Do you find it hard to control your feelings? Out-of-control emotions are hard to deal with; they can confuse you and wear you out. Apart from making you feel bad, when you are overwhelmed like that it also means you miss opportunities and are held back in all sorts of ways.

The problem of unwanted feelings is at the root of so much human unhappiness and misery. Yet, many people never give a thought to doing something the take back control, simply because they don’t realise it is possible,

Don’t let your feelings define you, recognise that for what they are (just feelings), and do things to lift your spirits.

To be able to control unruly emotions you must understand yourself well enough to control them and stay cool when somebody or something has ‘pushed your buttons’. 

Failing to think before you act produces a ‘knee-jerk’ reaction which is, literally, mindless. If you to learn to respond in a more measured way, you’ll take back control and do yourself a big favour. 

Reactions vs responses

A reaction and a response may look similar but they feel different. Your reactions are immediate and unthinking, whereas responses are thought through. To put it another way, reactions are automatic, but responses are chosen to fit the situation. Reactions are generally uncontrolled, responses are chosen to match the circumstance. 

For example, someone shouts angrily at you, and you react defensively by shouting back or cowering in fear. Your reaction a reflex; it is a standard response to behaviour you perceive as aggressive, regardless of the circumstances. 

In contrast, when you respond, you also consider the circumstances. The ‘shouter’ may be in pain, or scared, or perhaps they are shouting at you because they think you haven’t heard them. Your chosen response will be designed to fit the circumstances (Soothing, reassuring or paying attention). 

Uwanted feelings

What about situations where an unwanted feeling just creeps up on you? Your mood can change, there’s no one else is involved, the bad feeling just happens, and you can’t shake it. You may not realise it, but this is still a reaction to something (a thought, or something around which you haven’t consciously registered, for example). 

And it causes another problem; you feel bad, you don’t understand you feel bad, and this triggers the circular over-thinking called rumination.

Not so easy

The problem is that many of our reactions are habits we pick up at an early age and, for the most part, we are never encouraged to reflect on them. Nobody ever tells us that What causes us to react like this doesn’t matter here (though you can spend a lot of time and money in therapy exploring the reasons if that is important to you). What matters is to realise that if one of these automatic reactions is causing problems, you can choose to do something about it. You can develop ’emotional mastery’.

Change the thought, change the feeling

Emotional mastery means, quite literally, separating your thoughts from your emotional reactions. Recognising that you can feel, say, angry enough to wish harm to someone else, but that you can decide not to react, is the difference between reacting and responding.  

That is not to deny your emotions. Your self-awareness will tell you what your emotions are, but you should not let them cloud your judgement, nor overwhelm you. 

How to do it?

With practice emotional mastery becomes automatic and you’ll be able to control your feelings:

1) Learn to recognise and name your feelings as you experience them.

Don’t wait until you are upset or angry. Practice this as you go about your daily activities. Aim to identify as many as you can, happiness, sadness, anger, frustration, elation… etc.  

2) Each time you identify a negative feeling, look for the thoughts that go with it. 

This is the most important step bit it can be tricky. You may confuse feeling and thinking (e.g. a sad feeling triggers sad thoughts). Look more deeply into it though and you’ll see that there is a thought which gives rise to the unwanted feeling.

3) Practice changing the thought that goes with a negative feeling.

For example, if you are feeling sad, the thought might be “Why can’t I be happy?” or, if you feel rejected by someone you might think “They obviously don’t like me”. Changing the thoughts to “What can I do to cheer myself up”, and “I won’t take it personally, they must have worries of their own”, respectively, can alleviate the dominance of the negative feeling.

As you practise this simple technique and strengthen the habit in yourself, you will notice that separating thoughts from feelings becomes easier to do. It will allow you to control your feelings so that you can become calmer and more objective.