How to Control Our Emotions: Observe, rather than react to, your thoughts.

Do we live life as we want, or do we let life throw us around?  When we face a situation we were not expecting, something we don’t particularly like, to what extent do we let it get to us?

We often operate under the assumption that we can’t control our emotions.  We often hear things like, “I simply can’t help it, it’s how I feel about it.”  This, however, is not completely true.  Have you ever wondered why your long-time friend is struggling and complaining so much about a problem that is “not a big deal”?  Chances are, your friend has thought the same thing about your “big problems” at some point, they are no big deal.  And this is when we can see that most of our emotions are a product of our thoughts, and what we decide to react to.  What we focus on.

We are genetically wired to react emotionally to events. We all need our instincts in order to survive during emergencies.  If there is a dangerous wild animal running your way, you need a quick system that makes you run away before your brain even has time to process what’s going on.  Your instincts kick-in, your heart is beating faster, you feel an adrenaline rush, and next thing you know it you are already running to save your life.  This is a necessary system our body has in place to help us when we feel threatened, the problem is that this ’emergency system’ kicks in every time we feel attacked, even if it is not life threatening and it’s just something as simple as a criticism.

In a study discussed in the book Influencer:  The Power to Change Anything*, we are taught that subjects who demonstrated more self-control as a kid were more successful later in their lives.   These kids were told to eat a delicious treat that was placed before them or if they wanted, they could wait for a while and then receive two treats.  The kids were left on their own and observed to see what they did.  All of the kids were observed that day, and they were followed as they grew up.  It was then seen that the kids who were able to wait for the second treat when tested the first day, would later on go and, on average, score significantly better on the SAT and perform better in careers than their peers who didn’t wait for the second treat.

The most important part of this study, however, is that it shows HOW these kids were able to wait for the second treat.  The main difference between the ones who were able to wait vs. the ones who ate the first treat was what they chose to focus on.  The kids who waited for the second treat stopped looking at the treat, and instead started walking around the room and coming up with little games on their own to distract themselves.  However, the other kids sat in front of the treat looking at it, or occasionally looked at it, until they were unable to wait any longer and gave in.  We see that with a few small changes in the way they approached the problem, the kids who didn’t wait could have been able to.

To regain emotional control over your genetically wired responses, take the focus off your instinctive objective by carefully attending to distraction activities.

– Al Switzler Influencer*

The powerful take-home message we have from this article is that, although you may not have complete control about what you like or dislike at this moment, you do have control of what you think about.  This we can apply it to other facets of our life!  What can we do to be more in control of our emotions?

Focus on the right things! (This is something we discussed in the last post)

Take a deep breath that interrupts your flow of thought.  When you are feeling trapped in your emotions, it’s because you are trapped in your THOUGHTS.  Taking  a deep breath will help you break your flow of thought and will make it harder for your current thoughts to keep burdening you.  If, however, you are determined to think about the same things that keep you feeling sad, you are giving these thoughts power to beat you down again.

Eckhart Tolle wrote in his book A New Earth*:

“Discover inner space by creating gaps in the stream of thinking. Without those gaps, your thinking becomes repetitive, uninspired, devoid of any creative spark, which is how it still is for most people on the planet.”

If we are constantly being hunted by the same thoughts, we are probably not making enough efforts to detach ourselves from our thoughts or the feelings we have about them.  We identify with our thoughts and our feelings and give them power over us.  We can, however, choose to breath deeply and that way break loose from the chain of thoughts that is making our well-being and happiness spiral downwards.

I am not saying that we should ignore all of our problems in life, and not think about them ever.  What I’m proposing here is that we can develop self-control, and that way you can wait until you are not emotionally responding to the problem so when you face it you can be rational about it an learn from it.  Our emotions get in the way of the learning process, cause they are not meant to be used for learning.  We can, once we are not emotionally charged, go back and observe our thoughts and evaluate what made us react the way we did.  Look for the things in YOU that you could change to not fall in the same trap again.

As Robert Kiyosaki said in Rich Dad, Poor Dad* —  “Just be an observer, not a reactor, to your emotions.”


* Note: I use some affiliate links in this post, marked with an asterisk. If you click through and purchase products I earn a small referral fee that helps pay the cost of this site.

Published by Omar Eduardo

Passionate about building great products; Product Manager @ Google; ex-consultant @ Accenture; MIT chemical engineering graduate

17 thoughts on “How to Control Our Emotions: Observe, rather than react to, your thoughts.

  1. I like how you connect emotions with a way of thinking. Many people just throw up their hands and go “well, emotions are irrational, what can I do?” I definitely believe that we can consciously control our emotion – it's a skill like anything else.Something that works really well for me is taking a “step back” from the situation (becoming an observer, as you mentioned) and asking myself what I would tell someone else facing the same issues. Can I justify my reaction? If not, then I look for alternatives.I've got my own little theory of emotions and emotional control, but I won't go into it here :)Thanks for the post!


