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Total Control vs. No Control Theory of Emotions: Can you control your emotions or not?

Can you control your emotions or not?

He just insulted you and you feel your blood pressure rise. For a minute, as your body floods with resentment, your chance of staying calm is slim. You take a deep breath. Turning away expressionless, you muster all the spiritual benevolence you can, and for once you don't counter-attack. You say something impressively forgiving and dignified.

Do you mean it? Maybe not, but it works. He, braced for a fight, is thrown off balance, and suddenly you feel less threatened, safer in who you are and where you stand. Now, staying calm and forgiving in the encounter gets easier. Resisting that initial pull toward retaliation was hard. At first you were wobbly, but then it becomes effortless. From wobbly to stable--it's the ten-minute equivalent of learning to ride a bicycle.

Scenarios like these are important to Cognitive Therapy. They demonstrate that your emotions aren't fixed facts; they're flexible. It's all in how you interpret your situation. Tell a different story and you'll automatically generate a different emotional response.

Positive Psychology likewise advocates ways to limber up emotional response. It agrees with Cognitive Therapy; you can change your story to change your emotions. But you can also change your behavior to change your emotions. You can jumpstart emotions, fake it ‘til you make it, behave differently, and people will respond differently. If you play the calm one in a conflict, an opponent's response often makes it increasingly easy to continue to play the calm one.

About this fluidity of interpretation and emotion, there has accumulated a bit of oversimplifying conventional wisdom: In any situation you have complete control and flexibility in how you respond. No matter what's going on, you can choose whether to be angry or calm, resentful or forgiving-it's all up to you. I'll call this the Total Control Theory of emotions.

This theory usually comes bundled with an incriminating assumption that there's an obvious right way to be. If you have complete control over whether you're resentful or forgiving, and if forgiveness is the obvious right thing to feel, then, if you're resentful instead of forgiving, you've failed.

I don't believe there is an obvious right way to feel. Sure, by word choice, one can give the false impression that there is, but there isn't. Should you be resentful (a negative sounding thing) or forgiving (a positive sounding thing) makes it sound obvious how you should feel. But if you reframe the same situation as a choice between upholding high standards (a positive sounding thing) and failing to respond to substandard behavior (a negative sounding thing) suddenly, it's not so obvious what is the right way to feel. Unlike the Positive Psychologists, I don't believe positivity is always the answer. If you want a thorough exploration of positivity's downside, try Brightsided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America, by Barbara Ehrenreich.

Still, we most often hear the "total control" theory of emotions accompanied by advocacy of a particular position: "Stop feeling X, and you can. It is within your power to do so." The Secret is another example. It argues for a supposedly appropriate positive attitude but it also assumes that you have a lot of choice about what you feel. Total Control Theory could also be called the jukebox theory of emotion. You get to pick the tune. And clearly, to some extent you do, or else in the scenario above you couldn't turn a low probability of calm into a high probability of calm.

Competing with the Total Control Theory there is another bit of conventional wisdom about emotional control that is also quite prevalent. We could call this the No Control Theory: You feel what you feel and there's nothing you or anyone can do about it. No Control Theory doesn't seem to have proponents who advocate it explicitly. Rather it's implicit in what we say when we want our emotions to have an effect on others. "Look," we say, "it's just how I feel. Get used to it." Or "Hey, I'm just reporting," as though emotions are like thermometer readings. There's one emotion per instant. You can read it out loud or not, but it is what it is. Implicit allusion to the No Control Theory is a way to say "take it or leave it, but I ain't gonna change it." It's a way of sending a clear if stubborn signal.

On the receiving end, there are also reasons we would want to assume there is one feeling to read in any given situation. We want people to be authentic with us, to tell us what they're really feeling. Underlying this emphasis on authenticity is a pragmatic concern. We hope people will read out their emotional thermometers accurately so we can tell where they stand, and chiefly so we can tell if their attitudes are stable or changeable. We take multiple temperature readings, asking "how do you feel about me now?" or, in partnership asking the question "I love you." (I know it doesn't look like a question but it often is, translating as "Do you still love me now?")

If your emotional response is incompatible with mine (for example, you don't like me), I hope it's flexible and will change to something more compatible. I track, and seek fluctuations. If it's compatible with mine (for example, you like me) then I hope it won't change to something less compatible. I track and seek reliability.

The No Control Theory of emotions eliminates a complicating variable in our speculations about how people are being with us. If they have no control over what they feel, then the only question is whether they're reporting honestly. If instead they could feel multiple things at any moment it becomes much harder to tell whether they are being honest. Asking them to tell you how they really feel becomes like asking someone to read alphabet soup aloud while the soup is being stirred. It's hard to tell if they read it right.

In between Total Control and No Control there must be some alternative theory that's hard to look at squarely because these practical strategic concerns obstruct our view. In truth, we're not emotionally omnipotent. In any situation, some emotions are harder to access no matter how much you change your story or behavior. Nor are our emotions like thermometer readings responding automatically in a predetermined way to our circumstances.

We're neither omnipotent nor impotent. We're some-nipotent. We have some power. I think we need to assert a more probabilistic approach to emotions, one that holds open the possibility of alternative emotional responses to circumstances but doesn't pretend that you could feel anything to which you put your mind. Next week I'll talk about feelsibility-the feasibility of feeling this emotion or that in any given situation. It's like an instantaneous emotional weather forecast: In this moment, a 20% chance of resentment and an 80% chance of forgiveness.

More from Jeremy E. Sherman Ph.D.
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