Does trying to control your emotions work?

Greetings fellow mindful travelers,

This month’s topic is a tricky one to write about because it goes against what we are often taught – that we should strive to be in control of as many things as we can.  Nevertheless, I will share what I have found to be true based on my experience and the experience of those I’ve learned from.

First, a definition from dictionary.com

Control: to exercise restraint or direction over; dominate; command.

It is human nature to want to be in control – of our lives, of the future, of our relationships, of our success, of how we feel.  How much time and energy do we spend every day, every week, every year trying to control these things?

If you have a human mind like most of us, probably a lot.

OK, now consider this:

Does trying to control these things work?  Are we actually with 100% reliability able to control our future?  How things turn out in every situation?  What other people think of us?

These are challenging questions.  I honestly don’t think there is a right or wrong answer.  But they are important things to consider.

OK here’s another question.

What do we have control over?

The weather?  Where we were born?  Who our parents were/are?  How much money and resources they had?  Our genetics?  How about, our thoughts?  Body sensations?  Emotions?  Can we control those?

Again, I don’t believe there is necessarily a right or wrong here.

However, as you think about these questions, it might become clear that we have less control over things than we might want to believe we do…at least, at first.

Here’s an experiment: try really hard to not think about a Pink Elephant.  Don’t think about a Pink Elephant.  Don’t do it!  Whatever you do, don’t think about a Pink Elephant!

Did it work?  Could you control your thoughts?

What I’ve found is that control often doesn’t work – at least not in the way we want it to.

But the alternative is scary.  To give up control.  Scary!  So we cling to a sense of control in any way we can.  Which is cool, I do it too.

But there is good news.  I don’t believe we are helpless victims.  Quite the opposite.

Consider this: Can you control your Actions?  What about the Choices that you make?  How much freedom do you have in this regard?

Probably more than you give yourself credit for.

Here’s another experiment: Pick some object nearby and tell yourself that you Cannot Pick up that object.  If it’s a book, keep telling yourself “I cannot pick up that book, I cannot pick up that book.”  Keep saying it to yourself. Over and over and over.

Now, pick up the book.

Did you take action?  Even though you were telling yourself that you can’t?  Now that’s power!

Here’s the cool thing about Mindfulness – when we realize all the things that we can’t control and stop trying to control them, we can focus on what does matter and what we can control – our actions and choices.  When you focus there, you really can step into your power.

I remember when I was a kid, I was terrified of roller coasters.  Terrified!  I would avoid them and listen to the stories my friends would tell me about how much fun they were.  And feel even worse because I missed out.

But one day, I made the choice to give it a shot.  I remember being just as scared, but on this day I decided I too wanted to have fun.  So I made the choice…and took action…and went to the amusement park with my friends…and got on the roller coaster… and I Loved it!

I road that roller coaster over and over and over again.  We made silly faces in the camera and screamed until our lungs hurt.

I didn’t realize it at the time, but looking back, it was a powerful demonstration of the power of choosing my actions, despite my emotions and thoughts telling me to run the other direction.

You see, at first I tried to control my feelings of fear by avoiding going to the amusement park, but it didn’t really work, I still felt bad and afraid.  When I instead focused on controlling my actions, I made a real choice – to take a ride.

There is a nice general rule about controlling inner experience: The more you try to control your painful thoughts, feelings, and sensations, the more you have them.

Perhaps trying to control some external things in our lives, such as other people or exactly how our life turns out, can also lead to more pain and suffering.

So for this month, come back to yourself, focus there, and regain your power.  To me, the only thing that makes sense is to choose to act on your values, the rest of life you can let go of trying to control.

But don’t take my word for it. I encourage you to take a look at your own experience and see what is true for you.  What does your experience show about control?

I hope this has been helpful and as always, send me an email and let me know what you think.

Until next time,

Ellis Edmunds, Psy.D.

If you, or someone you know, is struggling with anxiety and could use the support of a professional, it would be an honor to be of service.  I offer Individual Therapy and Mindfulness Groups in Oakland, California.