Learning how to control your negative emotions is not for the faint of heart.
Yet, in a bid to become a mentally strong and well-rounded individual, the ability to regulate strong emotions, particularly in stressful situations, is a must.
Negative emotions are the ones we all hope to avoid. They make us feel uncomfortable and uneasy, like a cowboy in a submarine… Something doesn’t feel quite right.
Yet, all emotions can be helpful to us.
These pesky emotions signal to our brain whether we are in a state of threat or a state of reward. They tell us exactly how we feel in any given scenario and, whilst it doesn’t feel good to experience sadness, anger, jealousy, shame, or humiliation, we do so for a reason.
The problem is this…
When we are overwhelmed by negative emotions it becomes increasingly difficult to stay in control.
These intense feelings can feel all-consuming until before you know it, you’re hulking out at the family BBQ because a distant cousin couldn’t remember what you did for a living.
Grilled food everywhere.
Before you know it you’re overwhlemed with feelings of shame and can’t stop beating yourself up.
If we ever hope to achieve a chaos-free life infused with peace and calm then emotional regulation is a necessity.
So, if you struggle with controlling and processing your emotions in a positive way then this one is for you!
Why Do We Have Negative Emotions?
Before we get started, I think we need to clear something up…
These seemingly ‘bad’ emotions can consume our everyday lives. Day in and day out negative feelings creep in and destroy what could have been a perfectly average day.
They feel pointless and they feel unhelpful.
And that’s the keyword there – unhelpful. All emotions, the good, the bad, and the ugly are helpful emotions. Whether they put you in a bad mood or not, they are your body and minds way of telling you that, ‘Hey, something doesn’t feel quite right here…’
They’re trying to keep you safe from physical and emotional harm.
Our emotional state is affected and processed in our lizard brain (or the limbic system, if you want to get fancy). This is the oldest part of our brain and the areas designed to keep us safe.
And what keeps us safe from threat is a heightened sense of awareness.
This is where the fight, flight or freeze response kicks in whenever we find ourselves in a state of threat. The problem with this is thus – sometimes are emotions are not to be trusted.
The limbic brain responds on instinct but sometimes our instincts aren’t correct.
Sometimes the limbic brain misinterprets what’s going on around us, just in case. And, where negative emotions are concerned, it only takes a healthy dollop of low self-esteem, limiting beliefs, and several insecurities for us to quickly feel intense negative emotions in a scenario where we really don’t need to.
Without emotional regulation we’re prone to emotional outbursts that often leave us full of regret and feelings of shame or guilt afterwards.
And this is where emotional and mental strength come into play.
Because the person with these two attributes is able to control their negative emotions by taking a step back and challenging their emotional response.
But, more on that in a hot tick…
A Lack Of Control Can Result In Emotional Outbursts
I want to tell you a story of a time where I had an emotional outburst on the side of a moutain in Austria.
This was my second time skiing and I went with my ex-partner and his family. I had bambi-like ski legs and only felt comfortable on a certain type of slope. To be honest, I didn’t want to go on this trip, I only went because it was my ex’s birthday and he asked me to come.
So I did.
One day we found ourselves on the exact type of slope that I told him I wanted to avoid. Already I had crossed hell on earth to reach the ‘blue’ side of the mountain (where the easy slopes were). Sweating like a pig and humiliated by my lack of skill… I was at the end of my rope.
Off we went down this final slope.
As I snow-ploughed my way down trying not to ski straight off the edge of the mountain, his family carried on and met us at the bottom. But halfway through I slipped for the ten-thousandth time and that was it..
I gave him hell.
Effing and blinding in his face, calling him and his family every name under the sun. My face went beetroot with anger and my voice echoed around the Austrian Mountain-side.
We stopped in silence. I took a breath. We continued on and didn’t speak for the next 12 hours.
Oh, did I mention it was his birthday? And, did I mention this was all captured on his Go Pro?
I thought it would make for excellent viewing, he disagreed.
Emotional outbursts can look like uncontrollable laughter, unexpected outpouring of tears, a sudden explosion of anger, increased irritability, or a complete shut down. It can take many forms.
But what is common among them all is that you respond without the control to do otherwise.
You feel as though you must cry, you must scream, you must yell… and it feels impossible to stop it.
Why Are My Negative Emotions Out of Control?
Have you ever gone back home after a social gathering of some sort, slumped onto your bed and thought, ‘I can’t believe I screamed in her face like that. In front of everyone?!’
Or perhaps an example I know most people can get on board with, ‘I have to call my partner and apologise. I completely flew off the handle. I didn’t mean it when I said I hated his guts and never wanted to see him again! All because he said another girl had a lovely smile?! What’s wrong with me?!!’
But listen up, friend…
Emotions, both positive and negative are hard to control. Emotional regulation takes time and practice.
