Emotional Control

What does it mean to "control" one's emotions, and what's healthy or even possible?

This page is a stub, created on 2020-04-07 (last updated on 2021-06-03). Its contents are notes on the issues and angles I want to address about this topic.


There's a lot of equivocation on what it means to be able to control one's emotions. I want to untangle a few different senses of the phrase and offer my views on what I think is possible and healthy:

  1. force of will in the moment (impossible)
  2. taking specific actions to effect or affect emotions, like self-soothing behaviors or listening to sad music (possible, may be healthy or harmful)
    • a less affirmative variant of this might be specific avoidance of the stimulus that leads to a particular emotion, such as avoiding people if one suffers from social anxiety
  3. long-term work to recalibrate emotional reactions (possible, most likely healthy if pursued carefully)

A related matter is whether phrases like "control" and "regulation" refer to the emotion itself or the behavior that results. Sometimes, we talk about a person having great skill in "emotional regulation" when they are able to conduct themselves appropriately, despite turbulent emotions. In my view, that's a confusing way to describe the skill: That's behavioral regulation, not emotional regulation. The emotion is what it is; it's the choice in behavior that's the regulation. Mindfulness meditation teaches letting emotions be what they are, leaning into them (and sometimes "letting them go"), and not moralizing them; that seems inconsistent with the connotation that "regulation" has when we're talking about a specific instance of having an emotion (in the sense of #1 above).

However, I think that "emotional regulation" is a fine way to describe #2 and #3, but I get the sense that people don't usually mean those by the phrase.

I also realized, over a year after stubbing this out for the first time, that these different dimensions of control correspond to the different stages of emotional reaction: One perceives or imagines a stimulus (#2), one (consciously or subconsciously) identifies it and implicitly/automatically judges it against one's subconsciously integrated values (#3), and one has the automatic experience of the emotion or feeling (#1).

Another angle I'd like to explore about behavioral regulation is the conflict or tension that might arise in a person between their internal emotional state and the outward behavior they manifest. In particular, I want to do some thinking about ways in which this might be good (eg, training one's emotional mechanisms, à la CBT) versus its amounting to repression. Derivatively, I'm wondering whether this can land as inauthentic or phony with other people and then how much the intended outcome is thereby undermined.

Some notes from Andrew: