How to Use Emotions Effectively

You own them or they own you

As we get older, we learn the value time and time again of emotional growth. People learn every day to control which emotions they choose to express and those they choose to suppress. This skill alone goes a long way to stop runaway anxiety. In the end, it is the integration of emotion and cognition that leads to good mental and physical health. People really do need to be moved by their emotions one moment and yet be able to calm them and reflect upon them the next. The first level of this kind of emotion regulation involves the ability to say that you feel sad about some event rather than just crying. For example, people teach their children to be able to say that they’re angry rather than acting out with anger. Emotional growth thus involves not only having emotions, but also handling them effectively.

The word passion shares its origin with the word passive. This gives the impression that people receive emotions passively rather than creating them. Many of my clients think they are victims of their emotions because their daily experience of feeling good or bad just seems to happen for no apparent reason. I teach my clients how to intelligently use these emotional experiences as a guide and in the process, they learn how to regulate them so that they’re not controlled by their unwanted emotions. To do this, they learn to evaluate what their emotions offer them. Just as all thought is not necessarily logical, so too all emotion is not necessarily either intelligent or disruptive. Just as people need to learn how to reason logically, people also need to learn how to tell when their emotions are healthy and adaptive, helping them live a better life, and when emotions are maladaptive and damaging to their life.

Because emotions have historically been contrasted with reason, researchers have always treated them like a single class of events for the sake of comparison. Yet all emotions are not the same. For example, when you’re angry, your action tendency moves you to expand and thrust forward. The function of anger is to set boundaries, and anger itself actually varies. It may only last for a few minutes, or it can rumble quietly for days. Sadness, by comparison, leads to crying out as a result of loss and after some specific time period, if no one comes to help, you withdraw to preserve your resources.

Important distinctions about different types and functions of emotion really need to be made when you’re coaching someone to use their emotional intelligence. For example, anger may be an empowering adaptive response to being violated, and another time, it may be a destructive overreaction to what’s happening in the moment based on some history of prior problems. Anger may be a person’s first immediate reaction, or it may come only at the end of a chain of existing feelings and thoughts. Men often express the latter type of anger. They might actually be experiencing fear, yet because they believe that it is not “manly” to be afraid, they respond by becoming angry instead. People might also express emotions intentionally in an effort to get a desired result, such as crying out to get sympathy. So, people need to learn to make distinctions between different types of emotions.

Picture how differently someone might feel in the following situations and what might be the best way to handle those feelings:

• A person has just had a major argument with his or her spouse and the two of them are not speaking to each other.

• The person has just been told that he or she has been awarded a desired promotion.

• A person’s parent has just died.

• A person wants to impress a new boss.

• A person’s fiancé has just told him that her feelings for him are changing.

• A person is thinking that his or her future prospects are gloomy.

• A person is trying to win someone over to his or her point of view.

• A parent is about to leave for work when the babysitter calls to say she can’t come.

• A mother sees that her three-year-old has just run into the street and a car is approaching.

• A person wants to get rid of a sales person at the door who has interrupted an important conversation.

All are very different situations and result in different emotional experiences. By controlling emotions simply by getting in touch with them, we’re getting rid of them but it’s not going to be enough for things to work out in a positive fashion. Working with me, people learn to handle this type of feeling.

First they learn to distinguish among different kinds of the emotional experiences, then they learn how to deal appropriately with each experience. As a coach, I help my clients to see that their emotions differ in different situations. I help them see that some emotions can be used as adaptive guides to action, others should be faced, others bypassed or explored, and others simply overcome. Clients learn that some emotions should be expressed out loud, others need to be controlled, others need to be reflected upon, and still others are best acknowledged and used to guide decisions and actions.

In order to act with emotional intelligence, people need to learn to regulate both their emotional experience and their emotional expression. Being able to defer their responses, know what they are, and reflect on them are fundamental human skills. From infancy, babies learn to suck their thumbs to soothe themselves, and small children learn to whistle in the dark to calm their fears. As an adult, you can learn relaxation techniques as well as meditation to regulate anxiety. Some people learn to regulate anger by counting to 10 and even learn to regulate joy and to express it appropriately, depending on the situation. The biggest part of emotional intelligence is the ability to control emotionality so that you’re guided by it and not compelled by it.

Choosing how to respond — rather than being a victim of circumstance — provides a sense of self-control and self-determination. Learning to use your unique capacity to construct meaning around your emotions is the best way to guide and transform distressing emotional reactions. It’s really all about integrating your head and your heart.