really want to do, but somewhere inside of you, you know it’s what you need to do in order to be healthy or to be the person you want to be. Let’s take a look at how Michael acted from his wise self.
Michael Uses His Wise Self
Michael ended up in detention—again. Today it was with just one other student—Pete, a boy Michael’s age whom he had tormented on a number of occasions. They were to pick up garbage in the school yard for an hour after school. Michael knew that if he teased Pete it would make him feel good in the short run. It was something he often did to entertain himself, and it gave him a sense of control when so much of his life felt out of control. But Michael had also come to realize that he inevitably felt guilty later on when the pleasure wore off.
So while Michael’s emotional self was urging him to be the bully to entertain himself, he knew that he would feel guilty later on. He also knew from his reasoning self that if Pete told the detention teacher or if he was overheard teasing Pete, he could get another detention, and he didn’t want that. And deep down, Michael knew that it wasn’t kind to treat others the way he did; there was a big part of him that wanted to stop. So in detention after school that day, Michael decided to try something different. He did his best to entertain himself in other ways instead. They weren’t allowed to use their smartphones while in detention, so he couldn’t listen to music, but he could sing to himself. And he practiced some mindfulness, really focusing on what he was doing and trying to be more accepting of the activity—although he didn’t like picking up garbage, he tried to think of it in a more neutral way because the yard would be a cleaner, healthier place for him and the other students to hang out. While he certainly didn’t enjoy his hour of detention, it wasn’t miserable, and he didn’t have to deal with feeling guilty or ashamed afterward.
You can see that Michael allowed himself to be influenced by his reasoning self, his emotional self, and his inherent wisdom or intuition—these three things put together form the wise self. You can probably also see that how Michael acted wasn’t necessarily the easy thing for him to do, or even the thing he really wanted to do, but it was the thing he identified as being in his best interest in the long run.
Wise Self vs. Emotional Self
Sometimes people find it hard to tell the difference between their wise self and their emotional self, because both involve emotions; and sometimes, in the moment, the emotional self “feels” right. The key here is the phrase “in the moment.” If you can delay your response for a bit—sometimes even just for a few moments—rather than reacting immediately, you’ll be able to get a better feel for whether you are in your emotional or wise self. When you’re acting from your emotional self, the emotions will be more intense remember, in this state of mind, they are controlling you. When you’re acting from your wise self, on the other hand, you notice and feel the feelings, but you’re still able to use your logic and reasoning. You use your intuition to help you think about the consequences of your actions and decide what will be in your best interest in the long run.
Your Values Can Help You Access Your Wise Self
Michael’s example also illustrates how thinking about what your values are can help you access your wise self. Michael is coming to realize that he doesn’t like being a bully because he feels guilty and ashamed of himself—his behavior goes against his values of treating others more kindly and with respect. So one way of accessing your wise self is to ask yourself, If the roles were reversed, how would I want the other person to treat me? You can also think about someone you really admire— maybe one of your parents, a movie star like Angelina Jolie, or a human-rights activist such as Nelson Mandela—and ask yourself, What would that person do in this situation?
Considering what your values are and what kind of person you would like to be can help you make decisions based on your wisdom, rather than only on reasoning or emotions. It can help you get to equanimity, or a more balanced state of being.
What if you don’t know what your values are? If this is a problem for you, consider some of these questions:
- Who do you want to be?
- How would you want others to describe you in your yearbook at the end of the school year?
- What qualities do you value in others?
- What do you admire about the people in your life you care about the most?
It can also be helpful to consider who you don’t want to be. Think about someone (real or fictional) you dislike or don’t have much respect for; what is it about that person that you don’t like? Why wouldn’t you want to be like him? Figuring out what your values are is important and will help you act from your wisdom more often, so spend some time on this idea.
How Lifestyle Choices Affect Your Thinking Style
Have you ever noticed that at certain times you just feel more emotional and have less ability to manage emotions as they come up? You can make concrete changes in your lifestyle that will reduce the extent to which you are vulnerable to being taken over by your emotional self.
