Managing Emotions: How To Turn Your Emotions Into Power27 min read

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Have you ever seen someone panic at the sight of a mouse or cockroach? Maybe that’s you. There’s no shame in that. I remember wanting to shut my windows after watching World War Z despite knowing zombies aren’t even real. We all have feelings – we all have emotions. That’s what makes us human.

And, even though we like to boast that we are the most intelligent creatures on Earth, the truth is that our emotions propel our actions; we simply use our intelligence to solve problems on the go. A good example is how we use intelligence to invent condoms because we know that simply understanding sex can lead to STDs and unplanned babies isn’t enough to quench our horniness.

Emotions are astonishingly powerful things. Emotions have been the cause of so many good and terrible things in the world. They drive us to make love and give birth. They also motivate us to create bombs and fight wars. They are the reason people stick to toxic jobs and relationships. They are also the reason people go on to live their passion and find happiness.

That is why in this piece, we will explore how emotions work and how to channel and align them with what is helpful and meaningful to you in the long run so that you can live a happier and more fulfilling life.

What Are Emotions?

Emotions, adapted from the French word “Émouvoir” (meaning “To stir up”), are complex reaction patterns involving both mental and physical components of your being. They refer to the different psychological states and bodily responses your mind and body exhibit in reaction to your thoughts (memories, expectations, beliefs, etc.), and physical sensations/states (heart rate, temperature, hunger, chemical balance, etc.). You may consciously experience these emotional states, such as happiness, sadness, anger, or fear, or they may unfurl subconsciously, causing you to behave in ways correlating to the degree of pleasure or discomfort you experience.

When emotions are strong, they can hijack your mind (your neural pathways) causing you to lose control. The amygdala, the brain’s alarm centre, can trigger (re)actions before the neocortex, the rational part of your brain, can catch up. This “neural hijacking” is often what causes outbursts (of anger, fear, shame, etc.) that so often lead to regret.

There is still a lot of debate about what is or isn’t emotions, and even the yardstick of measurement is also in contention. However, at their core, emotions act like a Steersman on a ship who has no map or destination in mind but nonetheless can steer the ship.

Emotions don’t always make sense, and don’t have to. For instance, we’re often emotionally compelled to reciprocate kind gestures and favours. Some people still feel compelled even if the favour comes from the person who initially put them in that needy position. (This is well documented as the Stockholm Syndrome).

But, it gets scarier. We can also “feel good” about things we intellectually know are horrible. For instance, a rape victim could feel good (experience multiple orgasms) even if they do not want the act to continue; then after that, make their rapist breakfast, even if they still don’t like what happened.

Crazy? No. Just easy to misunderstand. Do you still remember when you laughed at a disrespectful joke, or couldn’t stop yourself from giggling despite NOT wanting it to continue? Yeah. That’s what emotions are like.

Emotions also don’t exist in isolation. They often layer upon each other and have fluid boundaries, combining, morphing and evolving from one nature to the other. That is why, sometimes, you really may not know how you are feeling. For example, if you were tickled without your consent, your laughter may transform into anger, and for the rape victim, that ecstasy might just turn to shame or rage.

This means you must be careful about emotions as they are not a good metric for judging right or wrong, and can flood and hijack behaviours.

However, this doesn’t mean emotions are altogether useless or bad.

The Function of Your Emotions?

Despite being often independent of logic, emotions are not mistakes or unnecessary features of naked apes. Whether pleasant or unpleasant, your emotions help you navigate this hostile and unpredictable world in ways your logical minds cannot. Some functions of your emotions include: 

  • To motivate and compel you to pursue things and activities that are exciting or rewarding. Like your craving for ice cream or sex.
  • To trigger physiological responses that prime your body for immediate action. Like the release of adrenaline and tensed muscles.
  • To enable social bonding by allowing you to convey your internal states, interpret the intentions of others, and understand others on a deeper level. Like crying, laughing, or looking moody.
  • To provide an additional intuitive compass for judgments and decision-making. Like the gut feelings you experience, but can’t explain.
  • To help you memorise and remember more vividly, things that are important so you can appreciate, protect, locate, or avoid them better. Like when you experienced “shock” or “trauma”.
  • To help you experience a sense of purpose and connection to something beyond yourself. Like the feelings of awe, gratitude, and love.

