Laws of Emotional Mastery
Mental health doesn’t just happen. Like physical fitness, it takes effort. Three principles spell the difference between just surviving and outright thriving.
By Noam Shpancer Ph.D. published May 4, 2021 - last reviewed on May 18, 2021
Life, goes the saying, is like a diamond—hard and beautiful. Many are experiencing the hardness of it quite acutely these days, in the form of stress, dread, and fatigue. Much of our success in navigating these difficult times depends on our mental health.
People may visualize mental health as a place one arrives at or a treasure one possesses. But mental health is neither a destination nor a property. Rather, it is something you do—the practice of proper mind management.
Your mind is a lot like a car: Both churn with energy; both can take you places; both can veer off course to devastating effect. Most important, the usefulness of both will depend in large part on how you handle them.
Good driving is a process of constant adaptation characterized by high responsivity and requiring myriad specific skills: how to take a turn, merge into traffic, change lanes safely. Likewise, sound mental health is a process of constant adaptation, characterized by psychological flexibility—the ability to recognize and adjust your mindset and behavior to various situations so as not to callously hurt yourself or others, and so that you may continue to represent your values and pursue worthy goals in the face of distractions and obstacles.
Like driving, the process of mental health requires its own set of specific skills. Here, the skills in question are those that let us manage well the products of the mind—our thoughts, emotions, and behavior. Psychological science provides some useful instructions for that purpose.
Lying in bed at night, you hear a sudden “thud” coming from downstairs. What do you feel? What do you do? Your subsequent emotion and action will depend on what you tell yourself—your interpretation of what the noise means. If you think, This is just snow falling from the roof, you’ll likely turn back to sleep unbothered. But thinking, A burglar is at my window, will get your heart racing and have you reaching for your phone or gun, depending on your politics.
Cognitive psychology research over the past few decades has shown that our thoughts—beliefs and subjective interpretations—give rise to our emotions and behavior. Thinking, in other words, is important for our emotional state.
One oft-repeated axiom of advice is that you should, therefore, strive to “think positively.” Positive thinking gets good press, and in proper doses it can be useful. Optimism, as the work of psychologist Martin Seligman and others has shown, can help us endure periods of hardship, bolster a sense of hope, and improve mood.
Alas, positivity, while differing in content, is similar in process to negativity: Both are biases, and both obscure and distort the truth. Basing a response on anything other than the truth carries grave risks. If you’re falling, there’s no use in telling yourself that you’ve learned how to fly. Decisions guided by truth and facts are more likely to prove successful. Sound mental health is served best by accurate thinking.
Thoughts are like viruses. Letting the wrong one into your system may cause harm. Bad thoughts—racism is one—have caused more damage than bad viruses. And they’re harder to eradicate.
Accurate thinking amounts to an informal application of the scientific method—a process of refereeing between competing truth claims based on evidence. To develop accurate thinking skills, we must first appreciate that our brain’s operations rely on two central processes: control and automatic. Control processes are slow, effortful, and highly vulnerable to disruption; they demand concentration and full attention. Automatic processes are fast, robust against disruption, and do not require attention or concentration in order to operate successfully.
Learning how to drive a car is a control process— effortful and demanding. But 10 years later, your driving has shifted to automatic—effortless and requiring no concentration. Such autonomous operations have an important evolutionary role: They free up energy and allow conscious attention, a limited resource, to focus on what is new. That permits us to keep up with the ever dynamic conditions of reality, the better to survive and thrive.
Habits are automatic processes operating outside of awareness. This fact has two main implications. First, you cannot describe something well if you aren't aware of it. The more automatic a process becomes, the less information is available to us about how it works—one reason great players are not often great coaches. Their playing, what they do over and over, has become automatized; they no longer have clear conscious knowledge of how they do it. Second, you cannot change what you're not aware of. A habit in motion tends to stay in motion.
Throughout our life we acquire “thought habits”—automatic ways of thinking about the world and ourselves. Functional thought habits—like good eating, sleeping, or driving habits—help us operate efficiently and safely. However, distorted thought habits—like poor eating, sleeping, or driving habits—will over time result in psychological pain and maladjustment.
If, for example, you’ve developed a thought habit of believing that anything short of perfection is failure, then you are bound to judge yourself a failure often, thus experiencing psychic pain. Your actual problem is not imperfection—which is merely a condition of all humanity, excepting Beyoncé—but the distorted automatic belief that perfection is the only form of success.
Distorted thinking habits are not usually adopted randomly or through some mind abnormality, but because they served a useful purpose at the time of their adoption. For example, after years of driving to your place of employment, you need not notice the road. The route has been automatized, allowing your thoughts to wander quite freely during your commute. It’s a fine, adaptive habit.
But if your office is suddenly moved to a new location across town, the same old habit is rendered maladaptive. You’ll need to exert effort, pay attention, and use your control processes to learn a new route.
Sound mind maintenance likewise requires identification and change of outdated and ineffective thinking habits. Doing this takes several steps. First, you need to become aware of your thinking habits. In other words, you need to think about your thinking in order to detect recurring patterns. You can do this by asking yourself such questions as, What am I telling myself right now? or What thoughts come up for me in these kinds of situations?
The second step is to realize that your initial thoughts in a given situation are just old habits at work rather than truth revealed. Thoughts in general are not world events but mind events. They are not facts but hypotheses, conjectures about what may or may not be. As such, you can observe them dispassionately and with curiosity and choose whether to engage or let them drift by like clouds in the sky. Such detached awareness may sometimes in itself neutralize the corrosive effects of troubling thoughts.
Becoming aware of a distorted thinking habit also allows you to change it. Awareness alone, however, is insufficient: Realizing a place exists doesn’t automatically get you there. You need not know why a habit arose, but to replace it you’ll need to challenge and engage actively with the old thought habit.
To do so, you’ll want to first generate several alternative thoughts. Ask yourself, What else may be going on? What else may happen? What else can I tell myself here? Then, evaluate the different thoughts based on evidence. (Asking yourself, Which of these thoughts would I bet my life on, if I had to? may encourage your evidence search.) Finally, choose the thought that is supported by the best evidence. Then repeat that thought to yourself and act from it.
Accurate thinking is like buying eyewear. You don’t just grab onto the first pair of glasses you see. Rather, you check out the merchandize, try on a few pairs, pick several viable candidates for purchase, compare them based on assorted criteria of evidence— fit, price, style, brand—and choose the most appropriate pair for you. As with your glasses so with your thoughts. It’s best to inspect and evaluate the merchandize before making a purchase.
Neither Deny nor Obey Emotions—Accept Them.
Emotions hold great sway over our lives, coloring and flavoring experience. That said, it is useful to remember that emotions, like thoughts, are mind events not world events, which means that we have much say in regulating them.
Science has yet to fully decipher the nature, structure, and origins of emotional experience. What we do know is that, pragmatically, emotions constitute a type of data that is often useful for navigating the world. A measure of emotional arousal helps us learn new things and remember important events. A baby’s cry of distress effectively summons the caregiver’s attention. Fear keeps you off the dangerous edge of the cliff.
However, as with data in general, two questions loom large over emotional experience: First, are the data any good,
or are they incomplete, corrupt, or distorted in some important way? And second, what’s the best response, given the data?
Psychological research from David Barlow and others has shown that mental distress often emerges not from emotional experience itself but from errors in emotion regulation—mistakes in handling the data. The first such common error is that of denial, whereby emotions are resisted, disallowed, or avoided. This happens when you tell yourself you’re not allowed to feel what you’re feeling. Feeling the jitters before a big presentation, you admonish yourself to not get anxious.
