Can We Control Our Emotions?

Control Our Emotions?Flickr Josh Janssen (CC)

Often, our emotions are wonderfully helpful. Think of enjoying yourself with friends and family, building connections through shared laughter. Or of becoming angry enough at a social wrong that you marshal the energy to try to work for justice. Or even of feeling a flush of embarrassment when you mix up an acquaintance’s name, a nonverbal signal that says “I’m aware of my faux pas,” and helps repair the social fabric. In each of these cases – and many others – our emotions play a vital role, helping us pursue valued goals and build ties with others we care about.

But just because our emotions are often helpful doesn’t mean they’re always helpful.  Who hasn’t seen a frazzled toddler crying at the checkout counter because he can’t have candy? Or his equally frazzled parent modeling the top 10 things never to do when you’re a parent?  Who hasn’t marveled over otherwise grown-up people getting angry enough about each other’s driving to step out of their cars to duke it out by the side of the road? Or witnessed the desolation that sadness can bring after a crushing loss, or during a depressive episode? In each of these cases – and many others – emotions are either the wrong type or intensity for a given situation. This makes emotions harmful rather than helpful, motivating us to try to control them.

But can we really control our emotions?

Many people would say not. This is because they think of emotion as arising out of the blue, unbidden, with a life of its own. How could one will oneself to feel love, or any other emotion? It would seem that emotions are just not the kinds of things that can be willed into (or out of) existence. I want to argue that we can in fact control our emotions, but before saying why, two points of confusion need to be addressed.

The first confusion is triggered by the word “control.”  For many, this word brings to mind suppression. As in:  “The health care workers tried desperately to control the typhoid outbreak.” Typhoid is bad, and control in this case means getting rid of typhoid.  By this logic, “emotional control” suggests eliminating or suppressing emotions. However, I’d like to propose a broader meaning, one that’s closer to “harness” or “regulate”.   This gives the question a different flavor, as we consider whether we can (and should) “harness” or “regulate” our emotions.

The second confusion has to do with who is doing the regulating. If something is being regulated, it seems only natural to wonder who the heck is doing the regulating. Sometimes, the answer isn’t much of a mystery, as when a teacher calms an out-of-control child in the classroom. Here it seems obvious that it’s the teacher who’s regulating the child’s emotions. The trouble comes when we try to imagine a single person regulating his own emotions. In this case, who is the controller and who is the controlled? My answer to this question is that regulation is possible because of the way the different systems in the brain interact with one another. There isn’t a little person inside who is controlling us. All we have is interacting brain systems whose joint action can lead to changes in how emotions unfold.

If we can avoid getting tripped up by these potential confusions, one of the compelling things about the question of whether we can regulate our emotions is that it – like most deep questions – has been around for a long time. Indeed, nearly 2,000 years ago, the Roman Stoic philosopher Epictetus offered advice on how to regulate emotions by changing one’s perceptions and thoughts. One of the people who took his advice was the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius, whose Meditations are a testament to the real-world value of emotional control.

In the past few decades, affective scientists have begun to translate this long-standing interest in emotion regulation into an empirical science. Thousands of studies are now being published on emotion regulation each year. Happily for all of us, these studies are yielding important new insights into emotional control.

One key insight is that people can and do regulate their emotions. Many times, they regulate their emotions by decreasing negative emotions, or increasing positive emotions. This makes sense. But it turns out that people also on occasion decrease positive emotions, such as when they’re in a great mood, but need to comfort a discouraged friend. People also increase negative emotions, such as when athletes “get angry” before an important match.

A second key insight is that people regulate their emotions in lots of different ways. Indeed, the sheer number of ways people regulate emotions is a bit overwhelming, and researchers have tried to find ways to organize them all. One popular approach starts with the idea that emotions unfold over time through a series of steps. These steps can be summarized by saying that emotions arise in situations that are attended to and evaluated in particular ways, and it is the way a person thinks about the situation he is in that triggers the changes in feeling, behavior, and physiology that we associate with having an emotion.

