Why Controlling Emotions is a Bad Strategy
Updated: Apr 2
If you ever have been overwhelmed by emotions, you know how it feels: palpitations, blurred vision and, in some cases, nausea, cold sweats and headaches. It feels like the body has a will of its own––and, in a sense, it has. Because our emotional responses are essentially subconscious. The question is: can we really control something that is not under our control to begin with?
Some people kill themselves,
by slashing their impulses.
Most of us try to control our emotions because that’s what we’ve learned from an early age –“Showing emotions is a sign of weakness” and “boys don’t cry.” In our modern rational culture we confuse controlling emotions with the idea of stability and strength. We praise someone for being so controlled under pressure or for not showing any emotion. I’m suspicious of the word control, because controlling emotions feels more like repressing emotions. And, often, repression comes at the expense of our physical and mental health, especially in the long run.
In my lectures, to illustrate this point, I remove a bullet from my pocket, show it to everyone, and ask for a volunteer. Eventually, a shy hand raises. I then ask that person to remove the black powder from within the bullet and to place it into the palm of their hand. Next, I light a match and ask them to place it onto the gunpowder… and bang! Well, not exactly. This is the point when my volunteer swiftly removes their hand, even when I assure them it wasn’t real gunpowder. The interesting point, though, is that the gunpowder would have had little consequence to my volunteer’s precious palm. Because what makes gunpowder lethal is the compression of that energy, held tight in a small container–a bullet. Uncompressed it becomes a harmless puff of smoke – although I wouldn’t recommend trying it at home.
The same happens when you repress emotional energy: you charge your emotional bullet with more and more pressure. So, what happens when it’s ready to fire? What happens when the pressure has nowhere else to escape? It implodes. Perhapes hitting an organ. Maybe that’s why ulcers (some emotions are hard to digest) or cardiac issues (“problems of the heart”) prevail so much today. The symptoms surface as something physical, but stem from emotional causes. You must have experienced moments in your life in which you needed to express a thought or a feeling, but had to swallow it dry, just to later feel the acute physical aftermath: an upset stomach, a migraine, anxiety, etc.
In other cases, repressed emotions silently implode in the psyche, manifesting themselves in all kinds of neurosis. As a kid, I remember watching a cartoon show of a Coyote that suddenly finds himself holding a stick of dynamite and runs desperately back and forth, not knowing where to dispose of it. That’s when he suddenly finds a big basket and quickly throws the dynamite underneath it. A muffled explosion follows, and the coyote is safe and sound. I often wonder if our body isn’t like that bucket stifling a psychological explosion.
Under the Rug
Every time we control emotions we’re, in a way, swallowing them dry further down the subconscious. We get quite good at hiding our emotions, even from ourselves. And the deeper we push them, the harder it gets to deal with them every time they resurface. Almost like sweeping emotions under the rug, and one can only imagine what sorts of eccentricities might come crawling out someday.
If you could “weigh” your emotions against your thoughts, which one would feel heavier? Emotions, for sure. That’s why we say heavy emotions––or should I say, dense emotions.
In nature, something dense will always tend to eclipse something that is more subtle. A breeze is more subtle than wind; the light of a candle is more subtle than the light of the sun. That is why it’s so hard to think clearly when you’re emotionalised: feisty emotions will always tend to eclipse your mind. And you need tremendous mental strain to control them.
In the night, when all is calm and quiet, you can whisper endearments in someone’s ear and be heard. But if you try doing the same during a rock concert, your voice will be too subtle against the blazing guitars and drums. You would have to raise your voice, thus straining your vocal cords. When emotions blare the mind with their drums, what’s the point of mentally yelling back at them?
Another way of seeing it, is by comparing erupting emotions with a moving vehicle: when you reach top speed and have to suddenly hit your mental brakes, you need tremendous strain to bring those emotions to a halt.
Now that we have explored a few reasons why controlling emotions is a bad strategy, what’s the alternative? The easy answer would be to release those emotions before they need to be repressed. But with emotions nothing is that simple. Because how do you release that energy when you’re already emotionalised? When the pressure boils up faster than you can hold?
When we externalise the pressure, we move it outwards––and that’s probably better than repression––but often that means saying something we later regret or, for some people, going home with a black eye. People who boil over easily don’t hold all the emotional pressure to themselves but, often, ricochet on someone else. Other times the tension prompts an emotional breakdown. This type of emotional release, therefore, isn’t a viable strategy either.
This emotional paradox is like a hot potato: if you hold on to it, you burn yourself; if you throw it away, you might burn someone else; but what if you still want to make a soufflé?
A Different Approach
The answer to this emotional conundrum I have learnt with Prof. DeRose. Instead of repressing your emotions, you learn how to manage them more productively.
The word ‘managing,’ in itself, already conveys a shift in perception: instead of holding back on your emotions—or drowning in them—you improve the way you react to them. You develop a skill that prevents the hot potato from burning you.
Emotional Management, so to speak, encompasses the ability to sublimate, self-regulate, and reprogram your emotions: (I will explain each one in separate posts.)
(1) Sublimation: will help you transform tense potentially harmful emotional energy into something more useful—work, business, new skills, personal development, charity, etc.
(2) Self-regulation: will help you improve your emotional set point by calibrating the response of your nervous system—through breathwork, meditation, organic procedures, etc. In turn, this will facilitate your
(3) Emotional reprogramming: to help you positively recondition your future reactions, and prevent your emotions from escalating in the first place.
Emotional Fine Tuning
The truth is that we all fluctuate between controlling emotions too tightly and not being able to contain them enough. When a violinist tunes the strings of her instrument, she cannot tighten them too much to the point of snapping, nor leave them so loose to become floppy. It takes awareness, practise and sensitivity to get the right tension.
Sadness, joy, fear, confidence, love, enderamount… are different notes of a string in which we compose our emotional melodies. And just like a musician trains her ear to optimise her instrument, hopefully, Emotional Management will help you tune your unique emotional perspective of the world––without repression.
Method for good human relations and emotional management, by Prof. DeRose
Reprogramming for Success, by Prof. DeRose
Emotional expertise (interview), by Prof. Luis Lopes