Let me share with you a therapy tale I told to an angry, bitter, guilty client:
Once there lived an old man who kept all different kinds of animals. But his grandson was particularly intrigued by two tigers that lived together in one cage.
The tigers had very different temperaments. One was calm and self-controlled while the other was unpredictable, aggressive, violent, vicious, and prone to despondency.
“Do they ever fight, Grandfather?” asked the young boy.
“Occasionally, yes they do”, admitted the old man.
“And which one wins?”
“Well, that depends on which one I feed the most.”
I told this to Paul while he relaxed deep within trance. He’d pitifully described how he’d always mull over “all the stuff everyone had ever done wrong” to him. And then all the ways he’d “hurt others”. Hardly a recipe for happiness.
Paul liked, really liked, this story. In a way, it marked the beginning of his own story.
A Brave New World
A week later Paul emailed me. The subject line proclaimed, “No more rolling in the muck.” What could this mean?
He told me how, after our session, he’d entered a second-hand bookstore, picked up an old book at random and read the words:
“Chronic remorse … is a most undesirable sentiment. If you have behaved badly, repent, make what amends you can and address yourself to the task of behaving better next time. On no account brood over your wrongdoing. Rolling in the muck is not the best way of getting clean.”(1)
That last line really struck and stuck. When a client is open to it, the best therapist can be life itself.
Paul told me he wanted to “get clean”, to not wallow in or succumb to his own uncontrolled feelings. He wrote that he finally felt this might be possible for him and was looking forward to more therapy. He understood now that continually ruminating and emoting did little good. It only made him feel whipped up.
It was a new idea for Paul, that he could in some ways master himself. He’d always felt he had to put up with the vagaries of his own powerful feelings, to be enslaved to their whims with no choice but to follow where they led.
But this self-control idea was now growing within him. A seed long buried under the hard, cold ground finally finding its way towards the light.
When uncontrolled emotion runs wild despair, anger, violence, jealousy and addiction can sweep us before them, dictating the course of our lives, whipping the backs of our intent, cracking apart our relationships and ripping our dreams apart at the seams.
When feelings run rampant they can destroy the person who is controlled by them (and that need not necessarily be the person who has the emotion).
But it’s surprising how many clients feel hopeless, unable to grasp the possibility of taking the reins of their own feelings. As I’ll describe in a moment, believing you can is half the battle.
First off though, what do we mean by controlling emotion?
How valid is the feeling?
Controlling emotion doesn’t have to mean suppressing emotion. If we never take account of our own feelings we can lead unfulfilled lives leaden with suppressed, unpursued dreams.
To be true to ourselves we need to think of our feelings as advisors, not as deranged, bellowing autocrats dictating our every move. But for some of us, getting to that point is an epic battle. We have to face down, outwit, and learn to dominate the ogres and giants, witches and warlocks of our own feelings.
An emotional response may or may not be valid. A child has to learn that screaming and kicking because he dropped his ice cream on the floor is not a valid way to emote. We have all (well, most of us) learned to control our instincts, or at least their effects. But it used to be assumed that we were somehow damaging ourselves if we didn’t let our feelings out.
How many times have you heard the old adage, “It’s healthier to let it out! Don’t suppress it!” Many therapists became wedded to the idea of catharsis, perhaps not understanding the way repetitive Hebbian Learning in the brain can reinforce negative feelings – the more we feel them, the more we learn to feel them, and the more likely we are to feel them.
The bias towards validating and encouraging the expression of every feeling persists even today.
I recall a psychologist explaining the error in this approach like this:
“Where has the feeling gone?”
A therapy student suggested that surely it was better to always emote, to “feel the full force of your feelings and express those feelings”, and that therapy should always encourage this in clients.
My psychologist friend replied:
“Clench your fist. Now feel all the tension and strain, even discomfort, of that clenched fist. Squeeze it tighter… and tighter…
“Now gradually unfurl that fist… and let it relax. That feels better, doesn’t it? But here’s a question.
“The tension and strain you felt a moment ago in your hand – has that been suppressed? Has it been repressed? Is it now underlying? Or is it just a potential state that has evaporated? A state of tension you can control?”(2)
Controlling emotion (when we need to) doesn’t mean not acting on the emotion (although often that is a good idea). It means actually changing the emotion, to allow us to lead a happier and more comfortable life. When you are not feeling sad, the sadness isn’t underlying: it’s gone. It sounds almost too obvious to say it, but emotion is what we feel in the moment.
I’ve often heard people say things like, “It’s healthy to express your pent-up emotions, to ‘let off steam’.” And, certainly, it can feel better sometimes. But there are problems with this old idea.