Using this idea about how emotions unfold, one can distinguish five families of emotion regulation processes based on which step a person is trying to change. The first family is called situation selection. This refers to choosing which situations we do (and don’t) get ourselves into based on what impact we think they’ll have on our emotions. The second family is called situation modification. This refers to doing things to change the situation we’re in so that our emotions will change. The third family is called attentional deployment. Here we’re trying to change how we’re attending to the situation so that our emotions will change. The fourth family is called cognitive change. This approach relies on changing how one is thinking about the situation in order to change the emotions one has. Finally, the fifth family is called response modulation. Here the person is trying to modify one or more of the emotional responses after the emotion is already underway.

A third key insight is that which strategy a person uses matters. In general, it appears that strategies that come earlier on are more effective than strategies that come later on. This makes good intuitive sense. After all, “a stitch in time saves nine.”  Many studies have demonstrated the truth of this idea. For example, one study contrasted reappraisal (a form of cognitive change) with suppression (a form of response modulation). Participants were invited into the laboratory to watch negative emotion-eliciting films. Some participants were instructed to respond naturally. Others were instructed to think differently about the films, as a scientist might (reappraisal). Others still were instructed to hide any emotions they might have (suppression). Findings indicated that only reappraisal made participants feel less negative, and suppression actually increased participants’ blood pressure responses to the film. Other studies have extended these findings, showing that suppression not only negatively affects the person who is suppressing; it can even negatively affect the person who is interacting with the person who is suppressing.

Findings such as these have encouraged researchers to try to teach people to use more helpful forms of emotion regulation. For example, in one study of married couples, half were instructed to use cognitive reappraisal when dealing with difficult conversations with the partner. Findings revealed that this 21-minute intervention produced clear differences in marital satisfaction, with higher levels of satisfaction in couples who had reappraised than in those who hadn’t reappraised.

This is not to say that reappraisal (or any other strategy) is always good. It is easy to think of cases where people use their thinking to avoid making needed changes in a marriage or a job, in which case short-term relief brings long-term pain. It is also clear that suppression (or any other strategy) is not always bad. But findings like these suggest that it may be possible to teach healthier forms of emotional regulation, and other studies have shown benefits in many different emotionally charged contexts, from psychotherapy to middle school to the middle east.

So – coming back to the question with which we began – can emotions be controlled?  My answer is yes – in the sense that we can shape or influence which emotions we have, when we have them, and how we experience and express these emotions. Sometimes we do this to increase our emotions, and sometimes we do this to decrease our emotions.  We can regulate our emotions in lots of different ways, and different strategies have different consequences, both for the person who is doing the regulating, and for the people who are interacting with him.  And the good news is that we can become more skillful at regulating our emotions if we try.

Discussion Questions:

1. Do you buy the idea that emotions can be helpful as well as unhelpful?

2. What determines whether emotion regulation is useful or not?

3. Why do people regulate as they do, and can they learn new ways of regulating?

Discussion Summary

In my target essay, I argued that emotions can be controlled, in the sense that we can shape or influence which emotions we have, when we have them, and how we experience and express these emotions. I also tried to make the case that people go about regulating their emotions in lots of different ways, and I provided evidence that different regulation strategies have different consequences, both for the person who is doing the regulating, and for the people who are interacting with him or her.

One important issue that arose in the discussion was whether what I said about emotion regulation applies to other impulses as well. I think it does.  As with emotions, we can shape our stress responses, moods, and urges to eat, drink, or have sex. And the approach we take in each of these cases matters. Some approaches work well, and others don’t work as well. In general, it appears that strategies that intervene early on to either keep the impulses from getting started, or at least keep the impulses from getting too strong, tend to be more successful than “mop-up” strategies that seek to alter impulses that have already grown to full strength.

A second important issue that arose in the discussion was how we can teach others (including children) how to better regulate their emotions and other impulses.  I think there are many ways to teach skillful emotion regulation, and the common foundation of all these approaches is developing an understanding of what emotions (and other impulses) are, and how they develop over time. If we don’t know this, we can live a whole lifetime experiencing emotions as unexpected and unwanted house guests who suddenly appear out of thin air to torment us.  By contrast, if we do understand what emotions and other impulses are, we are able to seek out others who show wisdom in their handling of emotions, and learn from them. Sometimes these wise others are parents. Sometimes schoolteachers and coaches. Sometimes therapists. And sometimes people long dead whose books we now read. From these many teachers we can gradually learn how to develop a “tool kit” of strategies that we can employ whenever we wish to sculpt our emotions.