Emotions and the (re)actions they elicit are often immediate, strong, and bypass rational thinking.

Take for instance: Imagine being ambushed by a tiger, and watching it drag your friend into the dark jungle. Fear may grip you during the incident, but after fleeing to safety, you may become sad. This sadness could morph into anger over time, and depending on what follows, it could potentially spiral into shame, regret, or even depression. 

Each emotion served a purpose for survival. Fear triggers adrenaline release, boosting energy, alertness, and focus to fight or flee. As you escape the threat, sadness helps conserve energy to process the trauma and loss, with crying releasing tension to promote healing and bring others to understand how important that loss was to you. Anger then motivates action against the beast, priming your body with increased heart rate and a surge of energy for hunting. Shame and regret, though uncomfortable, can further imprint the memory so you never forget your mistakes. If overwhelmed, depression could force withdrawal to conserve energy, and gratitude can help you seek a new perspective to cope and move forward without your friend. 

Of course, emotions don’t always follow this linear path, and there really is no single right response to events. We all have different backgrounds, personalities, and experiences that shape how we respond emotionally. Some people may find themselves amused or even laughing in the midst of horrible circumstances. It doesn’t mean they are evil or lack empathy. For instance, I often catch myself laughing in tense situations. Sometimes, when threatened or endangered, I become frozen or aloof instead of panicking or concentrating. Our emotional responses can be unpredictable and may not always align with societal expectations or norms.

However, without strong emotions like fear, anger, or love humans may have stayed stuck in the wild. Emotiois like these motivated us to flee predators and band together for revenge, hunt threats and defend our settlements. Emotions fueled our ability to hold grudges, forge complex social bonds, and make long-term plans that allowed us to endure and spread, rather than just seeking the next feeding ground when faced with danger.

Nevertheless, our emotions are not without their drawbacks (especially in this modern, and far safer world we find ourselves). So, it is worth putting in the extra effort to understand your emotions, so you can better leverage them, rather than allow them to ruin your life.

“One ought to hold on to one’s heart; for if one lets it go, one soon loses control of the head too.”

– Friedrich Nietzsche 

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Understanding Your Emotions: Why You Go Against Your Better Judgement

It’s easy to lose control while consumed by emotions (this is known as being emotionally hijacked). This is because emotions don’t always need our conscious awareness to steer our bodies. For example, in a fit of rage, you could stab someone or smash something expensive, only to later regret it. 

(Interestingly, the Latin root of the word “Emotions” is “Emovere” which means “To stir” – hence, emotions literally stir us up.)

If you were a ship moving full steam ahead, your instincts or basal urges would be the Lookout who stands high up and uses binoculars to see what lies ahead, ready to sound the alarm (say there’s a car hurtling towards you or a piece of cake on a plate in front of you). Your emotions are like the Steersman who stirs the helm after hearing the alarm (This is typically when you start feeling fear or lust because of the car or cake).

Emotions draw from your years of conditioning (your upbringing, culture, religion, and so on) as well as embodied habits and ideas to decide what is best. For example, based on years of experience, they know that if you get hit by a car, you’ll die, so fear is the correct state of mind and body that will steer you away from that. A more abstract yet relatable example is that of taboo. For instance, because of what you know (i.e. your thoughts) about how inappropriate it is to have sex with your parents or siblings, your emotions won’t steer you in the direction of feeling lust towards them, even if you see their nakedness (at least, this is true for most people/cultures). Intellectually knowing something is right or wrong is not enough, as your emotions may still fail to register it and compel you to act against your better judgement.

Emotions greatly influence morals and self-control. And, those emotions are shaped by thoughts and ideas generated by the environment (culture, religion, family, friends, media, books, etc.). The environment shapes emotions, which in turn influence how people act. These actions then go on to modify the environment, creating a feedback loop – where positive emotions and actions lead to a more positive environment, while negative emotions and actions worsen the environment. Read this paragraph again, slowly.

