take control

Managing Our Emotional Monsters: Why Control Doesn’t Work

If you’re an average human being, you may be doing something that is actually based on a huge myth.

You may be trying to control your feelings.

Not the ‘good’ ones of course. We all like joy, love, contentment, and happiness. It’s the ‘bad’ ones we try to control: anger, anxiety, fear, jealousy, sadness, guilt.

It’s normal to try to control our ‘bad’ or uncomfortable emotions. According to Russ Harris, author of The Happiness Trap, there are at least four good reasons for us to do so.

1. We think we should always be happy.

Our society is very happiness-driven. So, if we’re feeling a painful emotion, we think something is wrong with us and we feel pressured to get back to the “norm” of happiness.

This, of course, is a myth within a myth. Happiness is as transient an emotion as any of them. It comes and goes; it’s not a steady state.

2. The things we do to control our emotions often do work. In the short run.

How many of these solutions do you try to control and/or avoid your ‘bad’ emotions?

  • Eating unhealthy foods
  • Drinking alcohol
  • Watching television
  • Staying busy
  • Smoking
  • Using drugs (including prescription drugs)
  • Suppressing thoughts/not thinking about feelings

These things work. For a while.

But soon the novelty of the distraction technique wears off and we’re still stuck with our feelings.

3. We think these things work for others.

We’re humans so our tendency is to compare ourselves to others. It seems like these methods of dealing with difficult feelings work for other people, so we try them ourselves.

4. Our minds are meant to solve problems.

Think about it. Our ancestors had one job: to stay alive. Thus, our brains developed specifically to solve problems like how to create fire and how to avoid that saber-toothed tiger.

So it makes sense that our modern-day brains continue to try to solve problems, including how to get rid of these uncomfortable emotions we feel at times.

Control is the problem

However, trying to control feelings is actually the problem.

And the myth.

To demonstrate how good we are at controlling our feelings, try these three exercises for me:

1. Numb your arm.

Let’s start with a physical feeling. Without moving or applying a tourniquet, I want you to numb your arm with your mind only. Go ahead. Numb it.

How’d that go?

2. Pass the polygraph.

Now imagine that I’m holding you hostage and I’ve hooked you up to a polygraph machine. The only way you can escape is to pass a lie-detector test. But if you show even the slightest bit of anxiety, you’ll be electrocuted.

Ready? Do you think you can control your anxiety such that your heart won’t beat even a smidgen faster?

How’d you do?

3. Fall in love on cue.

Now imagine that I’m going to give you a jillion dollars if you can complete this exercise: All you have to do is fall in love with someone I point out. And I have you attached to a special machine that will verify whether you’re truly in love and not just faking it.

Ready? Okay, fall in love with that man over there in the 1977 Datsun who hasn’t had a bath for three months. Go ahead.

Well? Did you win the jillion dollars?

Managing the monsters of your emotions

So I’m guessing my point is pretty well taken by now.

As much as we’d like to, we can’t completely control our feelings. And we probably shouldn’t: there are tons of studies that show that the more we try to not think about a thought or a feeling, the bigger it will become.

What to do, then, when you’re going through a rough time emotionally?

If you can stand another metaphor, I want to talk to you about some passengers on a bus.

Imagine that you’re the driver of a bus. You’re alone on the bus except for some very unruly passengers. They’re mean and aggressive and ferocious looking. As a matter of fact, these passengers are monsters.

You want to drive the bus in a meaningful direction – to pick up other passengers who actually need a ride, to go back to the bus barn and pursue your off-duty life, or just to see new, exciting things you’ve never seen before.

But each time you turn the bus toward one of those directions, the monsters roar and growl and come charging at you. They surround you with their sharp claws and nasty teeth and bellow, “You have to go where we tell you to go! Turn around and drive the route you were on before or we’ll slash you with our sharp claws and bite you with our nasty teeth!”

Shaken, you turn the bus around. Anything to get these monsters away from you. Seeing that you’re obeying them, the monsters go back to their seats. But every time you try to change your route, they rise up and threaten you again.

But there’s something very important you need to know about these monsters.

They can’t really hurt you.

Although they look and sound ferocious (and don’t smell great, either,) they are not able to touch you. All they can do is roar and howl and threaten.

Once you discover this, you muster your courage and change your route to where you want to go. On cue, the monsters rush you, waving their arms with their sharp claws and gnashing their nasty teeth. But this time, you notice that they are not touching you. They’re still scary, but they’re actually harmless. The monsters retreat to their seats, frustrated at not being able to intimidate you.

You’re now free to go where you want. In fact, you’ve always been free, you just didn’t know it because you were too busy trying to stay on the route the monsters had you on.

The monsters are the ‘ugly’ emotions we try so hard to avoid and control. They scare us because they don’t feel good and they’re threatening.

And yet, they can’t really hurt us. We can still live our lives and move in the direction we want even with the presence of painful emotions. Notice that in our bus metaphor, the monsters never really disappear, do they? They’re still there, but now you are able to drive in the direction you want to go.

The next time you feel driven by your painful feelings, pull over for a minute. Remember that your feelings, although ugly and scary, can’t really hurt you.

Take a breath, allow those feelings to just be within you, and keep living the life you want to live. I think those monsters just might end up enjoying the ride after all.