A third important issue that arose in the discussion was whether there might be hidden downsides to controlling emotions. I think there certainly can be. This brings up the crucial question of what one’s emotion regulation goals are, and whether these are the right goals for you. Far too frequently, we live long stretches of our lives in the service of other people’s goals, not just about the emotions we should have, but about how we should relate to others, what we should do, and what counts as a good life. Here too, I think clarity comes when one develops awareness about one’s goals, because this awareness is the first step in taking steps to change one’s goals if such change is needed. Once we are clear that our emotion regulation goals are indeed right for us, we then can consider whether one approach to regulating our emotions is better for us than another.  Emotions powerfully shape how we think, feel, and respond to the world around us. This means that our attempts to change our emotions can have a wide range of consequences both for us, and for the people around us.  It is this appreciation of the richness of emotion that enables us to make the best choices possible – and avoid hidden costs – as we seek to regulate emotions in the service of our long-term interests.

As I hope I’ve communicated, I think we now live at a very exciting moment. For millennia, people have pondered questions about the proper role of different emotions in our lives.  For example, nearly 2,000 years ago, the Roman Stoic philosopher Epictetus offered advice on how to regulate emotions by changing one’s perceptions and thoughts.  Today, for the first time ever, we have a compelling body of empirical work to guide us in regulating our emotions.  It’s true that we have much more to learn, but we no longer need to rely on conflicting advice from others. We are beginning to see emotions in new ways, and researchers are daily shedding new light on urgent questions we all have about how to harness the extraordinary force of emotions for good rather than ill, both at the level of each of our individual lives, and at the level of our families, communities, and societies.

New Big Questions:

1. How Can We Get From Effortful Self-Regulation to Effortless Habits?

2. Does the Way We Think About Our Emotions and Stress Responses Matter?

11 Responses

  1. wondering14 says:

    Are impulses emotions? Are there long-term as well as short-term emotions?

    How early do we teach children to control their emotions? The earlier they learn, the better they learn?

    Are psychologists, parents, preachers, teachers and sergeants qualified to teach control of emotions? If they all teach a child (excepting sergeants), do they work at cross purposes?  Should they communicate with one another as they coach a child? 

    Where does confusion start for children, and adults, when control is sought for something as spontaneous as emotions?  Is learning and unlearning emotional controls similar to learning and unlearning habits?

    How sure are we that the perhaps hidden downsides of controlling of emotions are not greater than the benefits?

    • James Gross says:

      Are impulses emotions? Are there long-term as well as short-term emotions?

      Impulses are calls to action. So when an emotion makes us feel like doing one thing rather than another, it is one kind of impulse. But there are also non-emotional impulses, such as the desire to inhale a diet-busting snack, or have a drink when we really didn’t mean to.  Or give change to someone who needs it more than we do, or call our parents just to say hi. All of these are impulses, and as with emotions, some of these kinds of impulses are unhelpful, others helpful.  

      Some emotions flit by quickly. Other emotions seem to last and last and last. Most emotion researchers tend to think of very long-lasting emotions as really being made up of shorter-term emotions that are stitched together. So when a person says “I was really sad all last year,” most emotion researchers translate this as “I had lots of bursts of sadness last year” (probably mixed in with other emotions).

       How early do we teach children to control their emotions? The earlier they learn, the better they learn?

      Understanding our emotions is a life-long process. This means that young children need time to work out (and be told) what emotions are, and why they sometimes have one emotion rather than another. One major accomplishment in early childhood is learning that emotions don’t have to be expressed. Another major accomplishment comes a bit later, when children learn that the way we think about a situation powerfully shapes which emotions we will feel.  These milestones make it possible to begin to regulate emotions. As with so many things, the first steps in this process are often completed with assistance from a parent or caregiver. Children whose parents or caregivers help them understand what emotions are, and assist them in regulating their emotions have a much easier time of later regulating emotions than children who haven’t been so fortunate.  Because skillful emotion regulation helps in so many domains, those who get an early start have a head start over those who learn about their emotions later on. But it’s never too late to start!

