2 • identify your emotional control strategies

In order to start getting in touch with your emotions so that you can manage them in a more healthy way, one of the first and potentially very challenging tasks is to illuminate the ways in which you sedate, control and avoid your emotions. Most of these strategies, such as emotionally suppression, use of alcohol, food and drugs and projection, being overly positive or optimistic are deeply ingrained habits and for that reason it’s quite hard, initially, to see that we are using them.


Each of these control methods aren’t intrinsically bad or negative, they are simply ways in which we protect ourselves from experiencing pain and discomfort. For example using a chocolate bar to create pleasurable feelings when you are feeling tired or bored is ok as long as it used only occasionally and you are taking action to resolve the underlying issues. We are only human after all. However control methods do become a problem when they are used excessively, inappropriately, illegally, as a means of avoiding reality, relationships and responsibilities and as an alternative to emotional processing.


For example


  • If we rely on them too much and by doing so they create problems of their own, for example if a student continues to distract themselves from work that needs to be completed by watching excessive amounts of TV
  • If we use them for too long they become automatic habits and therefore prevent us from being in touch with reality – our true thoughts and feelings
  • Control methods consume our energy, which could otherwise be directing towards life-enhancing growth and activities
  • When we live life in resistance to or avoidance to reality, this not only creates stress and makes for an inauthentic life
  • They prevent us from getting certain needs met, for example avoidance of intimate relationships because of an underlying fear of being abandoned or overwhelmed will prevent us from meeting the need for closeness and intimacy.
  • When we deny and fail to embrace and integrate part of ourselves, we accumulate emotional pain, reduce our experience of aliveness and restrict our potential for emotional growth and creativity.
  • They can contribute to health problems – for example the excessive consumption of cakes and chocolates can lead to excessive weight gain and poor health
  • Prevent you from focusing on activities that you value – for example you have a love of singing, but you develop a fear of humiliation and stop singing
  • Are used in situations that can’t work – for example drowning your sorrows with alcohol for weeks and months after being made unemployed, rather than seeking support and using emotion processing tools to help yourself


Research has found that whilst avoiding uncomfortable thoughts and feelings might provide some relief in the short-term, in the long term the intensity of the pain and discomfort and the frequency with which you experience that discomfort often increases. What’s more the ability to control your emotions goes down, anxiety levels go up and the feeling of being out of control also goes up. Studies have linked anxiety, panic attacks, obsessive compulsive disorder, phobias and depression to the avoidance of certain thoughts and emotions. For example, a client of mine Marcus had low self-confidence and with that feelings of inadequacy when in social situations. To reduce those feelings he would make an excuse that he was unavailable to go out, when invited to do so by his friends. Whilst this strategy decreased his discomfort in the short-term, in the long-term it increased his overall pain and discomfort, because he wasn’t meeting his emotional need for attention and community and he wasn’t living his life in alignment with what he valued – in this case friendship.


To start you off I have outlined some of the most common emotional control strategies. You might have to read them through a couple of times and keep referring back to them in order to really get your head around them.


Suppression involves deliberately pushing away certain thoughts and feelings. Suppression is associated with high levels of control, both in terms of how much feeling, and what feelings, we allow ourselves to experience and also to express. Most people who suppress their emotions engage a lot of energy in maintaining the pretence of being calm and composed.


Withdrawal involves avoiding certain situations, people and interactions in order to avoid the uncomfortable feelings that they trigger inside of us. A client of mine avoided to the best of his ability social situations because of his feelings of vulnerability, shame and fear of being laughed at. Another client of mine avoided conflict with his partner, in order to avoid the feelings of fear and being scared that would come up. Other forms of withdrawal include being silent or restricted in what you say, physically isolating yourself or moving away from a place/situation 


Self-Criticism involves speaking to yourself in a harsh and direct way in order to change the way you feel. Favourite phrases of the inner critic are ‘you are pathetic’, ‘what an idiot’. Whilst some people think that self-criticism is important in order to achieve things and prevent themselves from making mistakes, self-criticism as we will explore later only contributes and adds to the emotional pain and low self-esteem.


Positive Thinking uses positive self-talk as a means to eradicate negative thoughts and feelings. ‘I am strong, confident and capable’, ‘Stay focused and calm.’ Whilst positive self-talk does have its place and can be effective, for example I do recommend to my clients positive affirmations that are then linked into to taking positive action, my experience is that more often than not its used to avoid reality, which in turn prevents wisdom and insight being released from the emotion being felt.


Sedation – happens anytime we use something to calm and soothe our emotions, the most common being alcohol, food, prescribed medications and drugs such as cannabis. Rather than making the emotions go away, they simply reduce our awareness of them.


Fantasy involves escaping into an inner imaginary world. Whilst creative imagination is useful and positive, if fantasy is used to escape reality then it is a control method.


Disassociation involves withdrawing our awareness from our body and emotions, so that we are not aware of what we are feeling. This happens automatically and can be an indicator of a past history of trauma, although not necessarily so


Other control strategies include keeping busy and distracted, overeating, snacking, drinking alcohol, drinking caffeine, changing the subject, watching TV, arguing, getting angry, fighting, getting physically and/or emotionally abusive, shouting, blaming others, hurting oneself, depriving oneself, smoking, going to sleep, worrying, over-analysing, changing your thoughts, complaining to others, talking excessively, reading, surfing the internet, having/pursuing sexual encounters/acts, planning revenge and so on.


What are your control strategies?


On a piece of paper or in a journal write down a list of all of the ways, given what you have just read, in which you try to control your feelings. If it helps think back to a couple of recent incidences in which you remember doing something to change your feelings and thinking. Record these strategies in a journal or on a piece of paper. For each of the strategies that you have identified write next to them the long term negative consequences that they have had on you. This is the really important part of the exercise, as it helps you see more clearly that the way we deal or don’t deal with our thoughts and feelings often leads to more hardship in the future, for example


Behaviour:        Eating to avoid feelings of sadness and shame

Consequences:  8kg overweight, reduced self-confidence, criticism from partner


Behaviour:        Argue when I feel hurt and vulnerable

Consequences:  Creates distance between me and my partner, reduces emotional intimacy


Behaviour:        When I feel scared and anxious I start worrying

Consequences:  Reduces my quality of sleep, keeps me distracted and unable to focus on my work


Once you’ve finished this take a couple of moments to re-read them. The purpose of this exercise is to illuminate the fact that your avoidance strategies, whilst alleviating some of our pain and upset in the short-term, often have negative consequences in the long-term. I will be showing you other more positive strategies later in the final part of this section

Now move onto increase your body awareness and improve your emotional literacy


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