Bobbi Emel is a psychotherapist who helps you bounce back from life’s significant challenges. Download her FREE ebook, Bounce Back! 5 keys to survive and thrive through life’s ups and downs. You can read more of her writing at The Bounce Blog.

17 Responses to Managing Our Emotional Monsters: Why Control Doesn’t Work

  1. Alyssa says:

    I know that controlling your emotions is hard but what needs to be done here is to control your actions. I mean, it’s hard to control emotions since the more you try to control it, the more it’s going to come back. What I do is let it out and then afterwards I feel better. I also try to control my actions whenever I’m around a person I don’t like. Controlling actions must be a little easier then.

    I think people should focus on what they COULD control which is their behavior, actions, and self. Emotions is one of the aspects in life that’s difficult to control.

  2. Bobbi Emel says:

    Alyssa, this is a very important point you’re making. The idea to “just be” with your emotions does NOT mean you shouldn’t take action when necessary. You can just be with your emotions AND take action to change the parts of your life that will help you drive your bus where you want to go!

  3. Excellent metaphor, Bobbi! Your example about driving a bus with harmless monsters in it perfectly illustrates how we can move towards the direction we want to head to without allowing our emotions to get the better of us.

    In some cases though, I think there are certain emotions (monsters) that we can face and make peace with. If we can dig deep and find out why we’re feeling that way, we can work on letting those emotions go. (Or sticking to your metaphor, we can let certain monsters off the the bus). :)

  4. Bobbi Emel says:

    Hi Francesca and thank you for your kind words!

    Yes, the idea is really about accepting what you can’t control and taking action on the things you can. So it might, indeed, be possible to determine the source of an emotion and take action to remedy the problem at the source. However, the emotion will come up later in some other situation, won’t it? So I think it might be best to just allow all of the monsters their own space on the bus and realize that they’re occasionally going to come up and roar!

  5. Gary Korisko says:

    Oh great. I think I did that exercise wrong because I fell in love with a polygraph machine and injured my arm. 😛

    But seriously – some great points here, Bobbi. Recently a friend introduced me to this concept of just “being with” your negative feelings – and it really does work. When you see that they dissipate after a while, they are easier to deal with. And the bus analogy explains it well.

    I’d always tried to either ignore them or fix them. Neither of those worked real well.

    Thanks for this!

  6. Bobbi Emel says:

    Yeah . . . I think you may have done that exercise a bit wrong, Gary . . .
    Glad allowing your feelings to “just be” has been helpful for you!

  7. Ashton says:

    I agree to a certain extend that we can’t really numb all of our emotions, but if we completely surrender to them, we will be like a small boat in the ocean getting torn apart by the waves. We should definitely be able to transform our emotions and direct them into the right direction, or rather learn to react differently to things that would otherwise cause negative emotions. This involves changing our attitude rather than numbing and ‘controlling’.

  8. I’m sorry to ask this and please bear with me. Do you mean to control it(bad emotion) or just ignore it?

    Hope to hear from you soon.


  9. Shaun says:

    I recently came up with a simple way to deal with my negative emotions and the effect the have on me. I simply treat all my emotions as other people. The good emotions are the ones I’d always like to be around and who encourage me everyday while the negative emotions are the ones trying to tear me down and treat me as if I’m nothing.

    Whenever a negative thought comes into my mind, like ” You’re not good enough to try that, everyone will just hate you or laugh at you,” I stop and remind myself. NEGATIVE EMOTIONS WILL ALWAYS LIE. NEVER BELIEVE THEM. I’ve found this has helped even though I’ve long accepted that all my emotions will always be with me. It isn’t that I think I’m controlling them but by putting some distance between myself and the emotions by treating them as separate people I have been able to create a system where I can control what emotions are affecting my actions. I won’t lie though I do feel a lot more positive and upbeat since I started doing this

  10. Bobbi Emel says:

    That’s an interesting approach, Shaun! I think anything that allows you to get a little distance between you and your painful emotions is probably a good thing.

  11. Bobbi Emel says:

    Hi Claude,

    I mean to allow your painful emotions to be with you, but to not let them drive the bus. That is, we’re always going to feel some pain in life because we’re human and negative emotions are just part of the package. But, if they get in the way of what you want to do and be in your life, it’s time to create more space for them and allow them to be with you, just to not let them drive you to places you don’t want to be.

  12. Bobbi Emel says:

    Hi Ashton,

    I think action is helpful when possible, but sometimes things happen that are out of our control. In these instances, perhaps we could just allow our emotions to occur, get a little distance from them, and continue on the course that WE want, not what THEY want.

  13. Joshua Hugh Tan says:

    Agreed totally. Controlling is just a short term measure. It will soon overflow like a shaken soda. Just come to terms with them and listen to them.

  14. Thanks Bobbi.. You’re such a blessing. :’)

  15. Bobbi Emel says:

    Hi Joshua,

    I love the shaken soda analogy! Thanks!

  16. J.Smith says:

    I started a blog to deal with possible depression…


  17. bliss says:

    I enjoyed the way you got your point across. You made it interesting.

    Some books have the best material, but are just plain boring. When you can make good material interesting, you can reach a wider audience (and make more money selling more books, yey)

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