How to develop emotional intelligence to control your emotions

Are you having trouble understanding and managing your emotions? Have you recently dealt with stress, anxiety, or sadness? Have you ever regretted something you said or did, when you were angry?

Emotions are powerful. Your mood determines how you interact with people, how you spend your money, how you invest your time, and how you deal with challenges.

As you can see, having more control over your emotions will help you develop a strong mentality and achieve better results in your work, your career, or your business. And the good news is that managing emotions is a skill that you can develop if you apply the strategies we will explore here.

Controlling your emotions is not the same as suppressing them.

According to recent research by psychologists David Barlow and Steven Hayes, one of the leading causes of many psychological problems is the habit of avoiding emotions. Negative emotions are not comfortable and are often related to unfavorable events that we would like to forget.

But avoidance is only a short-term solution. No matter how hard we try, ignoring sadness, or pretending not to feel pain, will not make those feelings go away. In the long run, repressed emotions are likely to become a bigger problem. That’s why you need to recognize your feelings and take control of them.

It’s a waste of time to spend our lives blaming the weather or other people for our anger, stress, or sadness. You can choose how to react to the difficult situations or emotions you experience. And the following ten steps will help you do it.

1. Expand your emotional vocabulary.

Precise words are important. That’s why it’s a good idea, that when you experience a strong emotion, whether positive or negative, you take the time to identify it and name it.

We generally tend to use very broad terms to define our feelings, such as “happy,” “angry,” or “stressed,” even when our moods are less extreme. But, if you expand your emotional vocabulary, you’ll find that each type of emotion has a variety of different ranges. For example, a person who we perceive to be angry may be unsettled, upset, overwhelmed, uncomfortable, exhausted, or bored.

Also, there are some differences between emotions and feelings. Antonio D’Amasio, professor of neuroscience at the University of California, points out that for neuroscience, emotions are the complex reactions the body manifests to specific impulses. When we get scared, our heart starts to beat fast; our mouth dries up, our skin turns pale, and our muscles contract. These emotional reactions occur automatically and unconsciously. However, feelings occur after we become aware of such physical changes in our brain; only then do we experience a sense of fear.

In other words, emotions are automatic physical reactions, and feelings are subjective perceptions that combine emotions with past experiences and personality.

Thanks to these differences, when we see a bear in the zoo, we do not run away, which would be the primary emotional reaction. We can combine the stimulus (a scary bear) with the experience (I am in a controlled environment), and thus we can maintain a feeling of calm.

2. Identify your emotions accurately.

As human beings, we can experience about 34 thousand different emotions. But after many years of study on this subject, American psychologist Dr. Robert Plutchik proposed that eight primary emotions serve as the basis for all the others: joy, confidence, fear, surprise, sadness, aversion, anger, and anticipation. Based on this list, he created what is known as “the wheel of emotions.”

This graph allows us to identify primary emotions, as well as their combinations and variants. It is especially useful when we experience intense feelings, or when our mind cannot stay clear because it is ready to fight or fly.

According to Plutchick, these are the main variations in the intensity of the basic emotions: Joy goes from serenity to ecstasy. Trust goes from acceptance to admiration. Fear ranges between apprehension and terror. Surprise goes from distraction to amazement. Sadness goes from pensiveness to grief. Disgust goes from boredom to loathing. Anger varies from annoyance to rage. And anticipation goes from interest to vigilance.

Besides, the combination of certain emotions creates new emotions. For example, joy with trust, develop a feeling of love. Trust with fear create submission. Fear and surprise create awe. Surprise and sadness form disapproval. Sadness with disgust is remorse. Disgust with anger is contempt. Anger with anticipation is aggressiveness. And anticipation with joy, create a sense of optimism.

Like many things in nature, there is a duality in emotions, so each one has its opposite. Sadness is the opposite of joy. Trust is the opposite of disgust. Fear is the opposite of anger. And surprise is the opposite of anticipation.

When people don’t understand their emotions and don’t define them clearly, they panic, paralyze, or get disappointed. Hence the importance of recognizing our feelings and emotions with greater precision. By understanding what you feel, you become more adaptable and more successful at managing emotions.

