It’s Not the Emotions, It’s How You Act On Them

A thing I find myself saying more and more lately is this: ‘you can’t control your feelings, but you can decide what you do about them.’ It doesn’t strike me as a particularly revolutionary statement, but people are often surprised by it, and that reveals a lot about how people think about emotions, feelings, and actions.

Emotions are complex things and they’re affected by a number of components, many of which are hard to control. There’s your own internal brain chemistry, external factors and pressures, socialisation, situational factors; you’re stressed out driving home from work, say, because you’re tasked to finish a project with a tight deadline and there’s a lot of traffic and you’re frustrated. Not necessarily about the traffic, although if asked, you would grumble about the congestion. You’re frustrated because you’re stressed out and it’s miserable and it’s hot and you want to be home already, cooking some dinner and feeling the cat winding through your legs.

These feelings are hard to control. We’ve been spending centuries telling people to control, suppress, hide, and defy their emotions, as though this is an easy task. The firm denial to engage with the fact that feelings are going to happen whether you like it or not means that people who feel, especially those who feel intensely, come away with the impression that they need to try harder. And that they should be ashamed for being unable to control their emotions; that spans from people embarrassed by sexual fantasies involving actions they would never commit in real life to people who get frustrated because they cry when they’re angry and feel like it’s a sign of weakness.

The question isn’t whether it’s possible to control feelings, to turn into an automaton, to model a behaviour that someone else wants and is trying to enforce in you, but how you want to act on those feelings. The driver stuck in traffic could honk the horn or flip people off or get out of the window, strip, and run between lanes. The driver could turn up the stereo or turn the engine off and read a book until traffic starts moving again or take a side road and sit in a cafe for a couple hours until the traffic clears. Those are all different responses to the same feelings, some potentially more productive than others.

When you have a surge of emotion that you’re trying to process and your first response is that you need to suppress it and act like it’s not happening, that’s ultimately going to be very unhealthy for you. You will become a tense ball of unexpressed, unprocessed, unalleviated feelings that threaten to explode at a really inconvenient moment. This makes them a lot more likely to control you, because when they finally do pop, they’re going to do so in a way so aggressive that you won’t really be able to rein them in, or even understand what’s really going on. Because the root causes behind those feelings are so deeply buried that you don’t even know they’re there anymore.

Or you can find a way to express those feelings that’s going to be productive. You’re jealous of another person’s success, say. Probably not the best move to take to the Internet to complain about it or make snide comments to friends, but you’re allowed to punch bread dough a little angrily or mutter unkind things in the shower. Add that person’s name to your temporarily blocked list so you don’t see them popping up everywhere you go. You can draw a little effigy on a piece of paper and then add a monster about to eat the object of your jealousy. You can find a closely trusted confidante to talk with and express your frustration. You can seek positive affirmation that you’re doing the right thing for you; ask friends to help you celebrate a landmark of your own, an accomplishment you should be proud of and don’t want to forget in your state of jealousy.

Processing emotions is hard. It’s not something that comes easy or naturally for most people and some of us pay a lot of money to therapists to help us explore, quantify, and handle our feelings. Even then, we often fail miserably; none of us are perfect at all times. But each time is a learning experience, and it provides you an opportunity to step back and figure out what you learned, how you might respond to a similar situation in the future. It helps you identify feelings so you’ll know them in the future and better be able to handle them; you can become a responsible haver-of-feelings instead of an indiscriminate haver-of-feelings.

And sometimes, your feelings are just going to bubble right up and pop out anyway, no matter how hard you try to be rational about how you express them and what you do with them. At that point, you’re past the first stage and into the second. The question is where you’re going to go from there when it comes to acknowledging what happened and working on fixing it, admitting that you are a work in progress and that mistakes happen and you want to do better in the future. And if you find this happening over, and over, and over again, well, it may be a sign not that your feelings are out of control and wrong, but that you’re in need of some help when it comes to classifying, processing, and expressing them.

It’s okay to admit that we all need a little help sometimes, too.