      Are psychologists, parents, preachers, teachers and sergeants qualified to teach control of emotions? If they all teach a child (excepting sergeants), do they work at cross purposes?  Should they communicate with one another as they coach a child? 

      Having many teachers – whatever the domain – is always both a blessing and a curse. In the case of emotion regulation, the blessing comes when many different people who understand and care for a child skillfully model different approaches to emotion regulation, making it clear that there are many different ways to manage one’s emotions. The curse comes when teachers who do not necessarily know the child well give conflicting instructions about emotion management. This can lead to confusion about whether emotions are useful, and what to do when they’re not. In our culture, many children unfortunately take on board messages from teachers that can be harmful in the long term (e.g., “Big boys don’t cry”).

      Where does confusion start for children, and adults, when control is sought for something as spontaneous as emotions?  Is learning and unlearning emotional controls similar to learning and unlearning habits?

      At times, nearly everyone finds emotions confusing. This confusion can be especially acute for children, particularly if they aren’t in an environment that gives them the tools to understand and regulate their emotions. Part of the challenge here is learning to respond to one’s emotions flexibly. This means sometimes letting one’s emotions play themselves out spontaneously, but at other times, sculpting one’s emotions in ways that will best serve one’s long-term interests. Over time, one’s patterns of emotional responding become habits. Like other habits, these typical modes of responding are a sort of default response. These defaults can be changed, but this change can be very difficult.  This is why I think helping children cultivate healthy emotional habits is one of the kindest things one can do for them.

       How sure are we that the perhaps hidden downsides of controlling of emotions are not greater than the benefits?

      This is always a good question to ask! I think that different emotions have different costs and benefits in a given situation. I also think that different forms of emotion regulation themselves have different costs and benefits. This can make it very difficult to work out how to handle emotionally charged situations.  Sometimes, people get into trouble because they fail to regulate emotions when they should. But people also can get themselves into trouble because they succeed in regulating their emotions when it would have been much better if they had let their emotions play themselves out. One example is when people clamp down on their emotions in order to seem tough. When they do this all the time, this pattern of suppressing emotions can make it very hard for other people to know what they’re really feeling. 

  2. prince195 says:

    Isn’t “control of an emotion” an emotion itself?

    • James Gross says:

      Like Julia (below), I prefer the term “regulate” to “control” That’s because “control” is often understood to mean suppressing or inhibiting, whereas “regulate” has a broader range of meaning, that can include cultivating and enhancing, as well as denying or inhibiting. 

      But whatever terms we use, the question you’re asking is an important one, I think, because it raises the issue of WHY people control/regulate their emotions.  What gives control/regulation its motive force? From my perspective, emotion regulation requires that we have a goal to influence how our emotions unfold (although this goal can be — and often is — unconscious).  This goal is triggered when we either negatively or positively value an emotional state in a particular context. For example, I may start to feel tears welling up when I hear a sad story. In some circumstances, I would welcome those tears. But in others, I might prefer not to cry, and at such moments, I would have the goal of regulating my sadness so as to avoid crying. In this sense, “”control of emotion” isn’t an emotion itself, but it does involve a valuation of emotion (that is, judging the emotion to be good or bad), and it is this valuation that gives emotion control/regulation its motive force.

  3. wondering14 says:

    Thank you for answering the previous questions. A few more.

    Do Russians, Japanese, Italians…; Jews, Hindus, atheists…; etc; etc have unique group emotional characteristics that could affect the applicability of the five regulating tools that you mention?  Are people round the world pretty much emotionally the same?

    The five ways of regulating emotion require placing emotion as an object before our consciousness, keeping emotion at a distance. Emotions affect our consciousness, also. Is there interplay between emotion and consciousness that might affect the regulation processes?

    You mentioned “thousands” of annual studies on the topic. How scientifically reliable, how substantial are these studies? When should we take seriously the how-to articles that we read in popular media about controlling our emotions?

    • James Gross says:

      Do Russians, Japanese, Italians…; Jews, Hindus, atheists…; etc; etc have unique group emotional characteristics that could affect the applicability of the five regulating tools that you mention? 

