Why “Controlling” Our Emotions Doesn’t Work

By A. Dielman

It’s probably a safe bet that you’ve heard (or used) phrases such as “Stop feeling sorry for yourself,” “Big kids don’t cry,” “Snap out of it,” or “No use crying over spilled milk.” On the surface, these phrases seem helpful to some. After all, it is the way that most of us learn about our emotions from a very young age. We may hear these phrases used so often, that we don’t necessarily consider the message that is being conveyed through this type of language. What these words really convey is the idea that we should be able to control our emotions. It might even appear to us that other people are able to control theirs, particularly the adults around us when we are children. In all actuality, it is human nature to have and feel intense emotions, and they are not something to be gotten rid of or controlled.

The dangers of phrases like these, the ones that encourage us to attempt to control our emotions, is that we start to see emotions as a bad thing – as something to be controlled, avoided, gotten rid of, or ignored. Based on the messages that are received, it is no wonder that we might struggle with big and difficult emotions. To control or avoid emotions, people might turn to drugs, alcohol, excessive screen time, arguments, working too much, or being silent while they suffer internally. Unfortunately, the things that people may turn to all in the name of “controlling” their emotions tend to make their lives more difficult, and this in turn creates even more problems!

What if there was a different way to handle emotions? One that doesn’t involve the myriad of ways that one might attempt to “numb out” or avoid their emotions, in turn causing more pain and suffering. It may sound counterintuitive and strange, given the messages we’ve received our entire lives, but the alternative is actually acceptance. To be clear, acceptance does not mean that we need to like, enjoy, or be happy about painful emotions. It also does not mean that we use our emotions as a reason to act cruelly or hurt others.

Rather, acceptance means that we allow the feeling to be there, whatever it is, without judging it. You might even tell yourself that it is entirely normal to feel and try to get curious about where and how intensely you feel that emotion in the moment. Then, you get to decide on what to do with that feeling, whether to act on it or to let it be, and act on your values and the person you want to be. The ultimate irony of this is that when we let go of attempting to control or change our emotions, we gain more control over our actions, our lives, and who we choose to be.

This article was written by Alexis Dielman, a limited licensed psychologist in the state of Michigan. I am a practicing therapist, working primarily through the lens of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, an evidenced-based therapy that emphasizes the role of acceptance, willingness, and commitment to values as a way to cope with the pain that life can bring. I am currently working at Child and Family Psychological Services in Kalamazoo, Michigan.


disclaimer: The information provided in this blog post reflects the personal views of the author. The blog post contains general health information and is not a substitute for your doctor’s care. Please discuss with your doctor how the information provided is right for you.

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