“Controlling” Emotions

Maine Retreat Terri

I’m at a Broad Universe writers retreat this weekend with a bunch of friends, among them the fabulous Rona Gofstein, who also writes as Rachel Kenley. And in my all-important “procrastination before writing” time, where I was glancing through Facebook, I saw her recent blog post, “Emotions Don’t Need to Be Controlled.”

I gave a “quick” (i.e. 4 paragraphs long) response on the post here, but that only dealt with one aspect that I think is important in this discussion.

She said in the blog that it was probably an unpopular topic, but I don’t think it should be. It’s a many-faceted topic that I had about ten different replies to flying around in my head. In summary, I think our relationship with emotions needs to be more openly and readily discussed. Not just if we should and should not repress them or control them, but how they affect us, how we create emotions, the physiological and psychological importance of a good relationship with emotions…

Our relationship status with emotion, of course, is best filed under “it’s complicated,” but I also think all good relationships are. And as a writer, I love exploring those complicated relationships… and a good blog response should pick one particular aspect and discuss it. And perhaps save other aspects for future blogs.

Having had my surgery and a long history of period / hormone issues, though, what’s foremost in my mind and has been for the past year is physiological causes for uncontrollable emotions. (Basically, almost the opposite of what I ended up responding on Facebook.)

Our current culture in modern America, and many other places across the world, takes the stand that we should “control our emotions,” as Rona puts forward in her post.

I agree with her that we shouldn’t control our emotions and that it is a problematic, if not dangerous, thing to do so. (She has a great example of following her instinctual emotions on her blog.)

Emotions cause physiological effects in the body that we cannot control—blood pressure, heart rate, temperature, tears or laughter are some examples. (Breathing, too,  but we have some control over that, at least.) These are part of your autonomic nervous system—the things your body does that you don’t have to think about, and in essence, can only marginally affect even when you do think about them.

Because emotions have such a major physiological component attached to the autonomic nervous system, as well as the endocrine system (your hormones) and neurotransmitters, that means you can have physical triggers for emotions that you also cannot control. The science of psychiatry and psychology deal with those quite a bit. But consider when you have a health problem that affects your body’s chemistry—you’re not able to control your body chemistry, so you simply cannot control the emotions caused by these symptoms.

Many women suffer this dissociation with regular PMS—the butt of far too many jokes. However, consider how society pressures people (particularly women) to “get it together” and “control your emotions,” when she literally, physically CANNOT DO SO. Not only is there this awful feeling of intense anger, sadness, happiness, or what not because estrogen or progestin is doing its thing, but there is this logical awareness that the emotion being felt is not associated with any actions or events currently happening around us. And we’re regularly told that THIS IS WRONG; YOU ARE WRONG.

And it’s not wrong. And it’s not controllable. And no one should be punished for going through this.

It’s bad enough to be standing in the kitchen, filled with rage and a physical illness of dissociation because there is no good reason for there to be rage. Thought processes and thinking about the situation aren’t going to un-flush our system with the chemicals causing rage (or grief, or elation). In fact, the discomfort or panic of that dissociation can enhance and exacerbate the unwanted emotion. Add in feeling like a failure or like you ought to be able to control this emotion, and you’ve added even more chemicals interacting in the body.

What to do?

Change starts within us. Within individuals. I’d love to magically change society and society’s dangerious and poisonous views, but that isn’t something any individual can do. But we can learn to create a better relationship with our own emotions—and to forge more healthy relationships with the emotions of others by our own reactions.

For each individual, admit and surrender to the idea that emotions are not a thing to be controlled.

That’s a lot of work on its own.

Next, each of us should pay attention to your body during emotions. How do I feel? What is my natural inclination for action while experiencing those emotions? Is there a situational cause for the emotion? If so, what? If not, that’s okay too; I  notice and appreciate your body is going through something physical and physiological that creates this emotion.

This is also a lot of work. We need to give ourselves permission to take our time with this.

Then, then, after we’ve acknowledged these things, we can look for the things we can control.

For me, the first thing is to learn how to communicate about emotions. Let the ones I love know when I’m angry, that I need to do something physical—walk, yell, punch or throw inanimate objects. Anyone I’m in a relationship with—my hubby, my friends, my family—are people I could potentially act out upon due to emotions, and none of us have psychic powers, so it’s important to tell them why I’m acting out—what I’m feeling, what I need, and so on. Of course, it’s important that if the emotion was caused by an action that, once the uncontrollable need is met (time alone, being hugged, pillows beaten up), the cause needs to be addressed.  I’ve seen people (and it’s often shown in literature, television, movies, etc) take care of the emotional need, but then never address the issue—so it continues to fester and cause the uncomfortable emotion—and that discomfort will grow, requiring the physical response to be stronger and stronger. Communication is the most important thing in any healthy relationship. Communicating with ourselves and others is key when it comes to our shared relation with emotions.

Once we get communication moving, we can look at other things that are within our control. Especially when emotions come at inconvenient times. Rather than try to control the emotion, however, we can control how we handle the symptoms of emotions. Rather than saying, “I can’t be angry right now,” we can think, “I can’t tell so-and-so to self-copulate painfully right now.” We can take time to pay attention to breathing and work at controlling that to an extent. We can take time with responses, crafting them so as not to damage other relationships. We can remove ourselves from situations when we realize we are at a place where the physiology of the emotions is not appropriate.

I don’t think I can say enough times that this is not easy, and I, for one, am far from perfection in this practice.

But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try. And try again. And try again. (And apologize, communicate, and try again.)

The last thing regarding “control” over emotions is how we respect and appreciate others’ physiological-emotional needs. Telling someone to “get control” is, as mentioned above, not only likely impossible but damaging, potentially making the situation worse. Find out what they need in the moment to deal with the emotion, and later discuss the situation. Be forgiving when someone lashes out; it may be a thing they physically can’t control at the moment…

That said, suffering regular abuse from someone who “can’t control their emotions” is a relationship not worth keeping. That is an entirely different—but still very important—conversation that needs to be had. Physical attacks, deep emotional attacks, any abuse is wrong.

Outside of abusive behaviors, however, it’s worth being flexible, honoring the physiological aspects of emotion, and opening a channel of communication. For ourselves, and for the ones we care about.

I hope this isn’t an unpopular topic, and that more of us do start healthy discussions about what emotions are and what makes for good emotional relationships.

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