Why Trying To Control Your Emotions Can Backfire.

Continuing with our ship allegory: the Steersman can drive the ship without much instruction from the Captain, but it is still up to the Captain to command the crew to stop or head straight into the eye of the storm if need be. 

In other words, if you find yourself often going against your better judgement – whether it be procrastinating, wasting time on social media, doing drugs, sleeping with hookers, or spending extravagantly – it reflects an inner emotional disconnect. Your emotions (the Steersman) aren’t listening to your rational mind (the Captain).

For many people who wish to turn their lives around, this results in internal conflict. They end up doing things they do not want to do and may resort to beating themselves up, calling themselves stupid, lazy, weak, and all sorts of things. Some even go as far as to think of themselves as demon-possessed. This leaves them feeling bad about wanting to be good. This is also why people don’t like unsolicited advice – it triggers an internal conflict in them and makes them feel bad.

Trying to directly control or overpower your emotions is like arm wrestling yourself. No matter what arm wins, you lose:

  • Firstly, when you fight against or resist an emotion through sheer willpower, it creates an inner tug-of-war (ego-dystonic). If you “win” this arm-wrestling match by suppressing the feeling, you may succeed momentarily but at the cost of disconnecting/dissociating from and invalidating your emotional experience. For example, when you ignore or numb the pain of a heartbreak, those unprocessed, ignored, or repressed emotions will likely transform and resurface as depression, anger, or turmoil.
  • Secondly, when you artificially swing the pendulum of your emotional state in a desired direction, it naturally swings right back to the opposite state. For example, highs from alcohol or drugs can provide a sense of euphoria, however, the hangover (not to mention silly things you will do that may be captured on video and seen by loved ones) will only worsen the sadness and emptiness.
  • Thirdly, sometimes, emotions can be stuck in double-binds. For instance, if you grew up in a religious home, you could feel bad about lying to your parents that you are a virgin, and also feel ashamed to say the truth that you’re not when they ask.

You might ask, “So David, if I shouldn’t follow my emotions blindly, and trying to control them often backfires, what should I do?”

I’m glad you asked. 

First, let me ask you this: Have you ever noticed that many students pull all-nighters all through their exam period with no qualms? Why is that? 

I’ll tell you; it is because they feel like it (or, at least, fear/feel worse about the prospect of failing).

That, my dear reader, lies the secret…

How Can You Control Your Emotions?

Every salesperson knows that they must align their offer with your emotions if they want to make sales. They don’t try to appeal to your judgement (because they know that you know you do not need yet another pair of shoes). So, good salesmen won’t try to impose their product on you (because then you’d resist). Rather, they align their offer with your desire for admiration and validation.

Asking, “How can I control my emotions?” is the wrong question, and any answer to it may only lead to short-term results with a lot of struggle and pain during the entire process. The right question is, “How do I align my emotions with my values, goals, and objectives?”, or, put simply, “How do I make myself feel like doing the things I need to do?”. In other words, the secret to controlling yourself is aligning your rational thoughts with your irrational emotions.

That is how you go from battling internal conflicts and hating your life, to really enjoying the process of achieving whatever you’ve set your heart to!

So, how do you go about this?

How Do You Align Your Emotions With Your Goals?

Many people don’t achieve their goals because their emotions are not in alignment. Whether it be Ronaldo, Beyonce, or Elon, one thing is clear – they are not just struggling to win. They simply really love what they are doing – they feel good about it. And, that is why they do it longer, and more intensely than their contemporaries!

Once your emotions align with your goals, even the things others consider hard or unappealing become meaningful and even thrilling to you. 

Consider Tchitsou Zoukon Yanick Tierri (@mighty_majester), a Cameroonian truck mechanic and bodybuilder who bodybuilds while working in his garage. This man made waves on the internet because, unlike other bodybuilders, he doesn’t just enjoy working out, but loves doing it in a mechanic workshop.

