One of my favorite, but most challenging things I share with my clients is this phrase: What we try to control inevitably controls us.
Why do I say that control is a myth?
Now, I will give a quick caveat about this before diving into the problem behind attempts of controlling emotions. I want you to keep in mind that control of a situation where there’s physical danger can help us find safety. And controlling things like the car we’re driving so that we don’t cause a massive pileup is a wise move. So, I’m not talking about that kind of control. What I am talking about is emotional control.
You see, it’s a myth that we can control our emotions. Sure, we can manage them. And we can take actions that can influence them. But can we control them? Nope. Maybe you don’t believe me just yet. So let’s try out an experiment to see what I mean: I want you to get very mad right now. Go on, do it. Now, force your self to feel excitement. Next, feel surprised.
If you had any level of success in doing either, it’s likely because you took a small action step to influence your emotions (remembering something that upset you and thinking about your weekend plans count as actions).
Because if we could genuinely control our emotions, I don’t think we’d see nearly as many people dealing with anxiety, depression, grief, regret, or other challenging feelings. Instead, they’d simply choose to change their emotions.
So let’s remember that control can sometimes be helpful in situations of physical danger or health. And let’s remember that controlling our emotions is not the same a managing them.
The problem with trying to control our emotions
Now that we’re on the same page about emotional control being a myth, let’s talk about why attempts at controlling our emotions wind up controlling us. Let’s use anxiety for our first illustration.
Perhaps you experience social anxiety. If that were the case, you’d likely want to get rid of or avoid your anxiety by staying far away from social events. So you’d cancel plans with friends, call out of work, or skip that party. And likely, you’d feel a temporary relief from your anxiety. So, you assume that emotional control works.
But, the truth is… You’ve now missed out on something that might have been important or meaningful to you. So your anxiety kicks back in. Next thing you know, you’re anxious about not attending the party or canceling on your friend. And what do you do to control that anxiety? Maybe you skip more events, withdraw even further from your friends. Or maybe you fall into a Netflix binge to avoid your feelings. Maybe you raid your liquor cabinet for something to take the edge off. But regardless of what you’re choosing, you’re choosing in an attempt to control anxiety. And without even realizing it, you’ve let anxiety dictate your life.
We do the same when we feel inadequate and turn to people-pleasing to try to ease those feelings. And when we feel self-conscious or insecure in our bodies and we try to control them through diet, exercise, or eating disorder strategies.
In doing this, we loose track of living according to our values and start living based on appeasing our emotions. We are no longer in touch with ourselves because we’ve let so many other factors invade our thoughts, choices, and perceptions that we actually believe the illusion that we’re in control.
We truly think that we can control and fine-tune our emotional lives but anything we attempt to control inevitably controls us.
If you want to learn more about the myth of emotional control, check out this awesome article here!
Allie Shivener is a Licensed Professional Counselor with Mental Health Services Provider (LPC-MHSP) designation in the state of Tennessee. She specializes in counseling young adults and professionals with negative body image, attachment and relationship issues, high stress careers, and related issues. Learn more about me here.
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