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 2020-07-27). 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)
  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.

Some notes from Andrew: