How to Gain Control Over Your Emotions
Do you get Aha! moments in the shower?
I get them when I’m in a state of hypnagogia — the drowsiness that immediately precedes sleep. It’s as if a switch goes on. Bright light floods my mind just like it floods a dark room.
One such Aha moment occurred in my bedroom about seven years ago. I can still see what I was doing that night when the light came on. Lying in my bed, eyes wide open, unable to sleep.
I had been in a toxic relationship for eighteen months. But they felt like five painful years. I had stopped smiling and looking in the mirror. I hated the person she had made me.
But that night, just as I was about to drift off into a disturbed sleep, the switch got pressed. Hard.
I realized she hadn’t turned me into the person I had come to hate. I had. My mind raced through the past, analyzing events where I held others responsible for things that went wrong in my life.
Now that I knew better, I had to do better.
I had to stop pointing my finger at people outside the window and start pointing it at the person in the mirror. I had to stop accusing others and start taking up accountability.
It might seem like a trite revelation. But at that moment, it felt so illuminating that it lit the whole room. And the switch that turned the light on, wouldn’t go off. That’s why I couldn’t sleep.
No matter who enters your life or who leaves, you’re never alone. You always have yourself. This is either great or horrible news. It all depends on the voices in your head.
These voices have a name: emotions. The voices talk to you more about how you feel about incidents than how you think about them. How you felt at work, how you felt when someone offered you a seat on the bus, how you felt about the number of likes on your Instagram post.
In ancient Greece, men and women knew that the god or goddess they ignored would one day turn on them. Likewise, if you ignore the voices in your head, they’ll turn into monsters and turn you into your worst enemy.
To become your own best friend, it’s important to control your emotions. And the first step to control your emotions is to understand them. After all, we cannot control what we don’t understand. We only fear it.
1. Revisit Your Emotions
A friend of mine appeared overtly chirpy a month before her wedding. We could tell something was troubling her. (Later she admitted that she was terrified of living with her future mother-in-law.) But she brushed all our questions aside with her smile that could light up a town.
I think she hoped that if she kept faking it, her fears would eventually disappear. They didn’t. Instead, she woke up the morning exactly a week before her wedding with a panic attack. Her family rushed her into therapy.
For the next six days, the therapist helped her revisit the feelings she’d brushed under the carpet. Sometimes she encouraged her, at other times she forced her. Eventually, my friend calmed down and held candid conversations on the subject with her fiancé.
The default reaction to uncomfortable emotions is to escape. We try to drown such emotions in external noise and distractions. We try to suppress them by putting up a façade of happiness.
But suppressing uncomfortable emotions doesn’t make them disappear. Instead, they keep growing like an undetected fire until they erupt in wild flames. And we wonder, “Where did that come from?”
Emotions are like Guy Ritchie movies. You have to watch them over and over again to put together the pieces and figure out the complete story.
The next time you feel an uncomfortable emotion, put your phone away. Make a cup of tea. Put on a soothing playlist. Relax. Let the emotions bubble to the surface and evaporate. What will remain behind as residue will be the real issue.
Doing this may be uncomfortable in the beginning. But after a while, you’ll feel a burden lifted from your chest, and relief and clarity washing over you.
2. Focus on Your Heart’s Ticking
A farmer lost his watch in the barn one day. The watch held tremendous emotional value; it was a gift from his father who was no more.
He approached the children playing in the area and offered a reward to anyone who found the watch. Excited, the children searched through the stacks of hay, but to no avail.
Just when the farmer was about to give up, a little boy from the group asked for another chance. The farmer agreed.
The boy went into the barn and returned with the watch a short while later. Surprised, the farmer asked, “How did you find it?”
“It was simple, sir,” the boy said. “I sat on the ground and listened. In that silence, I heard the ticking of the watch. Then I followed the direction of the ticking and found it.”
Listening to what makes your heart tick is difficult when your insides or surroundings are noisy. Managing your emotions begins with examining them in solitude.
Before my Aha moment in the relationship, I spent many nights alone in my bedroom, wondering how I could make her fall in love with me. Whatever I had tried had failed. Until I began to get the message that she didn’t love me; she loved the idea of me — someone who was around whenever she wanted.
For weeks I listened to that voice and followed that direction until it led to the illumination I could no longer ignore.
Create moments of silence each day. This is your me-time. Use it to reflect on events and feelings you’ve swept under the rug.
In that stillness, you’ll find answers. They may not be the ones you want, but they’ll be the ones you need.
Listen to your mind. Trust it. Follow its advice. It knows what’s right for you.
Silence isn’t empty; it’s full of answers. — Gaur Gopal Das
3. Journal Your Thoughts
An old Cherokee was teaching his grandson about life. “A fight is going on inside me,” he said. “It is a terrible fight and it is between two wolves. One is evil — he is anger, envy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, and ego.”
He continued, “The other is good — he is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion, and faith. The same fight is going on inside you — and inside every other person, too.”
The grandson thought about it for a minute and then asked his grandfather, “Which wolf will win?”
The old Cherokee simply replied, “The one you feed.”
A plane can fly in the path of an active volcano instead of its intended destination of the Antarctic landscapes because it was a mere two-and-a-half degrees off-course for the entire journey.
You could do all the right things but keep making a tiny mistake that ends up throwing your entire life off balance.
Everyone reflects on events. That’s good. But most people feed the wrong wolf during this activity. They ask themselves “Why”. Why did I lose my cool at my colleague? Why is my partner upset? Why do my efforts not yield the results I expect?
Most honest answers take time to become evident. But in looking for immediate answers, we end up manufacturing ones that seem right but are wrong.
You could assume you lost your temper because you’re a bad team player when in fact, you were hangry. You could assume your partner is upset because you did something when in fact, she watched a sad movie. Or your efforts yield poor results because you’re a loser when in fact, you’re not following the right process.
Each wrong answer feeds the wrong wolf. Until it grows so big that it eats you alive.
Understanding your emotions demands separating yourself from the equation. Journaling can help you achieve this.
Journaling lets you examine your emotions and structure your thinking. It helps you identify your behaviors and their triggers, and track the direction you’re heading in. If you’re moving in the wrong direction, you can figure out corrective action.
You can’t write without structuring your thoughts, and since your thoughts are your responses to your emotions, writing is structuring your emotional responses.
Self-aware people pose “what” questions to themselves: What happened here? What do I feel about it? What went well? What didn’t? What can I do to avoid landing in a similar mess again?
Take a leaf out of their diary. Ask yourself what questions instead of why. If you struggle to begin, write down your thoughts for just five minutes each day.
Over time, you’ll get a clear view of yourself. You’ll discover the character traits, attitudes, and beliefs that drive your emotions. And it becomes easier to prepare yourself to handle similar future events.
Listening to your heart doesn’t land you in trouble. Ignoring it or paying attention to the wrong voices does.
Emotions make us human. Without them, we’re just primates.
Emotions are not the root cause of our pain and suffering. The inability to understand and manage our emotions is.
It takes courage to face your emotions; almost as much courage as sitting down with someone who has polar opposite political views. But over time, you’ll be able to make your emotions work for you. You’ll feel calm, secure, and make good of the opportunities and relationships that add meaning to your life.
Sit in silence. Relax. Examine your emotions. Listen to what your heart is saying. Journal your thoughts for just five minutes and read them aloud. Make this a part of your daily routine.
Suddenly, your emotions won’t seem intimidating. They’ll become your friends. And when you find yourself in a tough spot, a light switch will always be close.