Once there lived an old man who kept all different kinds of animals. But his grandson was particularly intrigued by two tigers that lived together in one cage. The tigers had different temperaments; one was calm and self-controlled whilst the other was unpredictable, aggressive, violent, and vicious.
“Do they ever fight, Grandfather?” asked the young boy.
“Occasionally, yes they do,” admitted the old man.
“And which one wins?”
“Well, that depends on which one I feed the most.”
Being able to control your emotions depends in part on how much you ‘feed’ a particular emotion; on how much we focus on what we are afraid of, enraged by, or depressed about. But it’s more than that. Good ‘emotional intelligence’ requires we understand our own moods, recognizing when and why we are upset and having very real strategies in place to be able to influence the way that we feel.
So if you ever find yourself tossed around helplessly on a hysterical tumultuous sea of emotion and want some ways to at least adjust your sails, the better to steer your own course toward calmer waters, then read on, dear friend.
Tip 1: Control your emotions by looking ahead
I recall an old Zen master saying: “Your anger, depression, spite, or despair, so seemingly real and important right now; where will they have gone in a month, a week, or even a moment?”
Very intense emotions blind us to the future (1) and con us that now is all that matters. In fact, when we are incredibly angry or anxious, we can even momentarily forget that there is even going to be a future. I’m reminded of one guy I worked with who’d stuffed an ice cream cone in his boss’s face when he was enraged. This momentary action had huge and prolonged consequences on this man’s life; particularly finances.
We’ve all said or done things we later regret simply because, for a time, we let ourselves be dictated by our own emotion. If you get angry, think to yourself: “How will I feel tomorrow if I lose my dignity and tell this person (I have to see everyday) that they have a face like a cow pat?” If you are anxious about some imminent event, say to yourself: “Wow, how am I going to feel tomorrow/next week when I look back at this?” Look beyond the immediate and you’ll see the bigger picture and calm down, too.
Tip 2: Get to know yourself
We all kid ourselves a little/a lot. “No, I’m really pleased for you! No, I really am!” (Arghhhhhhhh!)
Learn to observe your own attitudes and emotional ebbs and flows. One key first step to emotional control is to know when we are actually being emotional and also why.
If you catch yourself feeling unexpectedly strongly about something, ask yourself why. Controlling your emotions isn’t about pretending they are not there. If you feel jealous, angry, sad, bitter, or greedy, label exactly how you are feeling in your own mind: “Okay, I don’t like that I’m feeling this way, but I’m feeling very envious!” Now you’ve admitted it to yourself.
The next step is to identify why you feel the way you do: “I hate to admit it, but I’m feeling envious of Bob because he’s just been complimented for his work and I haven’t!”
Being able to exercise this self-honesty means you don’t have to resort to what a large proportion of the human race do. You won’t have to ‘rationalize’. We rationalize by kidding ourselves that we are angry with someone not because they have got a raise at work and we haven’t, but because of ‘their attitude towards us’ or some other made up reason. Knowing what emotion you are feeling and being man or woman enough to identify the truth as to why you are feeling it means you’re that much closer to doing something about it.
Tip 3: Change your mood; do something different
We tend to assume that moods just ‘happen to us’ and, like storms, the best we can do is wait until they pass. But, unlike climatic storms, we can influence - even change - our moods without resorting to unhealthy means such as alcohol or drugs. Being able to manage and influence your own emotions is a powerful marker for good health, emotional maturity, and happiness.
One way to alter your mood is to instantly do something else. For example, if you feel flat and bored, continuing to watch uninteresting TV will deepen the mood. Switching it off and going for a walk in a new neighbourhood will inevitably change your mood. If you feel cross, consciously focus on three things in your life for which you can feel grateful. If you are anxious, start to imagine that what you are anxious about has already happened and gone much better than expected.
The important thing is just to do or think something different. Don’t be passively carried along by the current of the mood. The quickest way to do this may be to simply imagine not feeling the way you are feeling. So if I’m feeling hacked off, I might close my eyes and take a few moments to strongly imagine feeling relaxed and comfortable and even in a good mood. This will, at the very least, neutralize the bad mood and may even put you in a good mood.
Tip 4: Observe how others deal effectively with their emotions
We can learn so much from other people (as long as we look to the right people to learn from!).
How do other ‘emotionally skilled’ people deal with their frustrations and difficulties? You could even ask them: “How do you keep so cool when you’re presenting to all these people? Why doesn’t that make you angry? How do you keep smiling after such setbacks?"
