Are You In Control Of Your Emotions?

Individual Counseling Insights From Westlake Village-Based Patricia McTague-Loft

Parents who take their parenting job seriously probably think about what they should say to their kids in difficult situations. They may read articles or books, turn to their own parents for input, swap stories and advice with other moms and dads and generally think about how they are guiding their kids into maturity.

A typical situation that parents confront is when a child explains their (sometimes inappropriate) actions by saying, “they made me do it…” The wise parent then says, “No one can make you do anything. You can’t control what another person does, but you can control how you react to what someone does.”

That’s pretty good advice for a child. It’s somewhat baffling, then, that we so often hear adults says practically the same thing. Writing for, Jessica Stillman says, “When someone at work does something selfish, thoughtless, or manipulative, it’s entirely natural to feel a spike of anger.” However, she continues, “if you regularly use that same phrase — ‘You made me feel’— you might be sitting on an opportunity to significantly improve your own EQ (emotional intelligence).”

We’re not robots, of course. Relationships can be messy and complicated. The closer or more intimate that relationship is, the messier and more complicated our interactions can be. If you’re in a long-term romantic relationship, that proposition probably sounds like an understatement. But it applies to our workplace or professional colleagues as well. Stillman offers her perspective by saying, “It’s not that other people don’t influence our emotions. Of course they do. Nor is anyone arguing that other people’s behavior can’t be genuinely awful and worthy of our anger, sadness, or disappointment.”

A genuine response that you can control does involve acknowledging your own feelings. Developing the ability to recognize your emotional response is worthwhile even if it’s difficult. But you are not compelled to act in response to your emotions. Stillman cites input from professionals about the subject: “psychologists stress just how disempowering it is to believe there is no freedom of action — no conscious choice — between other people’s everyday problematic behavior and our mental and emotional response to it.”

Knowing in a theoretical way how you should respond to someone else’s maddening actions is one thing — how you actually respond can be quite different. A good practical way to control your emotions when they are seemingly overwhelming is to employ a technique — the “Wiser” course of action — inspired by an 80-year-long study called the Harvard Study of Adult Development. Wiser is an acronym:

Watch. If you have a strong feeling in response to a situation, begin by identifying it — naming it.

Interpret. Think about the situation in its entirety. Try to be objective. Are your actions part of the problem?

Select. When you’ve figured out the full scope of the situation, choose a course of action. What are you going to do to solve or at least partly alleviate the problem?

Engage. That is, it’s time to act.

Reflect. Okay, after you’ve acted, how did things turn out?

That’s pretty good advice. If you’ve like to read more about the Harvard Study of Adult Development and the Wiser method, check out The Good Life: Lessons from the World’s Longest Study of Happiness, by Robert J. Waldinger, MD and Marc Schulz, PhD.