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.

17 comments / Add your comment below

  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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