When mind metaphors are taken literally
First off, there’s no evidence that expressing emotion is always healthier. Before technology began to allow us to scan the brain directly, much of psychology was based on metaphor.
For example, it’s been noted by such writers as Frank Tallis (The History of Psychotherapy, Hidden Minds) and Robert Ornstein (The Right Mind, The Evolution of Consciousness, The Healing Brain) that psychological doctrine has often tried to align itself with current technological sophistication, perhaps partly in an attempt to appear more scientific.
So, for example, during the 19th century hydraulic technology was all the rage – and the metaphor for the mind followed suit. People talked, and still talk, of ‘running out of steam’, ‘letting off steam’ and ‘releasing pent-up emotion’. Much experimental therapy (particularly in California during the 1970s) used the hydraulic metaphor, on the belief that to truly ‘grow’ a person had to ‘let it all out’.(3)
But recent physical tests of cardiac and immune function show that releasing extreme anger is no less damaging to the main arteries than keeping it in. Ideally, we want to avoid either. It’s much better to control the anger, to diminish it.(4)(5)
The metaphor of depth has also been applied to emotion. People often refer to an emotional issue as being ‘deeply rooted’, with the implication that trying to help someone deal with their emotional response may somehow be superficial. “Ah, but are you dealing with the ‘root of the problem’?”
But if we look at human emotional suffering, often the ‘root of the problem’ is the emotion itself.(6) Certainly we practitioners should know how to help unhook the past emotional conditioning that may have led to the current emotional patterns, but sometimes the best way to do that is to help clients calm their current emotions.
When dealing with clients’ feelings we need to see directly, not be blindsided by old technological or gardening metaphors. Rough approximations can lead to dangerously rigid assumptions as to how to help people.
As always, we need to remember that all our clients have basic primal emotional needs, and we as practitioners need to be clear about that.
Helping them control their troublesome emotional responses will help them feel more in control, safer and more secure, leaving them better placed to meet their emotional needs. And it works both ways. So too, meeting their emotional needs will help them achieve better emotional self-control.
So how can we help our clients control their emotions, other than by helping them meet their vital emotional needs in life?
1. Help them realize they can captain their own ship
For Paul it was an epiphany, a warm and welcome wave of encouragement from the future.
If your client is prone to mood swings, ask them how much influence they feel they have over their moods. They may not have even thought about this before.
Mind you, they may already have been diagnosed as bipolar, as Paul had. Once diagnosed, clients may feel trapped by the diagnosis, as if they’ve been slapped with a label that can never be unpeeled.
For Paul, the diagnosis had led him to believe there was nothing he could do about his wayward emotionality. Some therapists fall prey to the mania for diagnosing people, especially as bipolar. But handing out a diagnosis, satisfying as it may feel at the time, can actually make clients feel less in control of their lives.
Questions such as these can be really useful:
- “What do you do to change your mood when you start feeling down?”
- “What ways do you have of going from angry to calm?”
If your client tells you they do have a strategy for changing their emotional state, you could work on that to build on their personal resources.
If they look blank and tell you they can’t control their feelings, you can begin to help show them that, in fact, they can. This is a great idea, and here’s why:
Evidence shows that believing you can change a negative mood makes you much more able to start doing so.(6) It’s hardly surprising, but still interesting to know that psychologists have found such a strong correlation between belief and ability when it comes to overcoming bad moods.
So describing to clients how people can and do learn to control their emotional states may be a valuable first step, especially if they have been officially branded with some psychiatric label or other.
Paul had genuinely assumed he was under the complete control of his emotions and would have to suffer his whole life. He felt therapy might change that a little, but he believed he would be reliant on therapy – and medication – for life! His epiphany that he could master his own feelings enough to give him a happier, more stable life was the first step to actually getting there.
2. Help your client look ahead (and back) in new ways
I recall an old Zen master saying, “Your anger, depression, spite, or despair, so seemingly real and important right now; where will they have gone in a month, a week, or even a moment?”
Intense negative emotions blind us to the future and con us into believing that now is all that matters. They can possess us, taking such a stranglehold that we become capable of doing terrible things to ourselves and others.
When we are angry or sad or in the thrall of addiction it’s hard to imagine reality can be any other way. In fact, when we are incredibly angry or anxious, we can momentarily forget that there is even going to be a future.
Depressed people might tell you they “don’t see a future”, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t there. Strong emotion makes us look through its – and only its – perspective, just like any biased propaganda. And propaganda, of course, always aims to raise the emotional temperature.
