Do you remember the last time you felt an unpleasant emotion that you wanted to eliminate at all costs? It could have been any kind of feeling, from shame to anger or sadness. Try to remember what your first reaction to that emotion was. You probably had the urgent need that the feeling vanished, as you felt inadequate or have thought that something was wrong. So, you’ve probably done everything possible to immediately stop this feeling, repeating yourself that you should not feel that way.
But if the emotion was intense it is likely that this strategy didn’t worked. In fact, it has been proven that trying to fight or control emotions and thoughts only serves to focus the attention on these and make them grow. The more you fight to control them, the more they will strengthen and will ultimately control you.
The basic problem is that society taught us there are “negative” emotions that we should never try. Therefore, when we experience those emotions we feel uncomfortable, and want to take back control. Often what worries us the most is not the emotion itself, but the uneasy feeling that generates because we think it is “unacceptable”.
Do not think of polar bears
In 1987, psychologists at the Trinity University recruited a group of people to accomplish a seemingly simple experiment: they were simply told not to think of a white bear. Every time they thought of it had to ring a bell.
After this period of conscious suppression, the researchers asked people to think about what they wanted, including a white polar bear. Again, when the white bear image came to mind they should have ring a bell.
Also another group of participants was talked about a white bear, but they were not asked to try to repress that thought. Interestingly, those people who should have to remove the white bear image from their minds were precisely the ones that thought of it more often.
The problem is that to not think of something we activate an internal control mechanism to help us identify the thought or image we want to avoid. This mechanism, contradictorily, obtains only to activate the thoughts we wanted to avoid.
This phenomenon is not limited to thoughts but also includes emotions and feelings. In fact, it is particularly evident when we feel ashamed. The more we think to the shame we feel and more this increases and more intense are its physiological expressions.
When we think “I’m nervous, I have to control myself or everyone will notice it”, this feeling of nervousness will increase. Our hands begin sweating, we get blushed and maybe we even start stuttering or get completely blocked.
We tend to think that these symptoms are triggered by emotions, but are actually intensified by the importance we give to a particular emotion, the negative value we give to it. It is not only the emotion itself, but thoughts and analysis we do of our reaction, that are triggering these undesirable symptoms.
Those who resist persists
Imagine the emotions that make you feel uncomfortable are like a bad friend. It is likely that this friend helped you to solve some problems, but he usually spends most of his time criticizing you. Obviously, the first reaction would be to get rid of him, but when you try to do it he attacks you telling you’re a bad person. At this point, you may get angry and will discuss with him until the situation gets out of your hands.
This is exactly what happens when we try to control emotions, particularly those classified as negative. And the problem is even greater because, some way, we are afraid of these emotions, we think they are saying something negative about us, and thus we give them power.
The problem at the basis of our desire to control is that this actually involves repression, it means that we don’t accept something… and what we do not accept can be hidden, but will continue to exist. Thus, emotions end up controlling your life, and you end up feeling good or bad depending on what you encounter on your path, you end up being an eminently reactive person, without any control on your happiness, perpetually on the roller coaster of your emotions.
What is the solution?
Since many years psychology begun to talk about managing emotions. It is a different perspective that teaches us to accept the existence of emotions without judging. We simply learn to identify them, we notice them and let them go. There’re several techniques, such as that of “Leaves on the Stream“, which serve for that purpose.
The secret is that we should not label them as negative or reject them, emotions lose their power and we’re free of their influence. If you do not resist, emotions will go away as they came.