      When one identifies oneself as a member of a group (such as one based on gender, ethnicity, religion, athletic preferences, age, profession, hobby, etc.), one experiences the world differently from others who are not members of that group. Thus, a given comment, event, or thought might strike a group member as having a different meaning from someone who is not part of that group. Because it’s these meanings that can lead to emotion, I think that group membership can shape which emotions we have and when we have them. I also think that our group memberships may influence not just the emotions we have, but how we go about regulating them. This is because our beliefs about which emotions we should experience, and when we should experience them, may be shaped by our group memberships. This means that our group memberships can influence our emotion regulation goals. I think it’s also possible that our group memberships might influence which emotion regulation strategies we use in order to achieve our emotion regulation goals (whatever they may be). In our own work, for example, we’ve found that although men and women are equally capable of using emotional suppression when asked to do so, men on average tend to report using emotional suppression more than women. From my viewpoint, people everywhere have the same potential set of emotion regulation tools. But which tools they use, when they use them, and what they’re trying to achieve all may be influenced by the groups they belong to.

       Are people round the world pretty much emotionally the same?

      That’s a question that emotion researchers have been struggling with for ages. My take is that there are both points of commonality and difference, and that which one emphasizes depends on the question one is trying to answer. Thus, some people are impressed by the similarities (how a friendly posture and expression can bridge vast cultural distances). Others are impressed by just how large the emotional gap can be even between two people from the same culture (and even from the same family!).

       The five ways of regulating emotion require placing emotion as an object before our consciousness, keeping emotion at a distance. Emotions affect our consciousness, also. Is there interplay between emotion and consciousness that might affect the regulation processes?

      Yes! I think that becoming aware of ones emotions (which often leads us to label these emotions) can powerfully shape how we experience and express these emotions. That is to say, consciousness can shape emotion. I also think that the emotions we have can exert a powerful influence over what we’re conscious of.

       You mentioned “thousands” of annual studies on the topic. How scientifically reliable, how substantial are these studies? When should we take seriously the how-to articles that we read in popular media about controlling our emotions?

      That estimate comes from Google Scholar, a resource many use to identify relevant scientific literature. For example, in 2012, Google Scholar shows over 9,000 articles that contain the exact phrase “emotion regulation”.  Like any (large) set of studies, these vary in how reliable and substantial they are, but what I look for are consistent patterns (replication) across studies. I think how-to articles also vary considerably in quality. Some of terrific, based on clear thinking and good science. Others are less terrific. Here too, one way to judge quality is to look for patterns. Another is to see how much the work is based on rigorous scientific studies (versus arm-chair speculation and anecdote).

       

  4. Julia says:

    I really appreciate the clarity with which you make your points and am pretty much in agreement. I think the key factor is becoming aware of one’s emotions and what they are being triggered by. This is no easy task and a lifelong one, as you say. I think once the work of becoming more aware of emotions as they emerge is embraced as worthwhile (and no question it is in my opinion), then the rest almost follows naturally. When one is simply consumed and overwhelmed with an emotion and operating automatically on whatever learning one has had so far, whether it is to lash out or to slink into a corner, then there is little question of control. Once one gets the idea that there are parts of oneself that can stand outside the wash of emotion, the rest starts to be possible and interesting. I think most people are troubled at times by overwhelming emotions and just have never found a way, or been taught to step away even just a little bit in order to start to “manage” (I like that word better than control) their experience. I think some people figure it out themselves and others are taught. But either way, the ensuing purely internal processes are the subject of volumes of philosophical, psychological, theological and judicial debate! I am privileged to be fascinated by the process of becoming more and more aware of my emotions and then allowing or redirecting them as the occasion indicates. I am still sometimes overwhelmed or laid low by the stronger ones, but each time I learn a bit more about myself.

    In answer to your discussion points:

    1. Do you buy the idea that emotions can be helpful as well as unhelpful?

    In my understanding of human nature, emotions just are. They are an intrinsic and essential part of our nature as humans. They are signals that tell us how we are being affected by our environment and can guide us towards the proper response. They are essential for both individual survival but more importantly for social engagement. Being aware of one’s emotions is always helpful, what one does with them at the time is the bigger question.