3. Understand and attend to your emotions.

Psychologist and family therapist, Rachael Morgan, emphasizes that our emotions won’t go anywhere, and that’s a good thing. “Having emotions is part of what makes us human beings. Why would we want to become efficient machines without feelings?”

She points out that our emotions give us useful information that helps us act to express, protect ourselves, and meet our needs. By understanding our feelings, is how we form authentic and meaningful relationships with ourselves and others. Our emotions point to our needs and desires, and fulfilling those needs and wants, helps us create satisfaction.

To better understand your emotions and the situations that trigger them, it is a good idea, to keep a daily record. Reflect on your feelings every day. Pay attention to what you feel and focus on what made you feel that way. “How long did the feeling last? What was it like to experience that emotion?”

Also, explore how certain external factors affect your emotions. For example, social media creates the perception that other people are always happy. Most of your friends will post only their best moments, with photos where they are smiling and having fun. But, that doesn’t mean they don’t have difficult situations or overwhelming emotions like you do. Avoid this false perception that might make you think that you don’t have the right to feel upset, anxious, or sad once in a while. It is acceptable to experience these emotions like any other human being, but it is your responsibility to manage them in the best way.

Understanding our emotions can be difficult because we tend to discard them or ignore them. And it’s hard to experience and analyze the painful emotions that sometimes make you feel down. But taking the time to know, perceive, and attend to your feelings is vital since emotions are part of the human experience.

4. Develop your emotional intelligence.

Emotional intelligence is having a level of self-awareness that allows you to recognize emotions and their impact, in both yourself and others. This ability will enable you to adopt a proactive attitude rather than taking an impulsive reaction.

A person with emotional intelligence is open to both positive and negative emotions and knows how to express and communicate them assertively, through verbal and non-verbal communication.

Several studies have associated emotional intelligence with better performance at work and school, an exceptional ability to learn new skills, better stress management, better leadership skills, more satisfying interpersonal relationships, and better conditions for achieving happiness.

These studies have also shown that EQ (emotional quotient) can be as important, or even more important than IQ, in work and academic performance. Many companies now use EQ tests as part of their hiring process, and promote this type of emotional training in their employees. The reason is that even if a person has a lot of knowledge and bright ideas, if he cannot control his emotions and feelings, he may experience difficulties in building human relationships, participating in team activities, or reaching professional success.

You can develop this skill by using strategies such as, working on strengthening your character, modeling positive behaviors, increasing your level of awareness about the emotions you experience during the day, thinking about how others feel, and being more empathetic with others.

Reflect on your emotions, observe how you tend to react to specific scenarios, and explore the reasons behind those reactions.

5. Process and express your feelings properly.

When people constantly try to block their negative emotions, they spend too much energy suppressing them. Besides, they often use very harsh and critical language toward themselves to inhibit those emotions, such as: “Stop feeling like this,” “What’s wrong with you,” or “I don’t want to feel this anymore, it doesn’t matter!” This situation not only blocks the person’s first emotion, but it also produces new negative feelings of guilt and pain.

Another adverse aspect of inhibiting emotions is that failing to process them properly leads to increased vulnerability to a sudden explosive reaction. When enough triggering factors accumulate, the stored feelings suddenly arise through negative powerful emotional impulses, such as screaming, aggressiveness, or even violence. And of course, such painful and unpredictable expressions of negative emotions, tend to cause more problems than they solve. They further complicate situations. After such episodes, many people will want to lock up their emotions even more, but most likely they will fail and will restart the cycle. For this reason, it’s useful to develop the ability to process and express your feelings.

One of the best strategies for expressing emotions is to write down your experiences. Psychologist James Pennebaker has been researching the connection between writing and processing emotions, for over 40 years. His experiments revealed that people who write about their feelings and emotionally intense experiences, have better physical and mental well-being. These studies found out that, over time, those who wrote about their emotions began to understand what those feelings meant; they started to use expressions such as: “I’ve learned,” “It seemed to me,” “The reason why,” “Now I realize,” and “I understand.” The writing process allowed them to gain a new perspective on their emotions and their circumstances.

Practice the following exercise on writing and reflecting. You can do it every day, especially when you’re going through difficult times, when you’re emotionally confused, or if you’ve had a challenging experience that you think you have not processed well enough.  