The impulse to deny emotions, particularly negative ones, is understandable. Negative emotions are no fun, and we often associate them with negative events and outcomes that we wish to avoid or forget. In fact, research from George Vaillant and others has shown that a measure of conscious emotion suppression—choosing not to engage or talk about distressing feelings—is often a useful, healthy coping mechanism. Such suppression, however, entails awareness, acceptance, and a lack of fear in the face of the emotion.
Denial, on the other hand, denotes a fearful unwillingness to feel. Attempts at denial are ineffective, for several reasons. First, one law of our internal architecture is that whatever you tell yourself you’re not allowed to feel or think, you’re already feeling and thinking. Pushing against emotion is thus futile, as ill-advised and as fatiguing as swimming against a riptide.
Moreover, designating a certain emotion as forbidden, intolerable, or dangerous can make you hypervigilant about the very emotion you’re trying to deny. Constant vigilance about an impending negative experience becomes a negative experience in itself.
Finally, habits of denying negative emotions may, over time, morph into “experiential avoidance,” a general tendency to avoid difficult internal experiences. Research from Steven Hayes and others has identified experiential avoidance as an underlying factor in much psychopathology, for several reasons.
Life is an obstacle course even in the best of times. Keeping one’s bearings and achieving meaningful goals involve a willingness to face and overcome adversity. If your only response to difficulty is to back off, you’ll end up retreating from life itself. Inability to tolerate difficult emotion impoverishes your mental life.
Avoidance is appealing because it brings quick relief. The human brain is biased toward favoring short-term calculations and immediate gratifications. Rewards that are placed within our reach loom larger than faraway consequences. The bucket of fat-drenched French fries is all the more enticing for being right here in front of me, while the looming heart attack is years in the future, dimly sketched in the mind. No wonder I reach for the fries.
Life was once—in our species’ early environs—precarious, strictly a short-term proposition. Privileging immediate reward was adaptive. Our lives now are, with any luck, long term and require long-term strategies. Holding your breath works to keep you alive under water in the short term; it is not effective for long-term submersion. Likewise the habit of avoidance, effective in the short term, becomes maladaptive over time.
Avoidance teaches you nothing but how to evade more, and therefore tends to metastasize with time. The more you avoid, the less competent, knowledgeable, and confident you become, and the less of life you can fully experience.
The second common mistake in handling emotions may be called “emotional obedience.” We assume our emotions represent the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth and must therefore drive our actions: I’m scared, therefore I must run. I’m angry, therefore I must fight.
Such emotionally driven behaviors are problematic because research has shown—and self-reflection will no doubt confirm—that our emotions often provide distorted, partial, and biased information. A roller coaster ride may produce genuine terror, but it presents no real danger, short of badly messed up hair. Things we fear more (airplanes, strangers) are often safer than things we fear less (cars, family members). Your drunken insistence that you feel fine to drive is another case in point.
Even when they tell a true story, our emotions rarely capture the whole of it. How you feel about buying a house is important, but far from the only consideration in finding an abode. Budget, family size, neighborhood, market conditions, and available alternatives matter too, often more so.
To properly regulate emotional data, we must refrain from either denying or obeying emotions. Instead, there’s a simple two-step process. The first step is acceptance. Emotions are, in a sense, internal weather, and it’s as advisable to accept the truth and fact of our emotions as we do the weather’s. If you’re anxious or sad, your best first move is to acknowledge and accept what you feel: I am human. Humans have emotions. This emotion is part of my experience right now.
Acceptance confers benefits. It is a form of facing facts, like describing a difficult event in honest detail. Doing so may be hard, but it manifests your courage and builds your strength. In accepting your emotions, you are also accepting the truth of your situation—a base from which to fashion a successful response.
Accepting emotion also negates the exhausting and futile effort involved in denial and affords you the opportunity to examine and get to know a part of your experience. Knowledge is power. Self-knowledge is self-empowering.
Finally, accepting a negative emotion lessens its destructive potential. Caught in a riptide, your best move is not to resist but to let the current take you out to sea. Soon, the current will weaken and disperse, and you’ll be able to swim around it and back safely to shore.