Most of us recognize that we’re more irritable or grumpy if we don’t get enough sleep. But have you ever noticed that the same thing can happen if you get too much sleep? You might also feel more lethargic and lack energy if you’re sleeping too much. Remember, one of the keys to emotional health —and therefore to having healthy relationships—is balance, and this includes balanced sleep. When you’re getting enough sleep (but not too much), you’ll have more ability to manage emotions as they arise, and you’ll find that you’re less reactive and more able to access your wise self.
Likewise, balance is the key with eating. Ever notice how you feel if you haven’t eaten enough, or if you’ve gone too long without eating? Most people will experience headaches, become irritable, or even notice sensations normally associated with anxiety—shakiness, rapid heartbeat, and so on. It’s a fact that if you don’t eat enough, you are more vulnerable to being controlled by your emotions.
On the flip side, if you eat too much you’ll also be more likely to be overcome by your emotional self, especially since overeating can trigger guilt, shame, anger, and disappointment in yourself. So eating properly—having regular meals and snacks, and while not depriving yourself of your favorite foods, not overdoing it either will make it more likely that you’ll be able to access your wise self.
While we all know that exercise is good for us physically, it’s also something that helps us emotionally. It’s a great way of letting off steam when you have a lot of stress in your life, and it also helps you feel good about yourself because you know you’re taking good care of yourself. Being physically active is also effective as a natural antidepressant and helps with overall feelings of wellbeing. Exercise can take many forms, and it doesn’t have to be vigorous—even walking at a good pace for ten or fifteen minutes a day is good for you. And when you’re exercising regularly, you’ll be more able to manage your emotions when they arise.
Taking Care of Physical and Emotional Health
We all have times when we’re under the weather—a cold, strep throat, or the stomach flu. When these illnesses come up, we tend to be more irritable and grumpy, and sometimes even more needy, wanting others to take care of us. When you’re ill, it’s important to recognize that emotional vulnerability will be an additional challenge for you until you’re feeling better. Being aware of this can help prevent you from reacting from emotions in a way that you might regret later on.
For some people, ongoing medical conditions such as diabetes, migraine headaches or other chronic pain problems, asthma, or epilepsy are also a problem. Often when these physical illnesses aren’t being properly controlled or can’t be treated effectively, you’ll be more likely to allow your emotions to control you, and it will be more difficult to access your wise self. If you have a chronic condition, it’s important that you take your medication as prescribed by your doctor and treat that illness as effectively as possible—doing this will help you feel better physically, which will have the benefit of helping you feel better emotionally.
Also, even teenagers can develop mental health problems. You read earlier about issues that can arise with depression and anxiety; bipolar disorder and attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder are other examples of mental illnesses a person might have to live with that can affect the ability to effectively handle emotions if they’re not being controlled properly with medications or other treatment.
If you have a physical or mental health problem that isn’t responding very well to medications— for example, you take your insulin but your sugars continue to be high, you’ve been taking your antidepressants but your mood remains low, or there isn’t an effective treatment for the chronic pain you experience regularly then you have to practice being aware of when the problem is worse and when it might be affecting your emotional state, again so that you don’t end up doing things you regret later on. This awareness can also help you recognize when you might need to reduce your stress levels; for example, by asking for help in order to temporarily reduce the amount of responsibility you have in your life. Even though it’s more difficult to access your wise self at these times, it’s still possible.
So the bottom line here is, take good care of yourself when you’re not well; treat your physical and emotional problems as directed by your health care professionals. And it can help to reduce your responsibilities if at all possible, as well as to practice a lot of awareness of how your illness is affecting your emotional state.
Reducing Use of Drugs and Alcohol
Drugs and alcohol alter your mood (hence the term “mood-altering drugs”!), and the problem is that you don’t have any control over how these substances alter your mood. It’s simply a fact that, when you’re using, you’re more vulnerable to emotions and much more likely to do things you’ll later regret.
