The Secret to Controlling Your Emotions Has Nothing to Do With Ignoring Them

Photo: Getty Images/Patrik Giardino
Starbucks, the G Train, the L Train, the E train, Penn Station, diners, public parks—those are just a slim few of the many places I've cried this year alone, largely because I have no idea how to control my emotions. I'm in therapy, and consider myself a constant work in progress, but Rome wasn't built in a day, and I would love to learn how to have better emotional control. Wouldn't we all?

Though being able to express your feelings is a divine and important life skill, sometimes there's a time and a place. For example, only a couple of the places on my cry list are actually appropriate (or, rather, not totally inappropriate) venues for outbursts. Generally speaking, when you're in a public setting, like work or a party, it might be wise to dial down your extreme negative feelings to, like,…a 7.

Because I'm clearly no expert in the art of learning how to control your emotions, I sought advice from someone who is. Carla Marie Manly, PhD, is a clinical psychologist who tackles the very subject of emotional regulation in her book, Joy From Fear, and to me she revealed a fascinating truth that I contend could quell even the most chronic cryer: most humans suppress and express feelings in extremes.

"Most of us are never taught how to understand and manage our emotions, so we often go to one pole or the other, shutting down from emotions or letting emotions rule us and our situations," she says. I'd venture to assume no one wants to be controlled by emotions, so to speak, but that doesn't stop the emotions from existing. It simply means that we need to get to know them and learn how to express them in a way that's healthy.

"It takes a great deal of energy and awareness to learn how to deftly manage our emotions rather than letting our emotions control us." —clinical psychologist Carla Marie Manly, PhD

"It takes a great deal of energy and awareness to learn how to deftly manage our emotions rather than letting our emotions control us," Dr. Manly says. "And even the most emotionally aware person can get stung by emotional mismanagement if tired, stressed, or feeling lonely. These are weak spots for every person."

To understand your emotions, identify where they originate

When you're able to acknowledge the root cause of why you're feeling how you're feeling—and address that in a calm fashion—your emotions can actually be incredibly helpful tools. "If we learn how to notice and utilize our emotions, we can use them to inform us about our needs," Dr. Manly says.

So let's step off the crying thing and move to another often negatively connoted emotion: anger. I believe in a good rage sesh every now and then, but sometimes that feeling can get you in big, big trouble. Like, if you're angry at your partner for showing up late to dinner, Chili's is maybe not the best place to start screaming, flipping over the table, and committing arson. Dr. Manly instead recommends to pause and decipher where exactly where it's coming from. Anger, for example, is sometimes symptomatic of an underlying feeling of perceived disrespect.

"In such a situation, I would notice my anger, feel it in my body, and try to take at least a short time-out to assess my best course of action," she says. "If I was upset because my spouse forgot a dinner date, I’d likely take a deep breath or two and then say, 'I’m feeling rather angry right now. When you didn’t show at the restaurant, I felt very hurt and disrespected.' I’d then give my spouse the opportunity to apologize and explain—and then we’d move forward positively to rectify the situation."

This minute to take inventory is important because emotional control isn't just about you—it's about other people being able to understand where you're coming from and not getting hurt in the crossfire. Likewise, we feel lighter when we can properly tune into our feelings and express those clearly, and we give others the gift of knowing when we feel hurt, angry, or sad.

"As a bonus, the relationship can flourish when those involved learn how to better understand and care for each other," Dr. Manly says. "This same principal works for all relationships—romantic, social, work, and family."

"When we bottle up our emotions—sadness, fear, anger—the emotion doesn't go away. It waits inside and festers. Then, it will pop out, often at an inconvenient time." —Dr. Manly

Gentle reminder, though, that you don't want to ignore the feelings. The biggest misconception about emotional control is the idea that it's possible to effectively pretend the feelings don't exist. It isn't about masking that you're upset with a perma-grin. That's because A. doing so can give you stress ulcers (just ask my ex-best friend about it). And B. It doesn't work, because the emotion will just resurface at another inopportune time.

"When we bottle up our emotions—sadness, fear, anger—the emotion doesn't go away," Dr. Manly says "It waits inside and festers. Then, it will pop out, often at an inconvenient time, in an unregulated fashion that may feel consuming or completely out of control. These dysregulated incidents, when repeated over time, become the 'emotional norm' even when they are negative or highly destructive."

The solution is to learn—step-by-step—how to feel and honor your emotions

According to Dr. Manly, there's a true art in working to utilize emotions in a powerful and genuine way. And one more advantage for the hyper emotional folks out there? Your ability to be in touch with your feelings is a good thing.

"Those who are sensitive are one step ahead," Dr. Manly says. "Although they may not know how to regulate their emotions, they do acknowledge their existence. Those who compartmentalize their emotions may appear tough and strong, yet to become emotionally intelligent, they need to both learn to feel and regulate their emotions in a healthy way."

So feel how you need to feel, and if you ever need a minute to let it out first, every bar has a bathroom. Trust me on this.

One good way to help regulate your anger? Identifying your "hard" and "soft" emotions. And if you ever wondered, here's why crying is contagious

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