Keeping your emotions in check -what does that mean, really? Most of us interpret it as gaining some sort of control over strong emotions so they don’t get us in trouble. But can we really ‘control’ emotions for any length of time and is this even a good strategy?
Humans are emotional beings. The emotional state you find yourself in right now is impacting your thoughts, the converations going on in your mind, your ability to listen and, as a result, your quality of life. We’ve all met people who seem to be chronically upset or angry. When we encounter these folks (meaning, if we haven’t been successful in avoiding them in the grocery aisle), we may initially try to be open and listen (and send them compassionate thoughts because what must it be like to live like that?). But after a while, patience runs thin and we start to look for a reason to disengage. That person’s negative emotion is preventing them from experiencing the genuine connection with other humans that is so essential to their happiness.
Most of us have some conscious awareness of our emotional state. We typically know when we are feeling joy, sadness, anger, etc. This is a beautiful thing in that awareness puts us in a place of choice. What differentiates those who deal with emotions effectively from those who don’t is the desire (and ability) to use the information that our emotions give us to make good decisions about what we do next. When we are in tune with our emotional state, we are better able to determine what conversations to have with others, what tasks to take on or what to do with this emotion that is present.
I chose the image at the top of this blog post because when I saw it I thought, “Here is a guy who is trying to push down whatever emotion he is feeling right now.” I can’t tell what he is feeling but it looks like something that has some strength to it. He could be getting ready to cry, or yell, or walk away. He’s not letting on to the external world what is specifically cooking with him, which makes those around him a bit uneasy. Our emotional state is always being conveyed to the people in our midst, and attempts to hide or ‘control’ it are ultimately fruitless. If you are a parent of small children you know this for sure. When you are upset about something and your son or daughter asks, “What’s wrong mom?”, our tendency is to say “Nothing.” Did you ever feel like your kid believed you? This only added to their concern and worry and served to model behavior that isn’t useful to them over the long haul.
A strategy that is used often by many of us, and which ultimately backfires, is to push down strong emotions and not deal with them at all. We do this primarily because we are afraid of them and haven’t learned how to shift them in ways that help us vs. harm us. All of us have experienced the ‘vomiting up’ of emotions that have been piling up over time. Unfortunately, this tends to happen at the worst possible moment, with the people we care about most. If you’re someone who hasn’t had this happen, you are either very competent in emotional self management or silently laying down plaque on your coronary arteries. Perhaps a better way to navigate the emotional waters that we all swim in is to let go of trying to control and practice becoming a better swimmer.