Can You Really Control Your Emotions?
To demand that a person control their emotions1 or to feel different feelings than they do is rather like asking them to put their hand into a fire and then telling them to not feel or react to the pain. It simply cannot be done.
So why is it that from the time we are very small we are told to do impossible things? “Don’t be sad.” “Be happy.” “Don’t be angry.” “Boys aren’t afraid.” “Don’t cry.” “Shame on you!” “You're not sorry.” “Don’t get excited.” “Don’t worry.” “Trust me.” All this nonsensical talk undermines our psychological well-being, and teaches us there is a right way to feel, and a wrong way to feel. This places enormous pressure on us, and many of us spend a great deal of our lives trying to feel how others expect us to feel, and how we think we should feel. How tragic!
Based on my own experience, I have come to realize that emotions are terribly misunderstood, even within the mental health system. I would even go so far as to say that much of what we call mental illness is in fact the adverse fallout from severe and prolonged emotional disconnect.
The word emotion means “to set in motion” and is related to the word motivate, meaning “to stimulate toward action, or to cause to move.” Emotions and feelings, especially the unpleasant ones, prompt us to move and take action. When we put our hand too near a flame, the fire stimulates a feeling of pain in our hand, and that pain prompts us to act, to withdraw our hand, and this action allows us to find relief from further pain.
If we want to understand and make good use of our feelings and emotions, it’s crucial that we notice the reciprocal nature of actions and feelings: while our actions stimulate and influence our feelings, it’s also true that our feelings stimulate and influence our actions. Once we understand this circular relationship, feelings will seem less confusing, mysterious, and threatening. Within this knowledge lies our power to act to change—rather than control—our feelings.
Our emotions function rather like the various indicator lights on the dashboard of a car. When the engine light comes on, it isn’t the light that’s the problem. The light is simply letting us know that something needs our attention, and that we might want to stop the car and try to assess where the problem is, and what we need to do to solve the problem. To ignore or disconnect the light would only treat the symptom, and do nothing to address the real problem, which would only increase the likelihood of greater and more costly problems down the road.
Our emotions are no different. Unpleasant and painful emotions are the dashboard indicators and alarm bells that let us know there are areas in our life that require our attention, some troubleshooting, and some maintenance or repairs. Ignoring, denying, suppressing, or disconnecting from our emotions amounts to only trying to deal with the symptom while ignoring the underlying cause.
A trusted psychotherapist once told me, “Feelings never lie, though we might not like them, nor understand why we’re having them.” It took me many years to fully appreciate what this meant because I first had to unlearn much faulty programming. Eventually, I came to appreciate that painful emotions are as much a gift from God as the pleasant ones are. Emotions are simply a reliable feedback mechanism. Pleasant emotions and feelings let us know we’re meeting some of our needs. Unpleasant emotions and feelings let us know there are some needs we aren’t currently meeting. No emotion is bad or evil any more than pain is evil when we get too close to fire. And the fire isn’t bad or evil either. Everything about fire and pain is just as God intended. Similarly, the engine light isn’t bad or evil, though I may not like seeing it, may not know what to do about it, and may not enjoy the inconvenience of having to deal with it.
Even really intense and powerful emotions like grief, anger, and depression can be understood and assuaged by paying attention to them. I’ve learned that the more powerfully we feel the emotion, the more important are the needs behind it. Think of it like hunger pains. In the early stages, the hunger is rarely painful. It’s usually experienced as nothing more than barely perceptible discomfort. But try and ignore that hunger for a few weeks and see what happens. The hunger becomes more insistent. The discomfort grows. The pain grows. The damage accumulates. Keep ignoring your hunger long enough and it will kill you.
Similarly, when we try to ‘control’ or ignore our feelings, we stimulate other painful feelings, and we are soon completely overwhelmed because they become more numerous and more insistent as they begin to cry louder, just like a baby will do if we fail to care for its wet diaper, or its hungry tummy. But if we can pay prompt attention to our feelings as if they were indicator lights on the dashboard, we can learn to identify and respond to our underlying needs. Once we do that, any of the corresponding painful and unpleasant feelings will naturally subside, and other more pleasant feelings will naturally take their place. And I believe this is just as God intended.
1In this article I make no distinction between emotions and feelings. I am using them interchangeably because I define both of them as “any and all information that may be obtained through the senses and perceptions.”