  • Start a 10 to 20 minute timer so you can concentrate on writing.
  • Breathe deeply for a few seconds to relax a little bit and focus on your feelings.
  • Using a pen and a piece of paper, or an electronic device, write as much as you can about your emotions. Start by expressing how you feel right now, then write about the feelings you’ve had during the week and throughout the month. Then, you can go back to a significant emotional experience you’ve had in the past that still makes you feel uncomfortable.
  • Don’t worry about your grammar or making it legible. Continue to write whatever comes to your mind.
  • In the end, it is not necessary to keep this document; the important thing is that you have managed to express emotions and feelings that had been stored or blocked, and now you feel better about being able to process and manifest them.

Repeat this process several days in a row. Probably the first time you won’t be able to write much, or you will have difficulty identifying your feelings and emotions. But as you repeat this exercise as many times as necessary, you will be more comfortable expressing yourself.

6. Identify and change what makes you feel bad.

Recurring emotions are sometimes signs that there is a critical issue in your life that you need to address. It’s essential to pay attention to your feelings, and the situations that generate worry, sadness, or discomfort. Developing self-awareness will help you identify which of these circumstances you can change. For example, if you realize that you are continually feeling sad because your child has trouble learning some subjects at school, you can now sit down with him to study or enroll him in after school courses. If, on the other hand, you get upset every single day by the harsh tone that your boss uses to talk to you, you can now consider moving to a different department.

Negative feelings are sometimes caused by situations that are totally beyond our control, but there often are circumstances that we have the power to change. However, it is helpful to recognize the cause of your emotions so that you can do something about it. Even when it is not a viable option to make a radical change at that moment, the simple fact of identifying what is causing your emotions will make you feel more confident, optimistic, and calm.

7. Take a deep breath and transform your feelings.

It has been proven that practicing deep breathing can help you gain greater control of your emotions. In a 2010 study by Pierre Philippot and Sylvie Blairy, they found out that the pattern in which we breathe affects our emotional state.

Two groups of volunteers participated in the study. Group 1 was asked to evoke four specific emotions (joy, anger, fear, and sadness) by remembering an event that made them feel those emotions or by visualizing a particular situation. For each of these emotions, the scientists observed and analyzed different factors in their breathing (speed, rhythm, and depth) and used their findings to develop a list of breathing instructions.

These instructions were assigned to the second group of volunteers who thought they were participating in a study about the cardiovascular impact of breathing styles. People in group 2 were asked to breathe according to the instructions elaborated from the previous experiment. At the end of the 45-minute breathing session, participants completed a questionnaire designed to obtain a variety of information, including details about their emotional responses. The results were evident. The different breathing patterns tested induced the anticipated emotional responses.

This study shows that emotions can be influenced to some extent by the way you breathe. Shallow breathing usually follows fear or anxiety. Deep and complete breathing often induces a feeling of confidence and joy. When you are nervous or restless, try breathing deeply for a few minutes, and you will begin to experience a higher feeling of self-confidence and self-control.

The key to controlling your emotional state through breathing is to become aware of how you breathe throughout the day, and make it a routine. You can start by scheduling between 5 to 20-minute breaks in the morning, at noon, and in the afternoon, to relax and practice deep breathing. Find a place to sit comfortably, and focus your attention on breathing calmly and slowly, making sure your belly expands as you inhale, and compresses as you exhale. If you make these small pauses regularly, you will develop a better attitude and a more positive emotional state.

8. Practice self-regulation.

Self-regulation means being able to control your emotions, thoughts, and behavior to get a long-term benefit. This practice includes the ability to recover from frustrations and also master emotional impulses to act in a way that is consistent with your values and principles.

The first step to master self-regulation is to recognize that we can all choose how to react in any situation. Your emotions may try to push you in a particular direction, but you have the final saying.

The next step is to become aware of your feelings. When you are experiencing a strong emotion, and you feel that you are approaching an impulsive response, make a pause, and take a deep breath. This small interruption will give you time to become aware of the moment, the circumstances, and your feelings. This way, you will have the opportunity to think before you act.

Once you’ve reached this level of self-awareness, you can begin to restore your balance by looking beyond those temporary emotions. Look at the big picture and take action based on your values and principles.

This process requires practice. It may be hard to gain enough self-control the first time you try, but just keep practicing.