Their answers could actually change your life if you start to apply what you learn.
Tip 5: Change your physiology
Some people assume that emotions are ‘all in your head’, whereas actually all emotions are physical responses. Anger pushes heart rate and blood pressure up, which is why having an angry temperament is a predictor of heart disease (2); anxiety produces lots of physical changes; and even depression suppresses the immune system (3).
So part of changing your emotional state involves dealing directly with the physical changes. Physical changes are led by the way we breathe. For instance, anger and anxiety can only ‘work’ if we are breathing quicker with shallow breaths. Take time to:
Stop breathing for five seconds (to ‘reset’ your breath).
Now breathe in slowly, focussing on your diaphragm, until your lungs are full of air.
Then breathe out even more slowly (and whilst doing this, imagine that you are breathing pure rest and relaxation into your hands).
Keep doing this and remember it’s the out-breath that will calm everything down.
Tip 6: Use your noggin
Think of emotion as a strong but stupid being that sometimes needs your guidance and direction. We need some emotion to motivate us, but it needs to be the right emotion at the right time applied in the right way. The more emotional we become, the stupider we become (4). This is because emotions want us to react blindly and physically rather than to think or be objective and rational.
Being objective and rational when a lion was attacking wouldn’t have been great from an evolutionary point of view - because it would have slowed us down. But much of modern life needs measured calm thought rather than blind and sloppy emotional responses.
If you force the thinking part of your brain to work when you start to feel emotional, then you can dilute and subdue the rampaging emotional part. You can do this by simply forcing yourself to remember three names of other students you went to school with or even running through the alphabet in your head. Try it - because it really will work.
Tip 7: Create spare capacity in your life
We experience counterproductive emotions for different reasons. Maybe we have never learnt to control ourselves or perhaps we are living in such a way that makes it more likely we’ll experience emotional problems.
Every organism, from amoeba to antelope and from bluebell flower to blue whale, has needs. And so do you. If these needs aren’t met, then the organism will suffer. You have very basic needs for food, sleep, shelter, and water; if these needs aren’t met properly, you will feel more emotional - no doubt. But you also have emotional needs.
To be emotionally healthy, a person needs to:
Feel safe and secure; feel they have safe territory.
Regularly give and receive quality attention.
Feel a sense of influence and control over their life.
Feel part of a wider community.
Enjoy friendship, fun, love, and intimacy with significant people.
Feel a sense of status; basically, feel they have a recognizable role in life. This also connects to a sense of competence and achievement.
Feel stretched but not stressed to avoid stagnation, boredom, and to enhance self-esteem and a sense of status in life.
When these are met adequately, we then feel our life has meaning and purpose.
Not meeting basic needs leaves us feeling that life is pointless and meaningless and will leave us wide open to emotional problems.
When you live in a way that, to some extent, meets all or most of the above needs, then you’ll enjoy greater emotional stability and control. Knowing what you need in life is the first step to creating ‘spare capacity’ to focus beyond your emotions. And you can see how not meeting the need for feeling secure or getting enough attention or feeling connected to people around you could cause you emotional problems. Really think about these needs and gradually pursue activities that are likely to help you fulfil them.
In this way, you’ll begin to feed the right tiger with the right amount of the right foods.
Delaying gratification and looking beyond immediate greed (and yes, greed is an emotion) seems to be an indicator of lifelong success and even better mental health. The marshmallow experiment is a well-known test of this concept conducted by Walter Mischel at Stanford University and discussed by Goleman in his popular work, Emotional Intelligence. In the 1960s, a group of four-year-olds were given a marshmallow and promised another, only if they could wait 20 minutes before eating the first one. Some children could wait and others could not. The researchers then followed the progress of each child into adolescence and demonstrated that those with the ability to wait were better adjusted and more dependable (determined via surveys of their parents and teachers), and scored an average of 210 points higher on the Scholastic Aptitude Test.
Ironson, G. (1992) Effects of anger on left ventricular ejection fraction in coronary heart disease, American Journal of Cardiology, 70.
David Spiegal, MD and Sam Wilson, professor and associate chair of psychiatry and behavioural sciences, found that women with breast cancer and depression are at higher risk of cancer recurrence and early death than breast cancer patients without depression. The research suggested this was because of the way depression suppresses the immune system, making it harder to fight off disease. The research findings were published in the journal Brain, Behavior, and Immunity.
Strong emotion stops us thinking clearly. See Daniel Goleman’s groundbreaking bookEmotional Intelligence: Why it can matter more than IQ, published in 1995.