Why controlling our emotions does not work

Mindfulness shows us a better way

We try to control our emotions for a range of reasons. We may have been told that we are weak or inadequate for feeling certain emotions. We may fear particular emotions because we have seen negative outcomes from other people expressing those emotions. Some emotions may not fit with our self-imposed image of ourselves. At the end of the day, there are a wide range of beliefs about different emotions, their roles and their meanings.

Separate from the beliefs however, emotions themselves are our natural guidance mechanism system when they are in balance and are not distorted by the “stories” we tell ourselves. Emotions are derivatives from the feelings anger, guilt, sadness, fear and happiness. The stories, on the other hand, are what we tell ourselves about the emotions. It is like there are two layers of mind function happening simultaneously. The first layer is the emotional reaction, and the second layer is the egoic thought that tries to make sense of our experience. Often this is where our understanding goes awry. Our mind comes up with all sorts of ideas that in turn distort our emotional reactions.

Caught in the story within our minds

For example, we may feel anger because someone pushed into a queue in front of us. Some amount of annoyance would be natural (or adaptive) as we could justify that it is disrespectful to push in to line when everyone else had to wait their turn. It highlights our limitation of waiting in line and our frustration that someone can get away with something that seems unfair. I will not go into the situation too much, as another person may not feel annoyance but rather accept it gracefully. However, for the purpose of this point, let us agree that a small amount of anger is appropriate to the situation.

The story in our mind may intensify the emotion by thinking about all the times when we perceived unfairness and our helplessness at standing up for ourselves. We may further feel worthless and ineffective. We may remember times in our childhood when we had to put up with frustrating circumstances when we were really being hurt. We may have been bullied and unable to talk about it, or abused and unable to defend ourselves. By the time our mind is through with us, we are standing inline fuming over the injustice.

Then we may feel bad about feeling angry. We may equate feeling anger with being an ‘angry person’. We may think about angry people we did not like or how we are supposed to be nice people. We struggle and fight with our emotions of anger, worthlessness, guilt and anxiety. We try to suppress and control the emotion of anger. We push it down into our stomach and swallow it. Now our body is completely stressed.

If we suppress emotions over a long period of time then we can eventually develop physical disease. There is a wealth of evidence showing links between the nervous system and the immune system. We know that long term stress can result in a range of physical conditions. So suppressing emotion simply holds the energy of that emotion in our organs and muscles. It does not actually get rid of the emotion. Nor are we really controlling it. This is an illusion. We may keep it down for a while but eventually it will manifest somehow, and usually in ways that are completely out of our control.

Mindfulness and emotional processes

So mindfulness teaches us that if we simply bring awareness into the emotion then we can listen to it, understand what it is really about and transmute it. The emotion, whether it is anger, fear, guilt or sadness, will subside once is job is done. All we need to do is witness it. As we do this we often also witness the ego-story about the emotion. This witnessing process allows us to better see that our thoughts about the emotion are actually feeding our distress. This helps us to consciously choose where we place our awareness. If the memories, images and beliefs that are triggered from a current event are causing us meaningless distress then mindfulness practice can assist us to make different choice and re-focus our attention on our breath, or our foot or the ocean.

This process is not about control out rather witnessing what is occurring in the present moment and then making a choice to re-focus our awareness. If the choice to remain present with the emotion is helpful then this is fine too. However, in mindfulness we stay present with the emotion consciously. To be present with the emotion helps us to feel deeper into its meaning. Mindfulness combined with guided therapeutic processes helps us explore our emotions safely, rather than become stuck in the emotion or feed the destructive story or pattern.

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