On Mastering Emotions

Getting along with other people is tough. Getting along with negative people who constantly make us feel like shit is near impossible. Being able to handle that is a skill we need to learn in order to survive in this world filled with billions of people, all who are struggling along towards their own goals and priorities.

But sometimes these people just give us the shits right?..."That annoying guy at work sent an email today that created all this extra work for me...it made me so angry!"

Or maybe they disappoint us and make us weep for the future of society...“That businessman in the streets made a rude comment about a homeless man and it made me so sad.”

Then there is the wonderful skill children have to be inquisitively cute and horribly brutal at the same time: “That little child asked if I was pregnant and I’m not! I’m a bloody man...It made me feel so ugly and self-conscious about my weight.”

We’ve all been in situations like these where the actions of another person has caused a strong emotive response and most of the time we blame the other person. THEY made us feel this way. It was all THEIR fault. If THEY hadn't done something stupid then we wouldn't have felt those emotions and then we'd all be wonderfully happy...except that thinking is completely wrong.

No one MAKES us feel anything.

The only person that is responsible for our feelings is us. No one MAKES us feel anything.

What really happens is that other people do some set of actions and we CHOOSE how we respond to those actions, including which emotions we feel. That’s right, it’s our choice.

“But Zac...I’d never choose to be angry on purpose so it must be someone else MAKING me feel that way.”

That’s a classic blaming mentality, where we don’t take responsibility for our actions and instead prefer to blame others. And it’s wrong, so very wrong.

No one has super magic powers where they can just point at you and say “Ok you must feel anger now.”

It doesn’t happen like that. Our emotions are always our own responsibility.

If we are not purposefully choosing our feelings, or we think our feelings are dictated by other people, then we are living our life without control. We are giving away all power in our lives to others and hoping they make the right decisions for us.

It’s like hurtling down a freeway at break-neck speed, not using the steering wheel, and just hoping that everyone else will keep us safe and bump us back on to the road if we start to veer.

Not going to happen.

The only safe way is for everyone to take control of their own vehicle (that means your emotions if you’re missing the metaphor) and keep yourself in check.

People that ‘push your buttons’

“But Zac, what about those people that just know how to push my buttons and they get me all riled up?” (Side note: I don’t really think you’re all a bunch of whiny moaners that sound like that but for some reason it felt fun to write like that today)

People who push our buttons on purpose are skilled manipulators. If people in your life are doing this on purpose then you really need to look at the quality of people you associate with.

But there are also button-pushers who don’t even know they are doing it. These are people with their own issues and problems and their subconscious brain has learned that performing certain patterns of behaviour will get them the results they want.

Even so, whether on purpose or by accident, people who push our buttons are not MAKING us feel something. They are just very clever at knowing what actions will cause, often subconscious, reactions from us.

These people know exactly the right set of actions that will trigger some crazy automatic emotional response inside us. But ultimately it is our choice if we really want to feel those emotions.

The friend who knows we’re self-conscious can make a sly comment about our clothes and we automatically feel ugly and depressed. The charities that jam pictures of starving African children in front of us so that we feel guilty and donate money. The relative who likes to bring up the stupid things you did when you were younger just to make you feel embarrassed.

That’s a pretty shitty way to live.

The alternative is that we choose our response. We choose to interrupt our automatic thought process and assess the entire situation. We ask why is that person being negative and mean?  And do their thoughts really matter to us? What do we WANT to feel instead?

And that is the key difference and also the hardest part of this whole issue – what exactly do you WANT to feel?

What emotions would you choose?

If you could choose how you felt every single moment in your life what would you choose?

Would you ever be angry again? Depressed? Embarrassed? Would you ever choose to feel those burning negative emotions inside you or would you choose a life filled with happy and positive emotions?

Trick question. Negative emotions are just as valid as positive emotions. They just have a different usage pattern and should trigger different actions.

Anger is a perfectly acceptable response in certain scenarios.

Your wife, husband ,or blow-up-doll cheats on you and breaks your trust. Feeling anger in that moment can make sense, as long as you don’t dwell on it. As long as you use that anger as a signal to make a positive change.

You drop your burrito on the ground and it rolls into a dirty puddle and you fly off the handle in a fit of rage like The Hulk? Not such a valid use of anger.

Positive emotions are a sign that things are going well. Negative emotions are a sign that things need to change. Both are valid and both need acknowledgement.

Positive emotions are the easy ones. Wrangling those negative motions is the challenge.

The key to using these negative emotions in a positive way is that we need to be in control. We need to recognise the actions that trigger those emotions and then we need to choose how and when we respond.

Control is the key to mastering your emotions.

3 action steps to help you master your emotions 

The theory is all well and good but what we really need is something to action! "Goddamnit Zac stop talking and tell me what I should do…"

Ok calm down. Here are three tips you can apply right now to help you start choosing your emotions to regain control of your life.

Practice Mindfulness

Being aware of your emotions and learning to control them is actually the major of part of mindfulness. Hmm maybe I should have started this article with that? Oh well…

Mindfulness is like any other skill. You need to practice it often until it becomes easy. You cannot just go from no control of your emotions to zen master slap-me-in-the-face-and-I-wont-say-anything attitude. It takes practice.

Practicing mindfulness has many options. Pick what works for you:

  • Meditation – don’t say no until you give it a go. I should put that on a t-shirt. But seriously, I thought it was all hippies and hugs but it’s actually pretty useful. And it really focuses on improving your ability to recognise, understand, and control your emotions.
  • Daily Goals and simple todo list – start each day with a clearly defined goal and a simple (i.e. small) todo list. Review your success, or failure, at the end of the day and assess your emotions.
  • Disconnect from devices  – this is such a simple but powerful change. For just a few minutes a day completely remove yourself from devices and just pay attention to what is happening around you. Just rattle off in your mind the things you notice. It’s amazing how much you miss by distracting yourself with devices. Turn them off and focus on the present moment.

Use the correct language

Labeling your emotions properly helps you understand them. Give them words and they became easier to manage. Try to hide them away and they grow and fill the space you give them.

Labeling also solidifies them. Why is that good? Because then you cannot pretend to ignore them anymore. When you run away from your emotions you can fool yourself into not taking any action. Essentially you stagnate, with the same actions causing the same emotions over and over again. When you label them that means you have to do something about it.

Also focus on taking responsibility for your emotions by labeling the correct sequence of events: Use phrases like “I'm feeling angry” rather than “You made me angry”. Stop blaming others.

Take ownership and make it your problem that you got angry. If you keep using others as the scapegoat you will never take responsibility for your emotions and you will never master them.

Keep a daily journal

This could come under mindfulness but it has so many other benefits and is so powerful that it deserves its own dedicated entry.

Journaling is amazingly powerful. Just like learning to label your emotions correctly will help you define and control them, so does writing about them.

It also helps you spot recurring problems like people that regularly ‘push your buttons’ or situations you struggle to deal with. 

Suggestions for keeping a journal:

  • Make it daily – pick a time morning or night (or both if you're super keen) and make it a habit to write.
  • Set a minimum time limit – aim to gofor X minutes (it can be as low as 5) and just write about whatever comes to you. You’ll be surprise how long you write past your time limit
  • Start off structured to make it easy - Write 3 things that were good and 3 things where you could improve
  • Review your notes – take time to read over your notes, even if it’s just once a month, to help you remember the key events and recap your progress.

Go forth my little bundles of emotions and become that cool, calm, and confident person who is in complete control of their life. I know you can do it.