Emotions are a part of the human experience – some would even argue that they are the very thing that makes us human – but they’re often inconvenient. Can you make emotions less inconvenient? Can you actually improve your ability to handle your emotions?
Well, yes and no. You can’t control emotions or stop them from happening completely. If they come, they come, no matter how inconvenient the situation. But you can control your behavior, and lessen the impact of the emotion through behavioral changes. Depending on your situation, this can mean avoiding an emotional situation or facing it head-on instead, or maybe just taking a calm breath when you really want to slam the door. And sometimes, handling your emotions simply means accepting them for what they are.
In this article, I will take a look at the components of emotion, and different tips on how to handle your emotions.
This article is part of a much bigger guide on learning how to become happy that I’m sure is the biggest freely available guide on the internet right now. This article contains some great tips, but you’ll find a lot more actionable tips in the section Happiness Tips!
What are emotions?
Depending on your purpose, you can define emotions in hundreds of different ways. For the sake of simplicity, I’m not going to discuss emotions in the context of neuroscience. Rather, I’m going to use the same definition I use in my high school psychology lessons, which makes the most sense in an everyday context.
Emotions are subjective, involuntary reactions to all kinds of external and internal stimuli. Often, we think of emotions as feelings, but that is just one part of it. In addition to feelings – or affect – emotions are made up of thoughts or cognitions, and physiological and behavioral responses.
Unpacking the definition
Last weekend, I participated in my friend’s wedding. The ceremony was beautiful and I, along with several other guests, found myself tearing up as the bride walked down the aisle. Although we had a similar reaction that caused us to discreetly reach for the tissues, I can guarantee that I wasn’t feeling the same as the mother of the bride, or the bride’s niece who’s less than a year old.
I was crying because it was a beautiful celebration of love. The mother of the bride was probably crying tears of happiness from seeing her eldest daughter marry a wonderful man. The baby was crying because she’s a baby, and crying is the only method of communication they have.
This is what I mean by the subjectivity of emotions: the same event can trigger different emotions in different people, and even if we feel the same emotion, we feel it a little differently.
Despite it being socially acceptable to cry at weddings, I didn’t actually want to tear up. But seeing my friend in her wedding dress and her future husband waiting for her at the altar, hearing the wedding march, I simply couldn’t help it.
You probably have your own examples of being overcome by emotion at inconvenient times, and this is exactly what I mean by emotions being involuntary. If they want to come, they will come. But you probably know that already. How do you actually handle your emotions, then?
Before finding out, it is important to know that emotions are build of different components. Knowing which component of your emotions you can control is vital.
Components of emotion
Emotions can be overwhelming, so let’s break it down further. Feeling an emotion like sadness is a comprehensive experience that is composed of separate components.
- Affect that can be generally categorized as positive or negative. This is the “feelings” part of emotion: for example, anger, sadness or joy.
- Cognition, or the thoughts related to the stimulus and the feelings. For example, when you feel sad because a friend betrayed you, you might think that no one needs you and you’ll never have true friends.
- Physiological reactions, like blushing, sweating, shaking, crying, muscles tensing, or smiling.
- Behavior, or what we do because of the emotion. For example, shame might make us escape from the shameful situation, and joy might make us dance or jump around.
How to handle your emotions
Emotions are involuntary and for the most part, they’re uncontrollable. If you have ever tried to hold back tears, you know how uncontrollable emotions are.
Fortunately, there is a loophole: although you can’t control emotions, you can control your behavior. This means that you don’t have to slam doors when you’re angry – you can choose to take calming breaths instead.
This is the most important thing to remember when trying to handle your emotions. Often, we will try to press down shame or anxiety, but it’s very hard to stop an emotion from arising. What does work, however, is changing behavior.
Let’s take a look at all the ways in which changing our behavior can help us handle our emotions.
1. Avoid emotional situations
Heights make me scared and anxious, so I avoid high places. This is a very basic example of how avoiding certain situations can help us deal with uncomfortable emotions – you can’t feel an emotion if nothing triggers it.
Sometimes, this is a perfectly valid strategy. For example, if you’re overcome with anger or sadness when you see your ex’s Instagram posts, the easiest way to deal with the emotion is to unfollow them. Life is all about picking your battles, and some battles you just can’t win. So stop comparing your life to that of others, and uninstall that timewasting app.
