“Men are disturbed not by things, but by the views which they take of things.” 

– Epictetus

For some people, emotional self-regulation or even self-mastery will sound like fiction. The idea that we cannot control our emotions has become quite fashionable in popular culture. Music tells us you can’t help how you feel. Pop psychology and self-help tell us that attempting to control your emotions is the same as running from them. Many popular self-help authors have claimed that emotions cannot be controlled, they can only be reacted to.

The argument typically goes that emotions are meant to teach us something. Yes, every ice cream-binging self-pity session you had is trying to guide you someplace very special in your life. Why some people need to be “taught” so much more than others is beyond me. Apparently, trying not to feel a certain emotion you were meant to feel is like running away from destiny and blinding yourself to all of the valuable lessons in store for you. And if you would prefer to learn your lessons in life without the accompanying anxiety, anger, and despair, well you must be a coward.

The arguments are all very mature and reasonable. There is just one problem with them. They’re dead wrong. The fact that you can control your emotions is well-established psychological fact. You don’t just learn how to deal with, channel, or react to your emotions. You change, modulate, and control them. If you had failed to learn how to control your emotions at all from childhood to adulthood, you would most certainly have a severe developmental disorder. 

There are a few things we can grant to those who oppose this view. First, it is true that our natural emotions can sometimes, even often serve our goals. Trying to socialize and form relationships, for example, without the help of your emotions would be utterly impossible. But because our emotions were developed to benefit our genes, not us, in the world of our ancestors, not the world we live in, there is no guarantee they are always best for us. They often lead us in the opposite direction of our highest goals, cause us to act in ways we later regret, and force us to suffer when there is absolutely no benefit to doing so. That is why we not only can learn to control our emotions, if we want to live a great life, we must.

“The problem with the emotions is not that they are untamed forces or vestiges of our animal past; it is that they were designed to propagate copies of the genes that built them rather than to promote happiness, wisdom, or moral values.” 

– Steven Pinker

Critics would also be correct in stating that suppression, the brute force “willing away” of emotion, is ineffective and often backfires. I also would not recommend denying your bad feelings or attempting to hide them from others at all times. But these are far from the only methods to this expansive art. Some people are better at it than others. But there are many ways it can be done that are highly beneficial for the person doing it. For those who disagree, the science of emotional self-regulation would like a word.

Emotion Regulation

“Emotion Regulation refers to shaping which emotions one has, when one has them, and how one experiences or expresses these emotions.” 

– Dr. James Gross

According to Dr. James Gross, one of the leading researchers in emotion regulation, there are five ways that people effectively control their feelings. The first three are quite obvious: we can choose the situations we enter (situation selection), change those situations once we are in them (situation modification), or choose to pay attention to the things which make us feel the way we want to feel (attentional deployment). The fifth one is pretty straightforward as well: We can try to change our emotional response by listening to some music, getting drunk, or just getting some much needed sleep (response modulation). The forth method, and the one we are most interested in here, is called cognitive change. In other words, we can make changes in our minds, perfectly healthy changes I might add, which allow us to determine our emotional experience from within.

Practicing this art will allow you to cease to be upset by minor setbacks. Mastering it will put your emotional experience completely in your hands. If you take it on, you should expect to start hearing about how composed you remain in difficult situations. But this interpretation doesn’t quite do justice to the psychitectural habits you will develop. You will learn how to rewire your emotions in real time, and the speed at which you can neutralize or reverse negative emotions will increase. This is not some esoteric, dark art that takes a lifetime to learn, nor is there anything fundamentally mystical or spiritual about it. You can learn how to make the changes in your mind which will allow you to take control of your emotions and feel the way you would like to feel more and more of the time.

Cognitive Mediation

“I saw that all the things I feared, and which feared me had nothing good or bad in them save insofar as the mind was affected by them” 

– Spinoza

Let us look at the emotional algorithm. We may be tempted to present it as a simple “if x then y” like, “If I get cut off in traffic, then experience anger.” 

Given this representation, the default approach to dealing with emotions makes perfect sense. How else could we possibly control our emotional state besides trying to change our external circumstances? As you study the inner workings of your mind, and the wisdom of some of the greatest psychitectural thinkers, I think you will find that the actual structure of the emotional algorithm is not so simple.

