Control vs. regulate your emotions: what is the difference and why it matters

4 min read

Most people have grown up with the idea that negative or powerful emotions need to be controlled in order to have a happy, fulfilled life and to achieve your goals. You’re feeling disappointed by some colleagues or friends? Well, you should remind yourself to lower your expectations or give them up altogether and move on. 

You’re feeling sad? No need, remind yourself of all the good things in your life, count your blessings and move on. 

 

While I do believe that there is much to gain from bringing to mind the good things in your life or managing your expectations about others (btw, we have a whole topic with tools & explanations on that in Acertivo – just ask me for access), I see every day in my work with clients that we have a tendency towards “emotional perfectionism” – the expectation that negative emotions (& thoughts for that matter) need to be kept in check and that our default emotional state should be a positive one. 

 

However, emotions, especially negative ones, have a really important role: to help you react to situations, motivate you to take action & alert you about important things that happen in your life. We just cannot expect to be able to control our emotions so that they are always on the positive spectrum or that they don’t appear. 

 

What do I mean by controlling emotions? 

Controlling emotions means expecting to manage them so that the result is that I don’t have that emotion anymore. It is a fixed destination. I usually refer to this as the “C-word”.

Controlling one’s emotions in this way is neither beneficial nor possible. Our minds are created to produce emotions as a way to help us make sense of the world around us and help us navigate it.

If I feel fear, for example, then that is an indicator that my mind believes that there is something dangerous and that I must take an action to protect myself. Without fear, we would have a very hard time protecting ourselves from dangerous situations. 

Similarly, guilt is usually a very nasty feeling that most of us try to avoid or control. However, guilt is a good indicator that I did something that is outside my values system – maybe I yelled at my child one evening after a tiresome day at work, or I missed a deadline and now the team has to work extra to make up for the lost time. Control is actually the problem here. The more we want to get rid of negative emotions, the more we open ourselves up for self-criticism, blame and shame.  

Controlling emotions in the workplace has even become a prerequisite for good performance, where offices are seen as places of business and not places where emotions can be expressed. So workshops on how to control your emotions have started to become more popular, and managers expect people to just be “professional” and to resolve their emotions in their own time. It’s only business, isn’t it?

Things are not quite that simple. 

 

What do I mean by regulating emotions?

The alternative that I am proposing is thinking about “regulating” emotions. Unlike the C-Word, regulating emotions is a process. 

This won’t result in not having the emotion, but rather recognizing it, naming it & understanding it

Ultimately, what you are aiming for is using the information from that emotion to make actions in the directions that are valuable to you

For example, in the above example with yelling at your child, the effort to control guilt and not feel it anymore will bypass the effort you can make to understand why you had this behavior and what you can try the next time. Moreover, from my experience, distracting yourself from guilt might also lead to feelings of shame and isolation. 

In this example, if I just try to distract myself from the guilt – say by watching TV or rationalizing that I was right to feel angry and yell because I told my child a 1000 times to pick up their toys from the floor, I miss an important cue to get a better connection with my child or to better adapt to tiresome days at the office. 

 

Regulating in this case means:

  1. Being able to name the emotion – I felt anger.  
  2. Being able to understand it – it is late and I had a busy and draining day which took a lot of mental energy from me, so I had a lower tolerance for frustration that evening. 
  3. Regulating it – meaning that I can take a breath, take a pause and then apologize for your behavior. In this way, I make an important action towards my value to be a supportive and kind parent to my child. 

Regulating also means that you accept the fact that you are a human being and that you will have negative thoughts and emotions.

 

Any personal development action shouldn’t be focused on not having negative emotions or stopping them before they appear. That is neither possible nor useful. Rather the goal should be getting better at recognizing them, understanding them, and using them to live a purposeful life. 

 

Next time you’re struggling with negative emotion, stop trying to control it and instead walk it through it – name it, understand it, regulate it.