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.


Erin shows overscheduled, overwhelmed women how to do less so that they can achieve more. Traditional productivity books—written by men—barely touch the tangle of cultural pressures that women feel when facing down a to-do list. How to Get Sh*t Done will teach you how to zero in on the three areas of your life where you want to excel, and then it will show you how to off-load, outsource, or just stop giving a damn about the rest.

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