    2. What determines whether emotion regulation is useful or not?

    That’s another case by case question which depends what criteria one uses to judge usefulness by. Sometimes it just feels good to let it all out even if there’s fallout afterwards one has to contend with. As I think you mention, we all regulate our emotions to some degree. Human development is by definition a process of learning to regulate one’s emotions in accord with the larger culture one is born into. Usefulness is a personal and societal judgement call.

    3. Why do people regulate as they do, and can they learn new ways of regulating?

    People learn as they grow up without realizing they are learning to regulate. At some point, when that way isn’t working for them or is causing problems in their lives, they look for alternatives. It’s not a matter of whether one can learn new ways, but how much one can change and what opportunities to do so are available.

    Thanks for the illuminating topic!

    • James Gross says:

      I think this phrase – “standing outside the wash of emotion” – is just lovely. It perfectly captures that importance of not (always and only) experiencing emotions as things that happen to us. Instead, it points to the idea that we can make changes in the world and in our mind that can powerfully affect the emotions we experience. As we become more aware of our ability to make changes that influence our emotions, we are better able to sculpt lives that are rich and satisfying, not just for ourselves, but also for those around us.

  5. wondering14 says:

    The essay was about the regulation of one’s emotions. This question is about the ability to show emotions, perhaps after the emotional response has been modulated. One situation that I’ve often wondered about occurs in the courtroom. Convict 1 stands before the judge. Tears drop, contrite words are spoken. The judge reduces the sentence. Convict 2 feels just as sorry but has a different emotional structure and can’t cry or say apologetic words that come out convincing. The judge does not reduce the sentence. Sometimes I read that a judge stiffens a sentence or does not ease it because the person before the court failed the “show remorse” (or the reverse). 

    Assuming people feel the same depth of an emotion (remorse, for example), are some more able to genuinely, naturally, show that emotion more easily than others? Does regulating an emotion cool it down, so it might then be harder to display?

    • James Gross says:

      The essay was about the regulation of one’s emotions. This question is about the ability to show emotions, perhaps after the emotional response has been modulated. One situation that I’ve often wondered about occurs in the courtroom. Convict 1 stands before the judge. Tears drop, contrite words are spoken. The judge reduces the sentence. Convict 2 feels just as sorry but has a different emotional structure and can’t cry or say apologetic words that come out convincing. The judge does not reduce the sentence. Sometimes I read that a judge stiffens a sentence or does not ease it because the person before the court failed the “show remorse” (or the reverse). 

      Assuming people feel the same depth of an emotion (remorse, for example), are some more able to genuinely, naturally, show that emotion more easily than others? Does regulating an emotion cool it down, so it might then be harder to display?

      What a wonderful question! One of the most striking things about emotions is how differently we each experience and expresss our emotions. As you note, even on occasions where two people experience more or less the same emotion, there may still be very big differences in how these emotions are expressed. These differences can matter a great deal, whether in a court of law, at work, or with our family.  If this is true, how does emotion regulation fit in? From my perspective, learning about emotion regulation involves reflecting on one’s patterns of emotion experience and expression. Many of us have learned unhelpful emotional habits, and by reflecting on these habits, we (1) become aware of habits that we may not have previously noticed, and (2) have the opportunity to develop emotion regulation skills that will enable us to alter these habits. For example, some people learn not to let their emotions show. However, when they refect on this pattern of emotional suppression, they may see that it is creating unwanted distance from other people. In this case, developing emotion regulation skills may involve changing a pattern of pervasive emotional suppression, leading to a more spontaneous set of responses. In this case – paradoxical as it may sound – developing emotion regulation skills may actually lead the person to engage in LESS emotion regulation over time!

  6. Lance Dunn says:

    To wondering14 & Dr. Gross – Excellent point regarding criminals’ behaviors in front of judges.  Have you seen the movie “Dead Man Walking?”  In my view a central point in the movie (which I believe is based on a true story) is that an important constituent of who we are is how we feel.  AND that over time and a series of experiences how we reflexively react emotionally during experiences can dramatically change – change so much that (in the movie) the “person” who committed the murder is not the same “person” who was executed – one major reason is the “criminal” came to realize both cognitively & emotionally why killing an innocent person is so abhorent – in this sense the executed person would no longer commit murder.  To be clear my intention is NOT to comment on capital punishment but rather to provide an example (related to wonder14’s comment) of dramatic emotional change.