Can We Stop Emotions From Ruling Our Lives?
Discover how you can use emotions to guide you, not control you.
Posted May 17, 2021 | Reviewed by Davia Sills
- Emotions dominate our lives. We either spew feelings excessively or sequester them inside us.
- Relationships between people with disparate and even opposite displays of emotion involve an emotional tango that ill serves both parties.
- Emotions can be used to inform and enhance thinking, behaviors, and interpersonal relationships. Asking yourself these questions will help.
Emotional displays flood our lives. Television, radio, social media, conversations, and written media provide a continual barrage of anger, tears, venom, upset, and grief. The political arena is an ongoing slugfest of emotional outrage, gesture, name-calling, and put-downs.
An excessive outpouring of feelings dominates our interpersonal landscape as well. How did we arrive here? Does everyone use an emotional megaphone or only some of us? Some of us are emotionally reserved. How do we coexist with each other?
As a child and adult psychiatrist for 40 years, I have some observations on both the over- and under-expression of feelings and the implications for both emotional health and illness. I discuss these observations in the book I co-authored with psychiatrist Homer B. Martin, M.D., called Living on Automatic: How Emotional Conditioning Shapes Our Lives and Relationships.
Neurophysiologists and neuropsychologists point out that feelings are subjective experiences of emotions. Emotions arise from patterns of neural activity in the limbic system. Then feelings interpret the neural-based emotions. For the purposes of this article—psychiatric, not neurophysiologic—I use feelings and emotions interchangeably.
Emotions and roles in relationships
We all have emotions. Most of us assume our feelings and emotional expressions are hardwired in us, but they are not. In childhood, we grasp how, how much, and when to display feelings. This takes place through unaware teaching within our families, and the roles parents shape in us for managing relationships. We grasp these roles by age 3.
The emotionally subdued
Some of us master the role of hiding our feelings and keep them under wraps. In this role, we rarely acknowledge, much less show, our feelings. We may be unable to identify when we are sad, happy, angry, or anxious.
During psychotherapy, when I ask such people what they feel in a given situation, they say, “I don’t know what I feel,” or “I’m unsure.” Often, they tell me what they think instead of what they feel. We refer to such people as reserved or unemotional.
Reserved people can make poor judgments when other people are involved because they do not use their own feelings to assess what they need to think, do, or say. They suppress feelings and, in so doing, come to believe their bottled-up emotions are powerful. They fear that their suppressed emotions will erupt with volcanic force, either imploding them or wreaking damage on others.
The emotional proclaimers
Other people are shaped during childhood into roles in which they exude emotions and display them often and excessively. They like the effects their emotions have on others. They want others to cater to their emotional displays. They send messages of:
- Be upset with my eruptions.
- Calm me down.
- Indulge me.
- Walk on eggshells around me.
- Fix my feelings.
- Cater to my changeable moods, and indulge my next outpouring of feelings.
These people have such a focus on their emotions that when I ask them what they think, they tell me what they feel.
Emotionally overflowing people also make poor decisions involving others. They make decisions based on whimsical and ever-changing emotions. They forego reason. Since they are consumed by their emotional demonstrations, they are good at distracting other people and at having attention focused on themselves. Later on in relationships, they exhaust those with whom they associate.
The tango of emotions in relationships
How do people with disparate and even opposite displays of emotion exist with one another? This coexistence weaves itself similarly to a tango dance. The dance unfolds in perpetually enduring relationship patterns.
Overly emotional people expect the emotionally reserved to cater to their feelings. It is a way to get attention from others. It is a way to be loud but behaviorally inert. The emotionally reserved at first admire the emotional outpourings of others. Only later, after many attempts to calm them or satisfy them, are they worn down and exhausted.
Why do they admire the emotionally bombastic when they are emotionally reticent and reserved themselves? Their admiration is based on wishing they could demonstrate such lavish displays of their own feelings. “I wish I could be like that,” they say. They also enjoy the thrill and challenge of trying to tame the unmanageably emotionally extravagant.
As these patterns endure in relationships, the demonstrative person is increasingly emotional with louder displays. The mesmerized, reserved person loves indulging them until they reach exhaustion. They continue to keep a tight lid on their own emotions. Both people are made worse by their interpersonal tango, which ill serves each of them.
Patterns in society
The same interpersonal emotional patterns happen in the larger society. We admire the plethora of emotions in the public arena. We glue ourselves to the television and social media to ooh and aah, admire or denigrate.
We seek out emotional people for entertainment. Holding these people in the limelight fuels those who enjoy exuding their feelings. They escalate. They grow their audience. The squeaky wheel gets the oil and the ratings.
Emotionally reserved people shun being on center stage. They gladly throw attention to those who want it. One group does not exist without the other.
Both the emotionally quiescent and the effusive may use quick-fix methods to open up and dampen down their feelings. They improperly use prescription medications, alcohol, or illicit drugs. Such use is prevalent and creates both physical and emotional health problems for users, their families, and work colleagues.
How to escape the emotional stranglehold
Over-emoting people are oppressive to be around. Under-emoting people are oppressed within themselves. We should become aware of the dance and look at ourselves deeply enough to cease the imperiousness brought on by feelings. It can be done.
When we are in the throes of strong feelings, we can ask ourselves questions that will help us decipher the emotion, decide how reasonable it is for the circumstance, and what course of action to take. Here are questions to ask yourself.
1. What emotion do you have?
You may be crying, but what is your true emotion? Are you sad, mad, jealous, frustrated?
2. What is going on that evokes your emotion?
Is someone putting you down, praising you, angering you, or ignoring you? Who are you with, and what is the interaction about?
3. What other occasions create this same feeling/emotion?
Do you get angry when also ignored by others? Are you jealous in similar situations with others?
Do you get mad when others praise you?
4. How reasonable for your circumstance is the emotion you feel?
If you are angry because you are left out of a decision made by your spouse, ask yourself if this is a big concern worth being angry about. Was the decision major—what kind of car to buy? Was it minor—what size eggs to buy?
5. Are you conditioned to the emotion because of childhood experiences?
If so, you could be reacting emotionally in a knee-jerk way when the situation does not reasonably call for it.
If you were expected to hide emotions as a child, you might be more reasonable with yourself and reveal your emotions to another person rather than concealing them. Or, if you were expected as a child to have boisterous emotional displays, you may need to tone down displays of your feelings.
6. Once you evaluate the facets of your emotion, what is the most reasonable action to take under the circumstances?
Maybe you are unreasonable to be so angry at your spouse for buying a size of eggs you didn’t want. You may decide to tone down or break off your anger, finding it too excessive. Or, you may decide it's more reasonable to express your frustration to your spouse instead of holding in that emotion.
Overly emotional people can grasp how to think about their feelings instead of displaying feelings all the time. They can access rational thoughts instead of deciding and manipulating others with emotions.
The reluctantly emotional can learn to identify and elaborate their emotions to inform them of what goes on inside them and in their relationships. They may discover there is a time and place for them to kick up a fuss, shout for joy, or be the center of attention.
We do better in life when emotions inform our thoughts, behaviors, and interactions with others, not when they dominate us.