Can Emotions Be Controlled?

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I recently asked my 12-year-old son if he believed that emotions, in general, are controllable. He gave me a reluctant yes, before assuring me that it was the hardest thing to do in the world. What if there was a trick, I persisted, that would make it easy to control emotions? He’d be interested, he said, but I shouldn’t count on him using the trick too often. The challenges of befriending pre-adolescent passions aside, I learned something important about his beliefs about emotions: that it’s not only possible to be in charge of them, but that emotions, by and large, are not bad. That there is use, sometimes even pleasure, in riding along with their ever-changing waves—even annoying emotions, like frustration, and fiery emotions, like anger.

While countless studies in psychology have explored the influence of emotions on well-being, recent research suggests that the beliefs we hold about our emotions can have important implications on our psychological health. Consider the belief about the controllability of emotions. Do you believe that emotions are controllable (“ shaped and modulated according to our will ”) or that they are uncontrollable (“ arriving unbidden and departing of their own accord ”) (Ford et al., 2018)? Innocuous as they may seem, we pay a high cost for these beliefs: Not only can they become risk factors for depression , but they can also guide the strategies we use to manage our emotions in our everyday lives.

According to Brett Ford from the University of Toronto, we all are emotion theorists, deciding for ourselves what we believe about emotions. Which emotion theory should we then try to subscribe to for better psychological outcomes? From Dr. Ford’s research on emotion beliefs, the answer seems clear: “On average, it’s beneficial to believe that emotions are good, useful experiences, and not necessarily harmful, damaging experiences; it’s also beneficial to believe that emotions are controllable.” But probably not rigidly so, she warns. “If you think that emotions are completely controllable all the time, imagine how stressful that must be in moments where you aren’t able to reign in your emotions.”

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Here is Dr. Ford on why beliefs about our emotions matter.

What is one of the most surprising insights you have gained from your research on emotions?

I find it surprising that the pathway to well-being has much more nuance than people might think. For example, there are contexts in which anger is the healthiest option and contexts where wanting to feel happy might backfire. Much depends on the context in which we are feeling the emotion.

Why do our beliefs about our emotions matter?

What you believe about the world shapes how you perceive and interact with the world. So, what you believe about emotions should shape how you approach and manage your emotions. For example, if you think that emotions are bad, what’s going to happen when you’re feeling upset? Or if you think that emotions are uncontrollable, what’s going to happen when you need to manage those emotions? Our beliefs (otherwise known as “theories” or “mindsets”) have a pervasive influence on us, even if we don't think about them in our day-to-day lives. They guide what we want to feel and the strategies we use to regulate our emotions.

Where do our beliefs come from?

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Sometimes these beliefs come from the outside—people often tell us how we should be feeling, like our parents telling us, “Don't cry” or “Be happy.” When we observe others, we may see them struggling with their emotions or judging their emotions. On the other hand, beliefs can also come from our own experiences. If I had a hard time managing my own emotions, I might come to the larger conclusion that emotions are relatively uncontrollable. Or if I often have distressing emotions, I might develop a general belief that emotions are particularly bad.

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How do our beliefs about our emotions affect our psychological well-being?

In order for these abstract beliefs to shape people’s health and well-being, some process needs to unfold. One of the most plausible pathways is through emotion regulation (i.e., the strategies we use to change which emotions we have and when we have them). For example, if I tend to think that emotions are relatively uncontrollable, then I may be less likely to try to regulate them in my daily life. Another process is meta-emotion: feeling emotions about our emotions. For example, if I think that emotions are bad or harmful, then when I feel anxious, I might feel bad that I’m feeling anxious, which will make me feel even worse.

How much of our emotions are really within our control?

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It depends on what you mean by "emotion" and what you mean by "control" (and what you mean by "really"). Emotions are multi-faceted experiences. We have internal subjective experiences, facial expressions, physiological reactions. Some of these facets may be easier to control than others. For example, masking the outward display of emotion might be easier in some contexts than changing how you feel or your physiology. It might also depend on the intensity of the emotion as well, where more intense emotions are harder to control than less intense emotions. Ironically, it may be helpful to not try to control our emotions. If we just accept our emotional experiences and let them run their natural course, they can end more quickly. This is why emotional acceptance can be a particularly powerful strategy of emotion regulation—it can help you feel better, partly because you don't perpetuate your negative emotions. The goal shouldn’t be to get rid of or stifle all emotions. It’s to try to have them to the right degree and in the right context and to recover more quickly afterward.

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Can we change our beliefs?

Evidence from therapeutic interventions tells us it’s possible. For example, cognitive behavioral therapy can help people with social anxiety disorder reduce their anxiety by helping them believe that their anxiety is more controllable. One of the goals of mental health practitioners is to help their clients change their maladaptive beliefs. Importantly, changing beliefs is just a first step—it’s crucial to also give people the tools they need to regulate their emotions. Convincing someone they can control their emotions may not have much of a beneficial effect if the person does not also have the tools they need to actually control their emotions. A useful intervention should probably involve both—changing beliefs and acquiring skills to use effective forms of emotion regulation.

How does culture influence our beliefs?

In part, our beliefs come from our culture. Certain emotions are more highly valued in some cultures than others. If we live in a culture that believes a particular emotion is valuable, we should be more likely to value that emotion—and more likely to try to feel that emotion.

How can your research findings help improve lives?

The beliefs that we hold change how we manage our day-to-day experiences. If we can even modestly shift our beliefs, we might be able to change how we approach the daily emotional experiences that accumulate and become our overall sense of well-being. For example, if I tend to believe that negative emotions are bad, then whenever I get stressed at work or have conflict with my partner, those experiences are probably going to feel more distressing. If I can shift towards a more magnanimous belief about emotions—trying to view my emotions with curiosity instead of judgment—these day-to-day experiences can become less distressing. Over time, even small changes can accumulate and end up moving mountains.

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What “trick” would you suggest to our adolescent emotional theorists in helping them manage their emotions?

When you are having an intense experience, try to sit with the emotion and observe it. Acknowledge it. Don't try to get rid of it right away or judge it as good or bad. Take a few deep breaths. Feel it. Maybe describe it, try to understand where it comes from (“I think I’m feeling upset, or out of control”). Try de-centering by taking the identity from “I am so angry!” to “Here is a moment of anger.” If you can bring down the intensity of your emotion, it'll become more feasible to rethink the situation and gain a new perspective. As long as you are not ruminating or stewing over it, the emotion will eventually go away on its own. These are things I try to do myself but, of course, it’s always a challenge.

Many thanks to Brett Ford for her time and insights. Dr. Ford is the director of the Affective Science & Health Laboratory at the University of Toronto.