And the reason for this is because emotions are instinctual reactions.
You know the phrase, ‘it was a gut response’. That’s it. Emotions lack logical thinking and so we don’t think, we just do!
We respond in the heat of the moment without processing and moderating these emotions first.
Remember, they can’t always be trusted. Our limbic system frequently misinterprets things around us because it’s better to do this and be safe than to not and risk hurting ourselves, emotionally or otherwise.
If you’re feeling as though you are out of control then you might find that there are a multitude of lurking insecurities at play.
There may be some unresolved issues from the past that are easily triggered or you might be hypersensitive to the opinions of those around you because of low self-esteem.
And you may never have been given the tools to help you moderate you emotions in a way that is healthy and helpful.
But fear not, I’ve got you covered…
What Does It Mean When We Are Unable To Control Our Negative Emotions
Firstly, and this is important, it does not make you a bad person and it does not make you weak.
People control and regulate their emotions on a daily basis. We respond to stressful situations all the time in a way that is appropriate and we control ourselves so that we can live in accordance with social norms.
I mean, think about it really…
If we didn’t have at least a small amount of self-control then how many people would be walking around with a black eye? Be honest now.
So, firstly, you undoubtedly have more control than you think.
However, the reality is that if you believe yourself to be at the mercy of your emotions then the likelihood is that you experience one of the following:
- Regularly overwhelmed by your feelings
- Feel emotions but don’t always understand why
- Relationships and friendships might be hard to hold down
- You feel overly sensitive to stimuli
- Feel down, hurt, or irritable more often than you feel good
- It’s difficult finding an explanation for your feelings
There a nasty feedback loop here between emotional regulation and our state of being. One effects the other and so, if you suffer from any mental health illnesses such as anxiety, depression or loneliness then this will have an impact on your ability to modify your emotions.
Likewise, if you lack the ability to modify your emotions then the knock-on effect of this might be a decline in your state of being or mental health.
One effects the other.
When my anxiety was at it’s worse my emotional regulation was non-existent.
I was hypersensitive to everything. Everything felt like an insult, a rejection, a setback, a judgement or criticism. I was so overwhelmed by this fear that I was misinterepretting everything and the only way I knew how to cope was to withdraw.
Developing one will naturally help the other.
Being able to take control of your negative emotions will greatly improve your overall quality of life and will set you up for healthy relationships, friendships, and a healthy respect for yourself.
What Are The Problems With Being Unable To Control Your Negative Emotions?
Remember that ex-partner I told you about? Well, there’s a reason he is my ex.
Believe it or not, emotional regulation is an important life skill. It’s a trait of the mentally strong, the self-aware and the emotional intelligent. In fact, it’s at the heart of these very attributes.
Because it is born from a deep understanding of ourselves and an understanding of others. It allows us to respond calmly under specific circumstances that might otherwise be fraught with tension or heightened emotions.
Listen, if you can’t stop yourself from ignoring that friend for two weeks because they couldn’t go to the pub with you that one time then why would they stick around?
If you can’t stop yourself from smashing up your boyfriends X-box everytime he jumps on it for a bit of escapism then why wouldn’t he pack up and leave?
What about you?
If you can’t control your negative emotions then they control you and that way lies a life of chaos and discontent.
What is Emotional Regulation?
Alright, let’s get into the nitty gritty.
Emotional regulation does exactly what it says on the tin – it’s the interception and modification of your emotions.
What does that really mean?
It means being able to take a step back, looking at whether you can actually trust these necessary but sometimes mistenterpreted emotions and respond in a way that is appropriate and healthy.
Before we go ahead and look at some proven ways to practice self-regulation I want to go ahead and dispel some common misconceptions…
Common Misconceptions About Controlling Negative Emotions
These are really important.
YOU MUST READ THESE FIRST.
- Controlling them means ignoring them – Do not ever ignore how you feel. There is a reason why you feel this way and it needs to be addressed. If it turns out that your logical brain tells you that yes, you’re overreacting, this is still helpful. Your mood swings are telling you that there is an underlying problem that needs to be addressed. Are you flying off the handle because you’ve been hurt in the past and haven’t yet dealt with it in a healthy way? Do you struggle with how you look aesthetically and are therefore oversensitive to comments regarding your appearance? Have you been cheated on and are constantly looking for signs that it will happen again? Don’t ignore these feelings, figure out what they’re actually trying to tell you.
- If you know you overreact then you’re probably always in the wrong – This is not about whether you are right or wrong, it’s about HOW you respond. Your feelings may be fully justified. You might be perfectly warranted in how you feel. But it still doesn’t mean you should burn the house down in response. Don’t make the assumption that your tendency to overreact means that you’re aren’t justified in how you feel. After all, if you do actually catch your partner in bed with someone else, then you’re not wrong for feeling betrayed are you?