Depressed people find it hard to imagine not being depressed,(7) and therefore may conclude they have always been depressed, and always will be. Our job is to reconnect people to their resources so they can begin to use them for themselves.
We can help our clients build up a picture of not being depressed (if depression is the particular feeling they have been finding hard to influence and diminish) and also access resourceful non-depressed times, which can also be hard for depressed people to do(8) – unless they are taught to do it.
I taught Paul to hypnotically drift in and out of an ‘anger trance’ so that he could start to see the bigger picture even when he was in it. It began to control him less.
I also taught him to reframe memories of times he’d been angry or hurt by having him recall them in a deeply relaxed state of mind and body, and observe the bigger picture, such as non-emotional details of the memory: the context, not the feelings.
This has been shown to take the sting out of memories and help prevent automatic emotional associations from firing off (faulty pattern matching).(9)
3. Encourage your client to get to know themselves
We can all kid ourselves a little… or a lot. “No, I’m really pleased for you! I really am!” Arghhhhhhhh!
Only when we can honestly see and know our emotional fluctuations can we begin to influence them. So we can ask our clients to observe their own attitudes and emotional ebbs and flows. One key first step to emotional control is to know when we are actually being emotional, and also why: the triggers.
Controlling emotions isn’t about pretending they aren’t there. If your client catches themselves feeling unexpectedly strongly about something, they can ask themselves why and report back to you.
Whether your client feels jealous, angry, sad, bitter, or ashamed, they can label that feeling with no judgement: “Okay, I don’t like that I’m feeling this way, but I’m feeling very envious!” They can note down their feelings, and also the context around those feelings.
This gives you and them great material to work with. It also helps them get to know themselves better and increase self-objectivity by using the Observing Self.
The next step is to identify why they feel the way you do: “I hate to admit it, but I’m feeling envious of Bob because he’s just been complimented for his work and I haven’t!” Being able to exercise this self-honesty means your clients won’t have to resort to what a large proportion of the human race do. They won’t have to rationalize.
We rationalize by kidding ourselves, for example, that we are angry with someone not because they got a raise at work and we didn’t, but because of their attitude towards us, or some other made-up reason. Or we rationalize by denying we are even angry (or whatever the feeling is). This kind of rationalization is a recipe for discontent.
On the other hand, knowing what emotion you are feeling and being man or woman enough to identify the truth as to why you are feeling it brings you that much closer to doing something about it.
I will often ask my clients to do one week of this self-observation, using it only when they become aware of what seems to be an emotional overreaction within themselves. Our clients don’t need to be constantly navel gazing or to lose perspective on other aspects of life, but they do need to be able to observe their own emotional responses when it matters.
In a sense, any therapist and many coaches will be useful only insofar as they can help clients manage and control their emotions and help them build and to connect to their resources.
These are just three broad ways to help us help our clients control and manage their emotions. To recap:
- Let them know it’s possible to change their moods and influence their own feelings, because believing you can change your mood makes it more likely you will.
- Help your client learn to step outside of the emotional trance at will and instantly realize the consequences of anger, rise outside of the depression, transcend the emotion through hypnotic techniques, or whatever the case may be. Remember, emotion is hypnotic because it narrows focus and often involves the imagination.
- Reframe past difficult memories and encourage your client to observe their own reactions so they get to know and see how their emotionality works. This is the first step to mastering, or at least gaining more control over, their troublesome feelings.
Paul told me both his tigers were now much tamer, but he could still be intense and spontaneous in a good way. He’s never forgotten that story, and he and his wife will be forever grateful for it.
As I said to Paul: “You are the keeper of your emotions, not the slave.”
For some clients with particularly traumatic past emotional conditioning, the Rewind Technique can be helpful. Read more about our online Rewind Technique course here and sign up to be notified when it’s next open for booking.
- From the introduction to Brave New World by Aldous Huxley.
- The psychologist was Joseph Griffin, and he was responding to a woman in a workshop who had suggested that it was unhealthy to ever try to deny an emotional response. He went on to say that clenching your fist whilst pretending to yourself you were not clenching it would not be particularly healthy.
- When electricity was the technology du jour, people talked of ‘recharging your batteries’ and ‘being run down’. Psychiatrists at the Tavistock clinic in London routinely electrocuted British survivors of the World War I trench warfare in an attempt to restore their energy levels, and ECT electric shock treatment gained popularity. Ironically, electrical psychiatry killed some survivors of the Somme! Nowadays we might talk in computational terms, suggesting that people need to ‘process’ an issue or that they have ‘crashed’.
Read more therapy techniques »