When asked about this, he said, “I love my job and I love working out, too. My gym is my work, yes, right here in the garage I train with all of the equipment I use and truck parts I have. No fancy gym as all you guys use. This is a true passion for me. I’ve been training for more than 6 years and have no plans of going back. I believe my hard work and labour will pay off one day. I’m really proud of the process and achievements I have made for myself and I believe better days are ahead.”

Now, I don’t know what your goals are, but I can bet falling in love with them is easier than falling in love with bodybuilding in a mechanic workshop. 

Here are some steps you can take to align your emotions with your goals.

Get Clear About Your Values and Goals

Socrates famously said, “The unexamined life is not worth living”. Before you can align your emotions with your goals, you must first gain clarity about what your core values and aspirations truly are. This is foundational because your emotions will easily pull you here and there if you don’t already have something greater you’re pulled towards.

One powerful exercise to help you gain this clarity is actually taking the time to conduct a comprehensive Life Audit. Essentially, you want to review your life across all major areas – career, relationships, health, finances, spiritual life, etc. – and assess with radical honesty how fulfilled you feel in each domain and what changes you’d like to make moving forward. I found Mark Manson’s Life Audit Guide very useful.

Actually, before going for the Life Audit, I recommend you first get clear on your values. I recommend using Value Cards to figure out your most important values. Value cards are just decks of cards with words representing different values. The exercise involves sorting these cards/values in order of importance. By the end of the exercise, you will most likely be left with only the values that are non-negotiable to you. I found Think2Perform’s Value Cards quite useful.

Other exercises you can try (to gain clarity on what to focus on) include trying to vividly imagine your funeral, or 80th birthday party and envision what you’d want loved ones to say about the life you lived. Or the “miracle question” exercise, where you ask yourself, “If a miracle happened and my life became perfect in every way, what would that look like?” These exercises/questions force you to actually step out of your head and more objectively view your life, where you’re headed, and where/what you want to be.

It can also be very helpful to visit a therapist or hire a Coach. An outside perspective from someone trained can provide accountability and objective insight, and help you overcome blind spots or defense mechanisms interfering with your clarity.

Without this reflective work, you risk being tossed by the emotions each moment illicit.

Cultivate Mindful Emotional Awareness

Carl Jung is famous for saying, “Until you make the unconscious conscious, it will direct your life and you will call it fate.”. You need to learn how to observe your emotional experiences without attachment, without judging or resisting them. Simply notice emotions as transient states or experiences.

Consider this excerpt from a talk given by Krishnamurti at New Delhi in 1959: “When you see that you are lazy and force yourself not to be lazy, that very forcing breeds contradiction and further confusion. The fact is that you are lazy. Look at that fact, go into it, uncover all the factors that are making you lazy. Don’t try to change the fact, but watch laziness in operation, be aware of it from moment to moment. Then you don’t have to discipline yourself. The mind is alert every minute to see when it is lazy, and such a mind is not a confused mind.”

Cultivating awareness breeds clarity. And, this clarity helps you start grappling with the reigns of your emotions.

When you feel an emotion arise, slow down and consciously label it. Example: “This is anger I’m feeling right now.”, “Oh! I am becoming scared”, or “I feel a bit embarrassed”.

Bring curiosity to the emotion – where do you feel it in your body? How intense is it on a scale of 1-10?

Learn To Pause When You Feel Triggered or Overwhelmed

Sometimes the flame of emotions becomes so large that they threaten to consume you (emotional hijacking). In those states, you may need to stop yourself from acting altogether. In the midst of strong emotions – be it from threats, loss, or uncertainty – your ability to pause before reacting enables you to respond in a manner aligned with your goals and values, rather than being hijacked by emotions.

Perhaps, someone had just called your Mom “a slut”, and you feel this urge to bitch-slap them. The question is, is that course of action in alignment with your values as a “non-violent” person? Or would it just be you giving them yet another reason to hurt you more (perhaps, suing you for attacking them)?