Ideally, eliminating these kinds of substances from your life would be best; then you’re always the one in control, and this becomes a nonissue! But if you’re not willing to do that, my suggestion is that you do your best to reduce your use, and also that you really try to become aware of how these substances affect you—not just when you’re using them, but in the days after as well. I’ve worked with many people who, once they started paying attention, realized that not only did they have to deal with the consequences of their behavior when they were drunk or high on drugs, but they also had to deal with a hangover the next day; and many noticed that their mood remained more depressed and anxious than usual for a few days following their substance use. So pay attention, be honest with yourself about the effects of the substances on you, and then use your wisdom to decide whether ongoing use is in your best interest.
If you don’t believe you can stop using substances on your own because you’ve become addicted or you’ve become accustomed to using them to help you cope with emotions, please make sure you ask someone you trust for help. Again, you don’t have to go through these things alone, and in fact it’s much easier if you have support. Most adults are able to set aside their judgments and help you if you can trust them enough to ask.
Using Your Wisdom to Make Decisions
As you continue to practice recognizing the three thinking styles, it will become easier to access your wise self, and to act and make decisions based on your wisdom. Remembering your values will also help. Cost-benefit analysis—thinking about the positive and negative consequences of whatever actions you’re considering—is another tool that can assist you in effective decision making.
With this kind of analysis, it’s important to take the time to write it down if you can, so grab a pen and a piece of paper. Think for a moment about a decision you’re trying to make. For the purposes of this article, reflecting back on the section you just read, we’ll use the example of a person trying to decide if he should stop drinking alcohol. If this was the decision you were struggling with, you’d lay out four boxes on your piece of paper: the costs of drinking, the benefits of drinking, the costs of not drinking, and the benefits of not drinking. Here’s how you might complete this chart:
As you can see, a cost-benefit analysis sometimes results in a bit of repetition; however, doing a four-box chart, rather than a traditional two-column pros and cons list, helps you see the bigger picture and identify points you might not have come up with otherwise.
Doing a cost-benefit analysis will also help you see that it’s not about just comparing two columns to see which one contains more answers; rather, you’re looking closely at the costs and the benefits of each behavior, and weighing the importance of each of these. Actually, if it helps, you can even take each answer in your chart and give it a numeric score so that you end up with a number value for each box. Using the previous chart as an example, the person might decide that having a hangover the next day is fairly significant in his decision making and rate it a 3 out of 5; but perhaps the lingering depression and anxiety is even more significant, and he rates that 5 out of 5, and so on. In this way, you’ll come up with a numeric value for each category, which can be even more specific in helping you make your decision about whether to work on reducing a certain behavior.
When doing a cost-benefit analysis, it’s extremely important that you not be ruled by your emotional self. If you are, you’ll usually end up deciding in favor of whatever your emotional self is telling you to do, which is often not the wise thing. It’s best to take some time and do a chart like this so that you can be sure you’re thinking about it from your wise self. Doing a cost-benefit analysis can also help you access your wise self, especially when you take the time to write it down, so use this as a tool to help you when you need to access your wisdom.
Using Your Wisdom to Be More Effective
Being effective is about doing what works, or doing what’s needed in the situation. It’s about considering what your long-term goals are, and choosing to act in a way that is more likely to move you toward those goals. Being effective means acting from your wise self—not doing the easy thing or the thing that’s necessarily what you want to do in the situation, but considering what’s in your best interest and the best interests of the others involved, and doing what will be most helpful in the long run. Let’s go back to our four teens and see what they could do to be more effective in their lives.
- If Carter’s long-term goal is to keep his relationship with his girlfriend, being effective means learning to manage his anger so that he doesn’t continue to damage that relationship. The next time he begins to feel angry, for example, even though he might want to yell at Merrin or throw his iPhone at the wall, being effective means he needs to do something different—for example, tell Merrin he’s getting too angry and has to leave the situation until he calms down; or do some deep breathing or take a walk to calm himself; or lie on his bed and listen to some music he finds calming.