Acceptance does not imply blind emotional obedience. Rather, the next step in proper emotion management is to decide what to do with the emotion data. Once you acknowledge that it’s raining, it is still up to you to decide how to act vis-à-vis that fact.
Emotions tend to be good consultants but lousy executives. We are well advised to consider their input but ill advised to let them take charge. Your emotions, in other words, should work for you, not the other way around. Luckily, emotional data are but one of multiple useful data sources to consult before deciding on a course of action.
Your best move is to seek diverse consults from sources other than emotion before making important behavioral decisions. Such sources include your goals, values, experience, logic, knowledge of self and world, Google, and more. Having entertained the varied inputs, you can then make a well-considered (rather than emotionally driven) executive decision about your most sensible path forward.
Consider an example: You’re driving to your daughter’s wedding when another driver cuts you off dangerously. Your anger flares, advising you to chase the driver down and retaliate. Your first correct move is to acknowledge your rage and its advice. Next, summon your other consultants: What’s your goal for this trip? What values are important for you to represent by your conduct? What are the odds for a productive highway confrontation? Then, make an executive decision about your best course of action.
Odds are that you’ll recognize the folly of letting a stranger hijack this important day, that you will choose to honor your values (such as, say, nonviolence), and therefore politely decline anger’s advice and keep on your way. Your anger will have long dissipated by the time you’re wowing the inebriated wedding party with your fancy footwork on the dance floor.
Tolerate Short-Term Pain to Avert Long-Term Suffering.
Which brings us to behavior, the domain where thoughts and emotions manifest most consequentially. The golden rule of healthy behavior management: Challenges exist. To be overcome they must be met. Enduring short-term discomfort is the necessary passport to long-term health and adaptation. Those who cannot tolerate acute temporary discomfort now condemn themselves to chronic suffering later.
Of course, avoidant behavior is sometimes warranted, even necessary. It’s best to dodge, rather than confront, the oncoming train. But when avoidance is motivated by distorted thinking, emotional mismanagement, or our innate, dated distaste for delayed gratification and long-term calculations, then indulging it will prove destructive.
Behavioral engagement, facing fears and challenges, is usually the better approach. It helps in several ways. First, it allows us to improve our understanding of the terrain and hone our skills. Many things we first perceive as difficult are not inherently hard but merely effortful because they’re new, and hence under control processes. Practice makes competence. And practice requires engagement.
In addition, behavioral engagement tends to bring you into regular, productive contact with others, which may strengthen community ties and shore up your social support network. Human beings are social creatures. We thrive only in coherent, well-coordinated groups. Social connectedness is among the most powerful predictors of health, happiness and longevity. Engaging with others is a wise investment in your own well-being.
Moreover, recent research by Mark Bouton, Michelle Craske, and others has shown that, unlike avoidance, the process of facing one’s fears lets new coping responses compete. It overrides earlier maladaptive habits when feared
catastrophic predictions get refuted by actual benign experiences.
Finally, behavioral engagement is useful because action begets emotion. Contrary to popular belief, the emotion-behavior link is reciprocal. At times, our actions may be emotionally driven. But other times, emotions are action driven.
Just as feeling lusty may beget a couple’s make-out session, so will making out likely beget heightened lust (do try this at home). Our emotions often line up behind our actions. This is why, as David Ekers and others have shown, the practice of behavioral activation—intentionally engaging in activities one associates with positive memories and feelings—is an important part of effective treatment for mood disorders. The fastest, most reliable way to change how you feel is by changing what you do.
In sum, doing basic mental health right entails practicing accurate thinking, emotion management, and behavioral engagement, while learning to tolerate short-term discomfort in the service of meaningful long-term goals and deeply held values. Such practice requires considerable effort and commitment, as do all things that matter. But the trouble is worth it because, to paraphrase my mother, at the end of the day, all you’ve got is your mental health. n
Noam Shpancer, Ph.D., is a professor of psychology at Otterbein University.
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