If you develop the ability to regulate your emotions, you will be able to focus on your studies, perform better in your job or business, have positive interactions with your family and friends, and reduce stress. As you can see, this is one of the most important skills you can develop in your life, for it will allow you to stand out and achieve inspiring results.

9. Create a powerful and positive mood.

Have you noticed that certain activities always make you feel good? It could be listening to your favorite music, playing a musical instrument, singing, taking a bath, going for a walk, running, riding a bike, or reading some pages of an exciting book.

When you’re feeling anxious, stressed, or in a bad mood, stop what you’re doing for a moment and do something that helps improve your mood.

Ideally, you should prepare yourself when you think an approaching challenging situation may affect your emotions. Prepare an activity that you can do in case you need to control your mood. Take a good book with you, create a positive music playlist, identify a nearby park where you can go for a walk and get some air. The key is to have a plan and implement it if necessary.

Your thoughts also play a crucial role in your emotional state. Usually, when we experience negative emotions, our mind begins to have pessimistic thoughts, and those thoughts can produce more negative responses.

But, with a little practice, we can interrupt our thoughts and replace them with positive ones. As soon as you realize that you are entering a cycle of negativity, you can redirect your attention with the help of positive visualization. Think of a loved one or a good friends, bring them to your mind. Feel the sense of love and positive feelings you have for them, visualize that person smiling and being happy. Now, recall a pleasant moment you enjoyed together. Try to evoke in detail that special occasion. Smile and live it again. This visualization will make you feel better, will help you keep in mind your real priorities, and will make you realize that, what made you feel bad, perhaps is not so relevant.

Imagine with hope and optimism how your life will be once this tough situation is over. You may not have a clear solution to the problem. But if you learn to flow and take one step at a time, you can be sure you’ll find the right path. It’s better to face every challenge with optimism. Embrace hope for a better future and move forward with a positive attitude.

10. Beware of emotional overwhelm.

Emotional overwhelm is a state of exhaustion caused by the accumulation of stress in people’s work or personal life. People who experience emotional overload often feel that they have no power or control over what is going on in their lives, and oftentimes, they feel trapped. Lack of energy, sleep problems, constant anxiety, and loss of motivation can be some indicators of emotional overload. Anyone experiencing long-term stress can become emotionally exhausted and overwhelmed.

One thing you can do to decrease emotional overload is to eliminate the primary factors. If your work environment is the cause of stress, consider moving to another job or department. If you have personal problems with someone, talk to them, or decide to maintain a healthy distance.

Doing some physical activity can help improve your emotional state, as well. Exercise helps distract your mind from problems. A 20-minute walk at a steady pace in the mornings can make a big difference in your mood for the rest of your day.

You can also talk about your problems with a trusted friend who doesn’t judge you. The person who listens to you won’t necessarily have to give you a solution to your frustration, but externalizing your situation and being heard will make you feel relief and at peace.

You may also need a break. We need to take a break from time to time. Whether you go on vacation, visit another city on the weekend, or go to the movies, these activities can help you clear your mind and change your environment.

Finally, meet a professional if necessary. If you can’t find someone to talk to, if your negative feelings persist, if you no longer want to go to work, or if your relationships with your loved ones are being affected, you should ask a therapist for help. Just search on the Internet for the words “psychological help,” and you’ll find several results. Besides, in most cities, there are free psychological help lines that you can call or message to receive support. And they can assist you on making an appointment with a therapist if necessary. Going to a professional will give you more tools to recognize and deal with negative emotions. Also, it will help you understand where these emotions come from and establish strategies to eliminate stressors, as well as to address and resolve personal and work conflicts.

What is your experience in managing your emotions?

As human beings, it is natural for us to experience a wide variety of emotions every day. But it is our responsibility to know how to constructively handle them, and transform them into positive emotions that motivate and encourage us to carry out meaningful projects using our energy, talents, and knowledge.

Develop the ability to understand, accept, and regulate your emotions applying these ten strategies that I just shared with you. The more time and attention you devote to practicing your emotional control, the stronger you will be, and the easier it will be for you to apply self-regulation.

You have in your hands the opportunity to control your emotions and take positive steps based on your values and principles. Actions that, in the long term, will bring you excellent results and will benefit you and everyone around you.

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