How Controlling Your Thinking Will Help You Master Your Emotions (and Your Life)

Emotions and feelings are instinctive. Here's how to get them under control.

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There’s no denying it: Emotions are powerful.

Think about it. When you’re happy, you’re confident. You’re ready to take on the world; nothing can get in your way.

In contrast, sadness or fear can have the opposite effect. 

And how about other emotions, like jealousy? Pride? Love? Each of these feelings motivates us in different ways, and that can be good.

But sometimes, we allow emotion to “get the best of us.”

Take anger, for example. There’s nothing wrong with getting angry–anger is a useful emotion and can help us stand up for ourselves, or even others. But when anger causes us to lose control and act irrationally, we get into trouble. (Usually, we see a situation much differently when we’ve had time to calm down and think things through.)

The same goes for joy or exuberance–we might eagerly agree to something because we get caught up in the moment. Later, we ask ourselves: Did I really say I would do that?

Emotional intelligence, also known as EI or EQ (for emotional intelligence quotient), describes a person’s ability to recognize emotions, to understand their powerful effect, and to use that information to guide thinking and behavior. Since EI helps you better understand yourself–and others–a high EQ increases your chances for successfully achieving goals.

But here’s the question: Can you really learn to control your emotions?

The answer is yes, kind of. Let me explain.

Keeping Emotions Under Control

First, consider the definition of emotion. According to Oxford, emotion is “a natural instinctive state of mind deriving from one’s circumstances, mood, or relationships with others.”

So emotions involve your natural, instinctive response to a situation. When you discover news, there’s not much you can do to control your initial emotions and feelings in response to that news.

But you can control what happens next. How?

By focusing on your thinking.

For example, let’s say that one of your colleagues–who happens to be a friend of yours–gets a promotion. Your natural response may be jealousy–that’s a powerful emotion, and it can be difficult to control. In most cases, you can’t really “prevent” yourself from that initial feeling of being jealous.

But now you have a choice to make.

You could keep dwelling on those negative feelings, thinking about how unfair the situation is and how no one ever appreciates what you do. This could lead you to start slacking off at work, because of a lack of motivation. Even worse, you might say or do something that hurts the relationship with your friend.

In contrast, you could also use that jealousy to inspire more productive thoughts.

For example, try to understand why you’re jealous. Did you really deserve the promotion more than your friend? Why? If you still feel strongly after taking some time to think it through, you could speak to your manager or team lead, to get his or her perspective. This may help you reevaluate your position at the company and better understand your future prospects.

On the other hand, introspective thinking might reveal another reason for your jealousy. Let’s say you realize that you get jealous often, toward many, and in various circumstances. This would be an important revelation–here is a character trait you weren’t aware of previously.

The point is not to dwell on the negative–that will only make you feel worse. Instead, turn it into a positive: Dig deep to learn more about yourself, and develop a plan to improve.

Either way, the key is to be proactive, not reactive. It’s far too easy to give into our emotions and do something we’ll later regret. Keeping our emotions under control refers to controlling our actions, as a response to our emotions.

And those actions begin with thoughts. 

(If you’re interested in learning more about developing EQ and its practical uses, subscribe to updates for my upcoming book: The Practical Guide to Emotional Intelligence.)

Putting It Into Practice

It’s been said: “You can’t stop a bird from landing on your head. But you can keep it from building a nest.”

Emotions–even those we initially interpret as “negative”–are part of what makes us human. Embrace them; learn from them.

Then, take a step back and focus on controlling your thoughts.

Doing so will help keep your emotions under control, too.

Enjoy this post? Check out my book, EQ Applied, which uses fascinating research and compelling stories to illustrate what emotional intelligence looks like in everyday life.

A version of this article originally appeared on Inc.com.

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