As mentioned above, our attention plays a major role in our emotional responses. There are many cases in which the best route to getting rid of a negative emotion is to simply stop thinking about an issue and divert our attention to another activity. Engaging in a hobby or talking to a friend can be quick ways to short-circuit a rumination spiral before it takes control of your mood. 

One of the most highly touted benefits of mindfulness is its ability to pull a person out of undesirable emotions. A person who has cultivated a high degree of mindfulness can focus deeply on the sensations that constitute emotional experiences, taking away much of their impact. But though useful, mindfulness is arguably not the most thorough solution to unwanted emotions. When you circumvent an emotion through mindfulness, the original emotional algorithm remains unchanged, and similar situations will continue to trigger it. In order to understand how to change these algorithms for good, we have to go deeper.

It has been proposed that emotions exist to act as feedback mechanisms, letting us know that we need to change the way we prioritize our goals and allocate our resources in order to maximize genetic success. Emotions arise from a discrepancy between a desired goal and our perceptions of our current status in relation to it. We suffer when we perceive reality to move away from our desired reality, and we experience positive emotion when reality nears our desired reality. An understanding of this model will illuminate two major leverage points for controlling our emotions: Changing our perceptions and changing our desires. This article’s primary focus is on changing our perceptions.

The emotional algorithm can actually be illustrated by building onto the cognitive algorithm. Yes, an initial event like getting cut off in traffic often acts as a trigger for an algorithm. But a number of factors come into play before we actually react emotionally.

The ancient Greek philosophy of Stoicism was founded by Zeno of Citium in the 3rd-century BCE, and its ideas were further developed by later philosophers including the Greek slave Epictetus, Seneca the Younger, and Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius. Stoicism advocated for seeking satisfaction in life, not through the satisfaction of one’s appetites, but through their relinquishment. Unlike the Epicureans, the Stoics rejected pleasure altogether, and thought that emotions and desires were pathological. The school of thought placed strong emphasis on the sharp distinction between circumstances which are in the control of the individual and those which were beyond it. 

“Of all existing things some are in our power, and others are not in our power. In our power are thought, impulse, will to get and will to avoid, and, in a word, everything which is our own doing. Things not in our power include the body, property, reputation, office, and in a word, everything which is not our own doing. Things in our power are by nature free, unhindered, untrammeled; things not in our power are weak, servile, subject to hindrance, dependent on others.” 

– Epictetus

A good Stoic should refrain from any qualitative judgment of an event or circumstance and view it with total objectivity. Everything from good fortune, to insult, to our closest relationships should all be viewed with indifference. Though seemingly harsh, there are some aspects of the Stoic philosophy which have proven to be powerful antidotes to suffering, and which have even influenced modern therapy. The Stoics were some of the first to point out that our environmental stimuli seem not to have direct control over our emotional experience, and that our perception must be complicit in any emotional reaction. Epictetus said, 

“Remember, it is not enough to be hit or insulted to be harmed, you must believe that you are being harmed. If someone succeeds in provoking you, realize that your mind is complicit in the provocation.” 

– Epictetus

This perspective was reexamined in the late 20th-century and has come to represent a core principle of our current psychological understanding. The idea that our cognitions mediate our emotions is critical for explaining the variation of emotional responses we observe among individuals. This cognitive model is the foundational premise underlying the most effective therapeutic method ever devised, cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). 

Aaron Beck is known as the father of cognitive therapy, which in conjunction with Albert Ellis’s rational emotive behavior therapy, led to the development of modern CBT. Beck observed that all of the main psychotherapeutic methods of his day, from the psychoanalytic to the behavioral, shared the assumption that neuroses arise through impenetrable forces outside of the individual’s awareness or control. Whether these forces were of chemical or historical origin, they required a trained healer to resolve. Beck proposed an idea which was not at all new, but was foreign to psychotherapy at the time:

“Let us conjecture, for the moment, that a person’s consciousness contains elements that are responsible for the emotional upsets and blurred thinking that lead him to seek help. Moreover, let us suppose that the patient has at his disposal various rational techniques he can use, with proper instruction, to deal with these disturbing elements in his consciousness.” 