Hence, learning to pause and evaluate your actions with your rational mind is a very important skill to master. To pause effectively, you must:

  • Recognise what each physical response might mean – this could be a clenched jaw, rapid breathing, engorged genitalia, weakened knees, sweating, etc. Understanding and identifying these physical responses helps you bring your emotions to conscious awareness.
  • Identify your personal emotional triggers and cues. Perhaps the sight of cigars brings the urge to smoke or Instagram models trigger your urge to masturbate. Understanding your triggers allows you to strategise. For instance, if you find that you spend too much time on social media, consider removing the cue by turning off the mobile data/disconnecting the wifi, activating DND or Focus mood, or simply deleting the App (so you stop getting notifications). 
  • Take note of what usually follows when your emotions have started running amok. Is it arguing, blaming, yelling, etc? Recognising knee-jerk reactions helps you catch them before they get completely out of hand.

Pausing when overwhelmed with powerful emotions prevents you from reacting in ways that undermine your core values and compromise your goals. This is why intelligent minds like Elon Musk and Steve Jobs embrace the rule of awkward silence

When you notice yourself being emotionally triggered, you can break the pattern by taking a few deep breaths and reflecting on your values and goals before responding.

Psychologist and Holocaust survivor Viktor E. Frankl wrote, “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”

Sometimes, you can even remove yourself (or the thing) from the situation to regain composure. For instance, I often hide the bottle of peanuts inside a drawer because if I don’t then I’m just gonna end the bottle.

Separate Your Emotions from Meanings/Thoughts/Stories

Our emotions often come packaged with intense thoughts and stories that we often mistake as objective facts. The sweaty palms and racing heart you feel at the thought of talking to your crush don’t actually mean you’re in real danger or that you’ll be rejected. Those are just bodily sensations, emotional signals void of inherent meaning. Similarly, the powerful urge to make out with your crush the first time they visited you doesn’t necessarily mean it’s the right thing to do at that moment.

  1. When gripped by an intense emotion, try to identify the specific thoughts driving that emotion. Be clear and as detailed as possible.
  2. For each thought, practice “cognitive defusion” – label it as a mental experience rather than a fact. 
  3. Then ask yourself if there is objective evidence for and against each thought.

For example, if you feel anxiety – perhaps you’re sweating, your heart is racing, and you feel your muscles tensed – rather than buying the story, “They won’t like me” or “I’ll say something stupid.” practise cognitive defusion, by labelling those thoughts as “I’m having the thought that they won’t like me” or “I’m having the thought that I’ll say something stupid.”

Your brain may still ask, but, are those thoughts true? In that case, what you need to do is look for objective evidence for and against those thoughts. For the thought “They won’t like me”, the evidence against it could be that most people don’t dislike others for no reason. For the thought “I’ll say something stupid”, the evidence against it could be that you’re generally an articulate person, you’ve had pleasant conversations with people before, and even if you misspeak, most people will overlook it.

This exercise will help appreciate your emotions for preparing you to act while reminding you that it is left for you to channel that state of mind and body how you deem fit.

Learn to Reframe and Negotiate With Your Emotions

As much as possible, always ask yourself: “Does my emotional reaction align with my core values and goals in this situation?”

If not, use your rational mind to propose and negotiate an alternative perspective or course of action aligned with your values

This will be difficult initially, but with practice, your emotions will increasingly integrate with your values and goals. This is called “Emotional regulation” – the process of preventing your emotions from disrupting or derailing your life.

For example, if you’re feeling depressed because you’re broke and are contemplating suicide, that emotional reaction does not align with your core value of wanting to live and be healthy. Reframe it by saying “I’m having thoughts that I am useless because I’m broke right now. But the facts are that I’m temporarily low on funds, I have skills, and money is not the only thing I have to offer to my loved ones. Hence, my life is still very valuable.”

Then negotiate with yourself an alternative perspective like “Even though I still feel sad and unenthused, killing myself is not the answer and goes against my core desire to live. A better course of action is to make a plan to earn more money through a job, side gig, etc. Or to ask for support or a loan from loved ones during this hard time.”.