However, there is a caveat to this. Psychologists generally advise against avoiding emotional situations. The more you avoid something, the bigger your fear will grow. And there are some situations you can’t avoid forever.
2. Face the emotions gradually
For many people, public speaking may cause distress, anxiety and make them afraid of messing up. People who feel that way will try to avoid public speaking, and they will sometimes be successful. However, most people can’t avoid it forever, and a day may come when they have to defend their thesis or give a presentation at work. Years of avoidance will have made the anxiety and fear only stronger.
If you can’t avoid an emotional situation forever, you should try to take baby steps to facing it. For example, if you are afraid of public speaking, you should try to first speak in front of a small group of supportive people, and gradually move towards larger crowds and more difficult situations.
In psychotherapy, this is known as exposure, and is widely used in the treatment of anxiety disorders and phobias. For fully developed mental disorders that disrupt your everyday life and functioning, exposure should be done with a licensed therapist, but in less complex situations, you can experiment with gradual exposure yourself. If you’re unsure about your mental situation, I recommend consulting with a mental health professional.
3. Go against your instinct
Going against your instincts is easier said than done, especially in highly emotionally charged situations. But often, our emotion-driven behavior isn’t the best one.
For example, slamming doors and smashing plates might feel satisfying in a fit of anger, but the aftermath is often less than satisfying. Often, anger is replaced by shame or sadness when you have to pick up the pieces of the dinnerware you smashed. Your family might begin to fear you and your angry outbursts.
In the case of anger, instead of giving in to the urge to hit or scream, try taking calming breaths or relaxing your muscles.
If sadness pushes you away from others or makes you listen to sad music, try reaching out or picking happier tunes instead. Even when this may sound small and insignificant, the media you consume actually has a proven influence on your happiness.
If the shame of failure makes you hide and beat yourself up, try to take pride in trying at all and focus on what you can do better next time.
4. Change your thinking
This goes hand in hand with changing your behavior and going against your instincts. A good way to deal with a negative emotion is to reframe it.
For example, imagine this: you have agreed to help your friend with moving. For some explicable reason, he has chosen a 9th-floor apartment. When you arrive at his new home, you discover that the elevator is broken, and you’re going to have to carry everything up using the stairs. Your friend is irritated, and so are you. After lugging up the washing machine, you’re ready to call it quits. You just want to leave your friend on his own, to figure out how he’s going to get his stuff up there. After all, it’s his problem that he choose a building with an unreliable elevator.
It’s a perfectly natural reaction to an unexpected inconvenience in an already inconvenient situation, but it will only make you angrier. In addition, it will not improve your friendship.
Instead, try to find positives in the situation:
- It’s a free workout!
- Perhaps your friend has promised to buy you a beer afterward.
- You’re genuinely happy that your friend has found such a cool place (minus the unreliable elevator, of course).
- You know that he will help you move when the time comes.
Finding positives in a bad situation or changing how you think about it, is a great way to make yourself feel better.
5. Let it be
Sometimes, you can’t find the positives or changing your behavior takes more energy than you have or the situation simply can’t be avoided.
If that is the case, accept the emotion and just let it run its course. Remember, you can’t control if and when the emotion comes. It’s a natural response to a stimulus. It’s okay to feel angry or sad or happy, even at inconvenient times, because that’s what makes us human.
Sometimes you just have to cry until you’re out of tears, and sometimes there is a perfectly valid reason to feel ashamed of your behavior. This is also a place to pick your battles: if you can, feel your emotions instead of fighting them.
Emotions don’t last forever, and know that negativity will eventually make room for positivity.
Although often inconvenient, emotions are an irreplaceable part of the human experience. Emotions themselves aren’t “good” or “bad”, but the fact that they are involuntary and uncontrollable can make you wish they didn’t exist. However, there is one thing we can control – our behavior, and that’s what allows us to handle our emotions, instead of our emotions handling us.
What do you think? Did I miss any crucial tips that have helped you personally handle your emotions? Want to share your own experience in dealing with your feelings and emotions? I’d love to know in the comments below!
Maili TirelSchool psychologist
School psychologist, teacher and internet counselor from Estonia. Passionate about coffee, reading, dancing, and singing in the shower, much to the neighbors’ dismay. Counseling catchphrase: “It’s okay!“