– Aaron Beck

It is very likely that you experience certain negative emotions habitually in response to the events in your life. But as you introspect, you will find that these repetitive feelings are always preceded or accompanied by thoughts. A thought which interprets an event to be good will result in a positive emotion, and one that interprets it to be bad will result in a negative one. In other words, when our cognitions (accurate or not) conflict with our desires, we become unhappy, and vice versa.

“Depending on whether someone appraises a stimulus as beneficial or detrimental to his personal domain, he experiences a ‘positive’ or ‘negative’ reaction.” 

– Aaron Beck

What you may not realize, is just how much power you have to choose the interpretation of these events. Cognitive therapy says that the cognitive catalysts for our emotional reactions are called negative automatic thoughts. These cognitions are habitual interpretations of patterns in our experience. Does this description remind you of anything? These automatic thoughts, just like the biases from the previous section, are the harmful algorithms which get in the way of our goals. In this case, our happiness. 

Cognitions may be triggered by real world events, but they are ultimately the product of our beliefs and desires. The emotional algorithm is triggered by the cognitive habits which may or may not be accurate representations of reality. And very often, Beck found, they are not accurate at all. Beck observed that each person in his studies with depression and anxiety experienced predictable cognitive distortions. Mildly neurotic people had subtle misperceptions; severely neurotic people had massively warped worldviews. All of these errors can be corrected, regardless of severity.

“Thus psychological problems can be mastered by sharpening discriminations, correcting misconceptions, and learning more adaptive attitudes. Since introspection, insight, reality testing, and learning are basically cognitive processes, this approach to the neuroses has been labeled cognitive therapy. The cognitive therapist induces the patient to apply the same problem-solving techniques he has used throughout his life to correct his fallacious thinking.” 

– Aaron Beck

Today, CBT is used to treat depression, several forms of anxiety, OCD, PTSD, and just about every other emotional disorder. Furthermore, CBT is the most empirically effective therapeutic method ever devised, beating out even the best antidepressant medications for some disorders. And even more impressively, studies have found that simply assigning patients to read Feeling Good, a self-help book by Dr. David Burns which distills the concepts of CBT, is just as effective in treating depression as a full course of anti-depressant treatment. One study found that after simply reading this book and completing some of its exercises, 75% of the depressed patients studied no longer qualified for the disorder.

“Our research reveals the unexpected: Depression is not an emotional disorder at all! The sudden change in the way you feel is of no more causal relevance than a runny nose is when you have a cold. Every bad feeling you have is the result of your distorted negative thinking. Illogical pessimistic attitudes play the central role in the development and continuation of all your symptoms. Intense negative thinking always accompanies a depressive episode, or any painful emotion for that matter.” 

– Dr. David Burns

Though not all cases of depression fit this simplistic template, Dr. Burns is right in pointing out the central role distorted thinking generally plays in the disorder. The biggest problem I see with CBT is the T: Therapy. The vast majority of people do not consider themselves to be in need of therapy. Though some of these people are prevented from going to therapy by pride or fear, many of them are right in thinking they are relatively healthy, normal individuals. But it’s a fact that healthy, normal individuals suffer from countless biases. Some of these biases are bound to manifest in one’s emotional life in the form of negative automatic thoughts. This explains why the belief that we cannot control our emotions is so prevalent. We don’t learn the methods for overcoming our lack of emotional control because the inability to control one’s emotions is considered normal.

“No clear line separates healing from upgrading. Medicine almost always begins by saving people from falling below the norm, but the same tools and know-how can then be used to surpass the norm.” 

– Yuval Noah Harari

You may think that because you haven’t been diagnosed with depression, the methods found in a therapeutic method would be irrelevant to you. But let me ask you this: When is the last time you experienced an unwanted emotion, if you’re honest? In the last week? The last day? The last hour? Chances are, you experience emotions you would rather not experience regularly. What if you could identify the roots of these emotions and unplug them for good? Cognitive therapy offers a basic toolkit for dealing with emotions to people who lack it. But it is entirely possible to take these methods to an advanced level and master them.