  2. Hey,Just happened upon this. . . sort of apropos today, when my coworkers started making fun of some work that I had done (and in pretty simple Japanese, too, gah.) Dealing with it? Well, I'm frankly still pissed as hell, but my plan is to be no longer pissed when I go to work tomorrow morning. My immediate “dealing with it” came in the form of a walk with another coworker and venting a bit, then totally switching gears and focusing on where we were going to locate the right kind of ice cream. Less immediate, I guess, is reminding myself that my coworkers are only human, and that the comments were probably made stupidly (“what, that hurt your feelings?”) rather than maliciously (“I'm going to hurt your feelings!”) Context helps in this case. . . particularly the fact that I might as well be nice to them because I'm only going to be in the same office for three more weeks anyway.


  3. Wow.So basically the most typical thing I do when faced with a difficult emotional situation is vent. . . often inappropriately, as I have here. I can't seem to find the delete button. I'm sorry about that.


  4. In the books “Brain Rules” and “Your Brain: The Missing Manual,” the authors discuss the idea that children's pre-frontal cortex do not fully develop until they are in their early twenties. Hence, their decision making ability is impaired compared to an older adult. It is excellent that the students in that study were able to override their natural impulses.However, as an adult, it becomes much harder to override impulses if we aren't used to doing so. Although not always the best way to go about changing a habit or stopping an impulse, filling one's time with positive and fun activities is something I do.


  5. Thanks for your comment Jeffrey! ~I definitely agree that taking a step back is a very powerful technique to really be rational rather than let emotions overrun our judgements. Thanks a lot for the comment, you should definitely share your theory of emotional control sometime! 🙂


  6. You made a very good point. If we don't get used to control our impulses as we grow up, it's much harder to do so as an adult since you have been reinforcing this behavior for many years. I really think that, as you mentioned, positive and fun activities can definitely help this process of training ourselves to override impulses by shifting our focus. Slowly, I think, we can realize that with the right focus we can choose not to act on our impulses. Thanks a lot for your comment!


  7. Great post. I've read both of Eckhart Tolle's books, “A New Earth” and “The Power of Now”. These books have changed my life and the way I live my life and see others living and my reactions to everything and most importantly, my thoughts. I am now in a continuous practice of living in the now and not in my mind…my thoughts. I feel this is a must read for every human. I incessantly thought not knowing what I was “doing.” I just thought it was me and since I'm human, I'm supposed to do that. I am more at peace now, do not react to things I used to and am more compassionate towards people as we all are going through this as a species.


  8. Thank you for sharing your experience, Rupal. Although I have not read “The Power of Now” yet (it's on queue), I must say that “A New Earth” had a similar effect on me. I sometimes stop and think about how I'm behaving and realize that some of the things I am doing at the moment are a product of my ego, and wanting to be recognized by others rather than being pleased and at ease with the present moment. It's good to stop and enjoy the moment rather than endlessly pursuing happiness — happiness must be found within us, after all. I'm very happy to see that such a remarkable book has made its way to many other people and has made such a good impact. Thanks again for your comment!


  9. This is a very useful post, Omar. Thanks for sharing.One relevant technique that pops to mind is the use of “Transformational Vocabulary”. I learned it from Tony Robbins in his book “Awaken the Giant Within” where he suggested a fun way to help us control our emotions with our language. What you do is use words that either lower the intensity of your negative emotions (so they don’t impact you as much), or intensify your positive emotions so you experience your emotional highs at the highest level possible.So instead of saying, “I'm PISSED OFF!”, say something like, “I'm tinkled”. Instead of saying “I'm fine,” say “I'm supercalifragilisticexplicalidocious fantabulously amazingly brilliant!” (OK probably not, but you get the idea) Interestingly, it does work!I really find it fascinating how powerful our language can be. =)I probably didn't explain it clear enough, so you're welcome to read the full blog post I wrote about it here: Do You Speak The Language of Success?


  10. Thanks a lot for your comment, Marj! I completely agree with your comment – thank you for sharing your post! Language is quite important, and I'm glad you took the time to write this post you shared here. As you say, language reflects what we believe of ourselves and what we think about, which in turn affects what we achieve! 🙂 Thank you so much.


  11. As a writer, I definitely agree that language really influences the way we think. Words and language are hard-wired into our brains, so learning to control language is a connected to learning to control ourselves.


  12. great….Actually this message is the one which Budha, Osho,Dr.PM Mathew velloore (EVER GREEN MATHAICHAN-Book)etc.. are giving…


  13. Hi I am having problems at the moment where I am stuck in a career path I am very unhappy with but can't quite escape yet. Your advice has been helpful in dealing with this situation


  14. I'm sorry you are going through a rough patch at this moment, but I am very glad that I was able to help in any way. Please do look out for opportunities, but beyond that for all the great things life has to offer. Oftentimes I find myself unhappy because of a particular things, until I realize I have so many other things to be grateful and happy about… then it doesn't seem as important anymore. Good luck!


  15. My analogy of finding that moment between incident and reaction is finding the bite of the clutch when driving… the gears already engaged but until I release the clutch there’s been no reaction, dip the clutch and disengage the gear ( easier said than done every time )


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