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Can We Control Our Emotions?

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?