Of course, this negotiation is not always easy or short. But it is perhaps the most important negotiation you want to master.

Leverage Your Support System

Often when overwhelmed or “flooded” by intense emotions like anger, shame or embarrassment, we become blinded to rational perspectives. This is when leveraging your friend support system can be invaluable for emotional regulation.  

Friends can offer an outside voice of reason to help decouple the intense emotion from the thoughts and stories driving it. Their more objective and compassionate position allows them to reframe the situation through a more constructive lens aligned with the core values you share.

For example, if you’re feeling crippling shame after being booed off stage for singing poorly, thinking thoughts like “I’m a failure and completely untalented,” a friend can play the role of your rational mind. They can defuse the thought by saying something like, “Yes, the crowd didn’t like your music, but that doesn’t erase all the times you’ve sung well and brought people joy with your voice.”

Of course, apply discernment, as friends can sometimes reinforce unhealthy perspectives, or absorb so much of your feelings that they too get blinded by emotions. Nevertheless, good friends will compassionately reality-check you, defuse catastrophic self-judgments, and guide you back to your wiser, self-accepting mind.

Practice Patience and Compromise

Leo Tolstoy famously said, “The two most powerful warriors are patience and time.” While it may be difficult to move from one emotional state to another, given time, things will change. This is true for both specific emotions (like anger or fear) and emotional patterns (like chronic depression or trauma).

You can teach yourself to feel differently about various things if you give yourself time. For instance, as an entrepreneur, cold-calling and cold-emailing prospects can feel scary and off-putting at first. You might think, “I hate bothering people,” and feel aversion. But with time, you can decouple that feeling from the thought and reframe it. You can remind yourself, “That aversion is just an emotional signal, not an objective fact. The reality is that I provide value, and following up allows me to help people transform their lives while earning income in line with my values.”

This process may not always be easy or straightforward. You might need to compassionately negotiate with yourself for minutes, hours, days, weeks, or even months depending on the intensity of your feelings. Don’t expect to immediately start feeling differently about someone you just broke up with (the attraction may still be there), about talking to people or making friends (the anxiety doesn’t just disappear), or about letting go of religion (the fear of damnation may persist).

But, given time, you will start to feel differently. Patience is a virtue.

Conclusion: Emotional Intelligence, Turns Your Emotions Into Power

You are not your emotions. Your emotions don’t often reflect your better judgement, and they can sometimes be out of your control. While you may be tempted to become stoic, it is still important to check in with your emotions.

Elizabeth Gilbert once said, “Your emotions are the slaves to your thoughts, and you are the slave to your emotions.” What most people try to do is control their emotions rather than work on the thoughts and environments that trigger these emotions.

Don’t turn off or shut down your emotions. They are an immense source of power that, when harnessed properly, can become a driving force propelling you beyond what you thought possible. While some emotions were better adapted for the more hostile world our ancestors came from and may need to be managed differently in modern society, this doesn’t mean they are bad.

Our emotions always remind us of what’s in our heads and what we are feeling. They keep us in touch with who we are on the inside. Hence, you may need to change the things that are entering your mind (be it from media, literature, culture, religion, etc.)

Above all, it is important to accept that your emotions, like your intellect, can be imperfect and flawed. Your emotions require education, which is why developing your emotional intelligence is essential. Without emotional intelligence, you become an emotional idiot.

Your emotions may just be the missing part of you that must be aligned to awaken and unleash the giant within.

Book Recommendations

Interested in knowing more about your emotions and how to manage them? Here are some books I recommend you check out

  • Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ, by Daniel Goleman
  • Thinking, Fast and Slow, by Daniel Kahneman
  • Everything is F*cked: A Book About Hope, by Mark Manson
  • The Laws of Human Nature, by Robert Green

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I enjoy writing long-form SEO content for self-help and personal development blogs. I can also do simple graphics design and copywriting. I’m an author, coach, logician, introvert, and storyteller. I love simplicity.

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