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Emotional Discipline

Sometimes emotions can overtake us, but there are steps we can make to overcome them.

One of the best ways to boost mental energy is to recognize a fact that at first may seem unlikely: You have the power to choose how you feel.

Feelings, we all know, are strong forces. Sometimes they even overtake us. They don't just shape our moods, they influence our very thoughts and the decisions we make.

We've been told over and over to pay attention to our feelings; they represent some honest core of ourselves. But feelings can seriously derail us. Sometimes they land us in considerable conflict, and create the fireworks that erupt when people disagree.

Leadership expert Charles C. Manz, Ph.D., contends that we don't have to be at the mercy of our emotions. We can in fact control them; direct them into constructive channels. He calls the ability to choose how we feel "emotional discipline."

"Feelings are a source of information and they can work for us if we learn how to monitor them and use their energy for positive means," says Manz, who is author of the book Emotional Discipline: The Power to Choose How You Feel (Berrett-Koehler). Emotions, which are a primary source of energy and motivation, are made up of several constituent parts. These include behavior, thinking, physiology and spirituality, and meaning.

All of the components of emotion can be mined for information about our emotional experience. In addition, they serve as avenues for exercising emotional discipline.

Because we all have different life experiences, we all differ in the array of things that evoke our emotions. For some the threat of war is especially upsetting, for others the loss of a job. Many of us are set off by interpersonal conflict, whether with a colleague or spouse.

Emotional discipline is not a one-size-fits-all process. Rather, you can develop and customize it to your own needs. It sets up the capacity to deal with current and future challenges.

The core strategy involves taking a few simple steps each time you have a significant emotional encounter.

  • Cause

    Identify the issue or event that provokes a certain emotion. What is the cause of the feelings you are currently experiencing in the argument?

  • Body

    Scan your body and identify the location and intensity of the physical reactions your emotions are causing. Where do you feel the physical sensation of anger? Rate the physical sensation as pleasant or unpleasant.

  • Mind

    Identify the thoughts that accompany the feelings and the beliefs that support them. What thoughts are evoking the emotions you feel? Review the self-talk you are engaged in with yourself and the mental images that course through your mind. Perhaps you are gripped by anxiety before giving a talk. You may be thinking: "I'm going to make a fool of myself; this is going to be embarrassing." The supporting belief may be something like: "I'm not a good speaker."

  • Spirit

    Determine what part of yourself is most revealed by this emotion (your fearful ego? your healthy spirit?) and what part is hidden.

Choose any of a number of strategies to work with your feelings. Here are two of the most essential and effective ones that you can access through your mind.

  • Mental Reframing

    By changing the way you see something, it's possible to turn setbacks into opportunities for success. When you find yourself in a difficult emotional situation, focus on the opportunities in it as well as the risks. An argument, for example, provides a chance to learn something about relationships and the different ways people see things.

  • Emotional Kung Fu

    In the Chinese art of self-defense known as kung fu, the aim is to use any attacking force to your advantage. You don't fight the attacker; you redirect their energy to accomplish your goal. You send the enemy to the ground with the energy of their attack. The same approach can be applied to emotional conflicts, says Manz. Rather than resisting an emotional attack, you use its energy to word toward a solution. In emotionally charged conflicts, people do three things: forcefully state their positions, attack our ideas and attack us. We're usually tempted to push back, defend ourselves or reject their ideas. But instead you can sidestep and deflect the force of the attack to use their strength to serve your goals. You invite criticism and advice that could reveal a solution, recast the attack as an attack on the problem rather than on you, and ask questions rather than making statements.