Learn how to control your emotions so you can be mentally stronger and happier.
The distress in my dad’s voice was palpable. “What should I do, Paul?” he asked. My dad needed surgery to replace a heart valve. He had to choose between two hospitals—one with a well-known name that was far from home or one close by with a fine reputation but lacking the name recognition.
But there was something unspoken in his tone. I sensed that he worried he might not survive—it would be his second heart surgery and he wasn’t a young man anymore. I knew that more than anything he would want to be close to home with his family nearby—especially since Christmas was two short weeks away. Dad took my advice and chose the nearby hospital.
Fate can intervene in unexpected ways.
Happily, dad’s surgery was a success. But his body weakened over the next two weeks delaying his discharge. Then one of the many germs floating about any hospital found its way into his lungs.
He developed pneumonia and slipped into a coma. Adding to our pain, the doctors suggested several days later that we should consider removing life support. After a week of emotional agony, my siblings and mother and I made our decision.
We gathered together in dad’s hospital room that final day. At the time of year when there would otherwise be joyous holiday music, the noises we heard were the clanking of carts in the hallway. Instead of colorful Christmas tree lights, we watched the blinking lights of the heart monitor.
And on that wintry day, inside a windowless room, we waited for our beloved dad to take his final breath and prayed for him as he left his body to begin his new journey.
When you control your emotions you are also managing the story you tell yourself
After my dad passed away my emotions fluctuated. I couldn’t help but think “What if I had urged him to go to the other hospital? Might he still be alive?Did we do the right thing about removing life support?”
Clues that we are mismanaging our emotions include:
- Replaying past actions over and over in our mind
- Repeatedly asking “Why?” something had to happen when no answer suffices.
- Easily annoyed, offended, or intimidated.
- Physical aches and pains with no obvious cause.
- Arguing that something “should never have happened!” when it did.
- Overthinking future concerns.
I had to change my inner story, my belief that perhaps I had made a wrong decision and my belief that if a person thinks through a situation well enough then loss or pain can somehow be avoided.
The truth is that life is not always predictable, pain is inevitable, and we show mercy toward ourselves when we embrace those truths.
When you fail to control your emotions there is something you are resisting.
Resistance comes in the form of fight or flight such as fighting to justify a “right” way of thinking even though that way isn’t helping, or running from some truth that you don’t wish to face.
Fighting or fleeing may be necessary in certain situations. But if you wish to control your emotions more effectively in the long run you must let go of resistance and instead cultivate “acceptance” in at least four ways.
1. Accept what is, not what you want it to be.
I had to emotionally accept that the events involving my dad played out the way they did. When we argue with a circumstance (“This shouldn’t have happened!), or with another person (“How could you say such a thing?”), or with ourselves (“Did I do the right thing?”) we are fighting with the reality of what occurred and reality always wins that fight. It is far better to say “I don’t like what happened but I accept it” than to emotionally oppose what cannot be changed.
When we accept something it does not mean it is desirable or “acceptable” in a moral sense, it simply means “it is.” If you can take steps to change a bad situation then do so. But you still must accept the reality of the circumstance.
I learned to accept the fact that my father got pneumonia and had to be removed from life support. When we accept the situation we stop the debate. We are left with the pain of loss but that pain is real and authentic. It often takes time to emotionally accept a great loss. But until we absorb that reality we suffer even more.
2. Accept uncertainty.
People who obsessively worry about some possible future event over-analyze it in an attempt to reduce uncertainty. They cannot tolerate uncertainty and overthink to try to bring about a desired outcome. But the logical, problem-solving part of our brain works best when the future is predictable and we have control over all of the variables (such as deciding what to eat or where to go on vacation).
But for serious problems—inability to pay our bills, a relationship near a breaking point, health challenges, and so forth—we don’t have control over all of the variables and therefore uncertainty exists. Trying to dramatically reduce uncertainty by over-analyzing only creates more stress since we will just end up spinning our wheels.
I learned to accept uncertainty when coping with my dad’s death. I accepted that that there was no way to know “for sure” which hospital was best or if removing life support was the right thing to do.
People prefer a world that makes sense. But everyday senseless tragedies occur and we don’t understand why. Just about every day in our ordinary lives something breaks, gets lost, delays us, or simply “goes wrong.”
We expect our coffee hot, our computers fast, our phones charged—and when those things don’t happen we sometimes get impatient. But what if we accepted the idea that events are happening for mysterious reasons we may never discover?
Is it really true that when events don’t go the way we want they must necessarily be bad? If we seek answers that only fit our limited way of viewing things we may never see a bigger picture. It is best to simply repeat “I don’t like what happened but I accept it” and be open to the mystery that often lies beneath the question “Why?”
4. Accept the possibility of meaning.
Suffering is bad enough. But the meanest form of suffering is suffering with no meaning. Sometimes meaning is discovered. For example, when I did not get accepted into the graduate school I had my heart set on, I ended up attending my last choice.
It was there I met my future wife and we have been happily married for over thirty years with three amazing children. Many times we must create meaning. I’ve known parents who started a scholarship fund in memory of their own child who died.
Such an act does not replace the loss but allows something meaningful to spring from it. By taking that perspective, we open our hearts to the possibility that what we think of as bad may still lead to something good.
Mismanaged emotions are not authentic. They compel you to over-react or under-react to a situation rather than deal with it cleanly. When you fail to control your emotions, it leads to unnecessary anger, guilt, or depression and interferes with your ability to make the kind of positive impact on the world you are meant to make.
But by reacting to things as they are rather than the way we wish them to be, by peacefully co-existing with uncertainty, by opening to the idea that our lives may move in mysterious ways, and by a willingness to find meaning and hope in hardship, we will discover that our emotions inform us but do not manage us—and we can navigate life’s rough waters more smoothly.