Photo by Simon Migaj

How to control your emotions: observe, don’t 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 allow it to get to us? A crucial part of building a good life and good relationships is to learn how to control your emotions.

We often assume that we can’t control our emotions, but that’s not necessarily true.

I often hear people say, “I simply can’t help it; it’s how I feel about it.”  This thinking, however, is not entirely true.  The same situation seen from different perspectives will have a very different impact or feeling, on a person.

Have you ever wondered why your long-time friend is struggling and complaining so much about a problem that you think is not a big deal? Chances are, your friend has also thought that some of your big problems are no big deal. When seen from their perspective, from a different focus point, your large problem can seem quite small.

Our emotions, or how we feel about something, are a product of our thoughts, of the ideas in our head, which we shape by directing our focus.

The power of focusing on the right things

In a study discussed in the book Influencer:  The Power to Change Anything*, we are taught that kids who demonstrated more self-control were, on average, more successful later in their lives.  More importantly, we get a glimpse at how these kids were able to exhibit self-control.

The kids in the study had to make a choice:

  1. Eat a delicious treat, a marshmallow, placed in front of them, or
  2. Wait until the experimenter came back to the room and receive two marshmallows instead – twice the reward!

The experimenter then left the kids on their own. Some kids ate the marshmallow before the experimenters came back to the room; some waited. The study then followed up later to see how these kids had done academically and at work. The results? The kids who waited for the second marshmallow during the experiment would years later, on average, score significantly better on the SAT and perform better in careers than the kids who chose shorter-term satisfaction.

More interestingly, however, is that the researchers in the study observed a crucial difference in the approach between those who waited vs. those who didn’t wait to twice the reward. The kids who waited stopped looking at the marshmallow when the researcher left them alone in the room. They distracted themselves by looking around the room and making up games. The kids who didn’t wait just sat in front of the marshmallow looking at it, until they were unable to wait any longer and gave in. By shifting their focus, some kids were able to wait for a bigger reward.

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 of what you like or dislike at this moment, you do have control of what you think about, what you stare at. This we can apply it to other facets of our life. 

We are genetically wired to react strongly to threats, but that is harming our health.

We all need our instincts to survive during emergencies.  If a dangerous wild animal is running your way, you need to run away immediately. Our bodies have, through evolution, made this our instinctive response. If you see something threatening, your heart beats faster, you feel an adrenaline rush, and you run to save your life before you truly process what’s happening. This is our evolutionary response.

As our world has modernized, however, our bodies haven’t evolved to differentiate between different kinds of threats that we perceive. Even non-life-threatening events, such as an angry email from a customer, or an insulting comment online, can trigger the same strong reaction that used to be reserved for the occasional lion chasing us in the wilderness. This over triggering is flooding our system with stressors. If we don’t learn to pacify our thinking our shift into a more positive state we will spiral downwards emotionally.

Just be an observer, not a reactor, to your emotions.

Robert Kiyosaki, Rich Dad, Poor Dad*

To bring balance to our emotions, it is essential to shift our focus. As we learned from the marshmallow study, you can influence your actions and reactions by shifting your focus. When you feel threatened, criticized, upset, take the time to refocus your energy. A simple way to do this is through something freely available to all of us, our breath.

Take a deep breath that interrupts your flow of thought.  

When you are feeling trapped in your emotions, it’s because you are stuck in your thoughts. Continuing to think about the same things over and over will beat you down. Taking a deep breath interrupts your thinking just long enough that you can recalibrate. A deep breath will make it harder for your current thoughts to keep burdening you.

“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.”

Eckhart Tolle, A New Earth*

If the same thoughts are regularly hunting us, we are probably not making enough efforts to detach ourselves from our ideas 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 breathe deeply and that way break loose from the chain of ideas that are making make our well-being and happiness spiral downwards.

We should not ignore our problems, or not think about them ever.  But we can, and must, develop the self-control to wait. We need the self-control to not respond emotionally, but rather rationally, to the issues we face in life. We do this by taking a deep breath, distracting ourselves, and refocusing on something else until we’ve cooled down. Once we are not emotionally charged, we can go back and better handle the situation. Then take the time to reflect and try to understand what you can change to react better next time, learning from each experience you have.

* 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.

Last Updated on August 22, 2020 by Omar Eduardo

Loading comments...