- It’s up to everyone else to accept that this is who I am – No, it isn’t. People don’t need to accept that this is who you are even if they understand why you behave this way. Irrationality is something that friends and family may be able to tolerate for a while but it becomes utterly exhausting. It is your responsibility to take charge and cultivate the emotional and mental strength to make positive change. Regardless of why you respond the way you do, the people around you are not your punching bag.
- I can’t control my negative emotions because I am struggling with my mental health – I understand and I hear you. When we struggle with the symptoms of mental health it feels impossible to take positive action. I’ve been there, I understand. But here’s the truth; the ability to control your emotions will have a profound and positive impact on your mental health. One effects the other. If you’re wanting to improve your mental health then this is one of the best things you could do to help yourself.
Now that we’ve got that cleared up
How To Control Your Negative Emotions
Time to get into the good stuff…
1. Raise Your Self-Awareness
It’s time to raise your self-awareness. Understanding why you feel the way that you feel is crucial in being able to respond to these feelings appropriately.
This comes from having a greater understanding of self. Knowing what sets you off, understanding any underlying fears or insecurities, and questioning these emotions as they arise.
The next time you begin to feel any of these common negative emotions beginning to escalate and burn inside your skull, it’s time to stop.
I know, as if it’s that easy!
No, it isn’t easy. Every inch of you will want to throw a plate at someone’s head, scream until you’re blue, cry until your eyes are sore, or lock yourself away from the rest of the world.
But instead you must stop and dive deeper. Ask yourself, what is the reason I feel this way? What issues do I need to address that I am avoiding? Is this reaction an overreaction and if so, why am I responding so intensely?
Sitting with ourselves and knowing ourselves better is hard. It sucks most of the time.
Because it means admitting things to ourselves that we’ve been living in denial of all of these years. We let ourselves explode with negative emotions because that feels easier that looking at the core underlying problems.
But as soon as you do this, you’ll be able to express emotions in a way that is healthy.
You will know what is appropriate and what is not and you will feel less susceptible to your triggers because you understand them.
2. Practice Mindfulness
Don’t poo-poo this second point.
I know, I know. You’ve heard it all before. Mindfulness will set you free etc… But have you actually sat down and practiced being mindful? And have you done it for more than a few weeks?
Listen, your brain experiences over 30,000 thoughts a day.
It’s constantly processing stimuli and it also has to deal with all of various fears and insecurities which make it a lot harder for it to really understand what’s helpful and healthy and what’s unhelpful and unhealthy.
Mindfulness will GIVE YOUR BRAIN A BREAK.
It’s going to struggle to rewire itself if it’s in constant information overload. It needs space to breathe.
There are plenty of mindfulness apps and videos if you don’t know how to get started. The important thing here is to practice deep breathing while focusing on the breath. If you’re mind wanders, fine. Bring it back to the breath.
This sensory relaxation will give your racing mind the much needed break it deserves.
Many have claimed that mindfulness has transformed their life. It could do the same for you.
3. Reframing Negative Emotions
This is sometimes referred to as cognitive repraisals and is a technique often used in cognitive behavioural therapies and anger management.
This technique calls for a new perspective and a different outlook on the given situation.
For example, we might replace a thought such as, ‘Everyone thought my presentation was awful, I know it. I could see them looking at me when I stumbled over my words and the slideshow stopped working! This is it, I am going to be fired’ with an alternative such as, ‘I gave it my best in that presentation but a few things went wrong. I will ask for honest and constructive feedback so that I can do better next time’
We have to reframe the thoughts associated with our emotions.
In the example above we might be particularly sensitive to feelings of failure. Believing that every little hiccup is the reason why you fail all the time. In this instance our idea of failure may be set very low which makes it impossible to success or feel good about ourselves.
By reframing our responses in this situations we can regulate our emotions (stop yourself from quitting on the spot, or calling in sick from embarrassment, or arguing with a colleague who you ‘felt’ was judging you) and make positive steps to overcome the route fear of failure.
When we find ourselves stuck in stressful situations we can find ourselves unable to adapt and be flexible to life.
We might be determined to do things our way and white-knuckle our way through these tough times. In doing so, we restrict our way of thinking and move forward with a narrow mindset.
Adaptability allows us to keep on top of our coping mechanisms and reinforce emotional regulation.
If you’re struggling with strenuous circumstances think about how you could do things a little differently? What is the loop that needs to be broken? What advice would you give your best friend? Follow it.
5. Wilful Tolerance of pain and struggle
The reality is this – pain and struggle comes in various different forms. And one of those is self-inflicted.
This isn’t to say that you purposefully cause yourself pain, on the contrary. In order to avoid pain we often try to deny how we feel or we deny the reason why we feel the way we do.
But in doing so, we only cause ourselves more suffering.
Emotional regulation can only be developed and built during those times of intense emotion. Only when you experience the urge to explode with rage, sadness, despair, or frustration can you practice the art of wilful tolerance.
This means sitting with the emotion and allowing yourself to feel.
It’s tough. It takes courage to do so.
But the result of doing so is three-fold…
Firstly, the more you experience the pang of a negative emotion the more opportunity you have to understand why you feel this way.
Secondly, when you understand why you feel this way you can take steps to address the underlying problem.
Thirdly, you will respond appropriately – you give yourself the chance to regulate your responses.
6. Think more highly of yourself
Self-compassion is a great way to balance these negative emotions and improve your emotional regulation skills.
If we feel constantly inundated with negativity, offended by every little remark and highly sensitive to every situation then we become swept up in a pool of doom.
We need to shine a light on the positive attributes that we possess and – let’s not forget – actually take care of ourselves.
It’s too easy for our negative self-talk to lead the way and when this voice talks to us like shite, it becomes increasingly difficult to refrain from emotional outbursts. We’re already feeling on edge and feeling poorly about ourselves… any stimuli could set us off in this state, like a match to petrol can.
Practice self-compassion and help yourself be better prepared to handle any stressors that might come your way.
You could try:
- Deep breathing
- Painting, writing, dancing
- Positive affirmations
Or, if you’re anything like me, go hell for leather and bash the living daylights out of a boxing bag.
7. Think less highly of opinions that don’t matter
I suppose it’s easy to say, ‘Just don’t get offended so easily’.
Or, ‘Don’t care what they think, they don’t matter’.
Or, ‘Don’t let them upset you, they’re always an arse to everyone’
But the truth is that too many of us allow ourselves to be negatively effected by the opinions of people who really don’t matter.
It is absolutely the biggest waste of your time and energy. Fixating on snide remarks of the workplace idiot is exhausting.
People who lack emotional regulation are quick to take things to heart. They can be easily offended and quick to be defensive.
Often this is because there is an underlying insecurity that needs addressing. They don’t think highly enough of themselves to think, ‘I know that what they are saying about me isn’t true’ or ‘I know that this person is a good friend and perhaps made a mistake. It doesn’t say anything about me’.
Be open to the opinions and criticism of everyone but quickly disregard the opinions of those who really don’t matter.
The Reality of Controlling Your Negative Emotions
It’s bloody tough.
Not many of us are blessed with the patience of a saint but patience we must have. We must be willing to control our negative emotions by opening ourselves up to them.
And you know what, the only people who can speak positively about this are those who have been through it, come out the other side and appreciate the difference it has made to their daily lives.
If you don’t control your negative emotions then they control you, it’s as simply as that.
Yet many of us deny and avoid.
Deny the real cause of their emotions and avoid processing them a healthy way. And the only healthy way is to accept them, feel them, understand a little bit more about yourself, and respond in a way that is fair.
Mentally Strong People Self-regulate
You might be wondering exactly why is is that emotional regulation is a trait of the mentally strong?
It’s because when you have control over your emotions, you have control over your life.
Think about it, can a person really live a good life if they’re quick to anger or quick to sadden. If you can take control over how you respond to your negative emotions then it means you can take control over how they effect you.
It means you can…
Reframe these emotions in a way that’s helpful to you.
Learn from them and know yourself better.
Decide what you will let effect you.
Even in times of great stress, you can maintain your composure and stay grounded.
Make good decisions even in times of distress.
Form strong relationships and friendships because you’re reliable and fair.
Mentally strong people have control over their physical and mental state and controlling and responding to your negative emotions in a healthy way is a huge part of this.
Regaining Control of your Emotions Will Do Wonders for your Mental Health
One final thought.
Emotional regulation is part of a growth mindset. And a growth mindset is what is needed to take control of our lives and live free from fear.
If you’re looking to become the best version of yourself; build self-confidence, take on new challenges, build an empire, or win an olympics medal then emotional regulation is a skill that must be honed.
It, along with other essential skills for success, will take you to the top.
If you’re after the humble dream of living a good life full of meaning, fulfilment and content then emotional regulation must be honed. After all, we cannot expect to achieve this if we’re overpowered by uncontrollable negativity.
But, if you’re struggling with your mental health then controlling your negative emotions could provide you with an immense amount of relief.
Yes, it’s a long game. Yes, it’s painful journey and yes, it’s not a quick fix…
Yet for those of you who suffer with anxiety, for example, and constantly battle with self-doubt, fears and insecurities on a day to day basis then working on these aspects of mental strength may well change your life.
Take control of your negative emotions so they don’t control you.