- If Rebecca’s long-term goal is to have a better relationship with her mother, she needs to work on not taking her mother for granted any longer. So, for example, she could make a point of expressing her appreciation more often for the little things, like telling her mom how much she enjoyed the dinner she cooked or thanking her for doing her laundry. She could also make a point of trying to do more to help out around the house so that her mother sees her efforts; for example, doing her own laundry on the weekends when she’s home, or offering to get dinner started on the days her mom has to work late.
- If one of Michael’s long-term goals is to improve his mood, he can continue to do things that are going to help him feel better about himself, like stopping his bullying behaviors and acting in ways that are more suited to his values and the person he wants to be; for example, reaching out more to others at school and talking more to his parents in order to develop a better relationship with them.
- If one of Caitlyn’s goals is to improve how she feels about herself, she needs to work on increasing her activities outside of the house so that her world can expand again, rather than continue to be controlled by her anxiety. At some point, this would also include developing some friendships, even if they’re only superficial at the beginning. The point is, Caitlyn needs to practice acting from her wise self more often, rather than allowing herself to regularly be controlled by her emotions. If she can do this more often, she’s going to feel good about herself, and her self-esteem will improve.
Dealing with Reality as It Is
One of the things that can often get in the way of your ability to act effectively is that you’re dealing with reality not as it is, but rather as you think it should be. For example, you don’t speak with your teacher about the C you got on your paper, because you think you shouldn’t have to—she should have given you at least an A-. Or your best friend should have realized that you wanted to go to a certain concert because you really like the band and your birthday’s coming up; but since he didn’t mention it, you decide you’re certainly not going to bring it up, because he should have known.
Remember, effectiveness is about meeting your goals, and this means figuring out what you need to do that will make this most likely. So if your teacher gives you a C on your paper and you think it deserves a higher mark, you need to speak with her about it, even if you think she should already know. If you want to go see your favorite band in concert for your birthday and your best friend doesn’t think of it, you need to tell him you want the two of you to go to the concert for your birthday rather than not saying anything because you feel he should have thought of it on his own. Things often don’t change unless you speak up; dealing with reality as it is, rather than as you think it should be, will help you move toward your goals and be more effective.
Of course, although we’re talking about doing what you need to do to get your needs met, it doesn’t mean without thinking about how this might affect others. If it turns out, for example, that your best friend didn’t invite you to the concert for your birthday because his grandmother has been really sick and he’s going out of town with his family that weekend to visit her, you have to respect his decision to put his own needs and the needs of his family before your own. Being effective isn’t about being aggressive and trying to get others to bend to your will at all costs! Being effective comes from your wise self, and this means considering your emotions and your reasoning, then acting from your values.
The other important thing to remember is that while acting in effective ways will make it more likely that you at least get closer to your goals, none of these skills come with guarantees. So just because you approach your teacher about the grade you disagree with, and just because you are assertive with her, there’s no guarantee she’s going to change your mark. The only guarantee is that, if you don’t make the attempt, nothing will change.
Your Next Steps
We’ve covered a lot in this article, and all these skills are going to take practice in order for you to become proficient with them. Start by paying attention to what thinking style you’re using and trying to access your wise self through using the skills you’ve already learned, such as mindfulness and acting opposite to your emotion. You’ve also learned about lifestyle changes you can make to help reduce the extent to which you are vulnerable to being controlled by your emotions, and how identifying your values and doing a cost benefit analysis can help you access your wise self. Finally, you’ve learned about what it means to be effective, and how you need to have goals in mind so that you can determine what you need to do in order to reach those goals.
So these are your next steps for this article: to continue practicing what you’ve already learned, to assess what lessons from this article are most important for you at this point in time, and to begin working on putting some of these skills into practice. Remember, these skills will help you in a variety of ways, with the end goal being that of having happier, healthier relationships in your life; as you’re probably beginning to see, the skills will help you live a happier, healthier life in general.
In the next article, you’ll learn another skill that will help you reduce your emotional reactivity, and at the same time will go a long way to help improve the way you interact with others.