Should You Accept or Regulate Your Emotions?

December 17, 2019
Psychology

I recently wrote that meditation, mindfulness, and movement, while useful life-aids, can serve to do more harm than good if we’re using them as distractions from deeper problems that remain unresolved.

Discussing emotional management with a friend over UFC245 on the weekend (as you do!), we hit upon the idea of nuance in emotional regulation.

Questions We Asked

  • Are there times when you should suppress negative emotions?
  • Are there times when you should use them as a guide?

Risk Management and Emotional Regulation

Many moons ago, before I pursued entrepreneurship — about 3,000 moons, in fact — I worked in the space of risk management for a large investment bank.

Anybody who has ever worked in risk management knows that there are five ways to manage risk (accept, avoid, transfer, mitigate or exploit).

It strikes me as fitting, that these five methods can be appropriated for managing our emotions, albeit with a slight twist.

My version of it for emotion management is as follows:

  • Accept the emotion
  • Ignore the Emotion
  • Reframe the emotion
  • Suppress the emotion
  • Transfer the emotion
  • Avoid the emotion
  • Resolve the emotion

You might use the mnemonic AIR-STAR to remember it (just think Michael Jordan).

But the bigger question still remains… which method should you apply?

I would argue that it depends on the intensity, source, and longevity of the negative emotions, and I’ve attempted to develop an introductory framework below to help better navigate the world of negative emotions.

These are purely my initial ponderings, so I welcome your contributions and honing of my thinking in the comments.

6 Methods to Manage Your Emotions…and When to Apply Them

Accept the Emotion

Buddhism calls for recognising and accepting pain as an intrinsic part of the human condition. Nowadays, recognising and naming emotions as they come to pass, is a central tenet of meditation and mindfulness. Of course, many of our emotions are involuntary and a byproduct of myriad factors; our sleep, what we eat, genetics, our immediate environment, and external stimuli, among other factors.

Others, like Jordan Peterson, echo the Buddha and insist the life is suffering, so we should cultivate a life of meaning — something worth suffering for.

  • When to accept the emotion: If it is mild and fleeting.
  • When not to accept the emotion: If it is severe and constant.

Avoid the Emotion

If you know that a certain type of stimuli is likely to cause you emotional distress, then you can choose to avoid the emotion. For example, if large parties are going to cause you social anxiety, then you might instead optimize for small group gatherings or one-on-one outings instead.

As James Clear puts it in his book, Atomic Habits, if you want to break a bad habit, make it invisible. It’s the same with avoiding certain types of emotions — make the stimulus invisible.

Pain is often our teacher, and can guide us through life. As neuroscientist and philosopher Sam Harris posited, if you put your hand on a hot stove and it burns, you move your hand away. In life, when we feel negative emotions, we too have the opportunity to move our proverbial hands away from what causes us pain.

  • When to avoid the emotion: If the stimulus isn’t a necessary obstacle on the way to your goals and living in accordance with your values, then avoid it.
  • When not to avoid the emotion: Stoicism teaches us that ‘what stands in the way becomes the way’, and if what stands in the way of your goals gives a sense of anxiety, fear, dread, then avoiding it won’t get you any closer to your goals and becoming who you want to be.

Ignore or Suppress the Emotion

Whenever we are faced with decisions, doing nothing is an inadvertent decision. This holds true when it comes to our emotions.

The likes of Socrates believed that emotions cloud judgment, and pre-empt poor decision-making, and that we should therefore ignore or suppress them.

You can grit your teeth and ignore the emotion, but depending on the intensity and nature of the emotion, keeping things bottled up for an extended period of time can cause blow-outs, as it did for Ned Flanders in Hurricane Neddy (The Simpsons, S8E8).

Ned Flanders gets wheeled off to the psych ward after decades of bottling things up.

Suppressing the emotion specifically points to both good and bad habits such as exercise, meditation, getting 8 hours’ sleep, drugs and binge eating. We might feel good after a workout, due to the release of powerful neurochemicals, but it doesn’t do anything to address the root cause of our negative emotions — unless of course, the root cause is prolonged periods of being sedentary.

  • When to ignore or suppress the emotion: If it is mild and fleeting, or the cause is something biological (eg. lack of movement, genetics, lack of sleep).
  • When not to suppress the emotion: If it is severe and constant, lest you want to wind up like Neddy.

Transfer the Emotion

Oftentimes, simply getting the emotions, thoughts or feelings out of our heads and on to paper, or sharing them with a friend or psychologist, can go a very long way to clearing our heads and giving us a sense of control.

The benefits of transferring our emotions include lower blood pressure, improve immune function and essentially helps the brain regulate emotions through emotional catharsis.

  • When to transfer the emotion: If a negative emotion has been bothering you for an extended period of time, try transferring it.
  • When not to transfer the emotion: There aren’t many cases where writing down your emotions isn’t healthy, however, you might want to avoid doing this for the mild, fleeting emotions we experience on a day-to-day basis.

Resolve the Emotion

The most proactive path you can take is to resolve the emotion. This requires the diligent identification and addressing of the root cause of the negative emotion. This might require difficult conversations or scary decisions, but oftentimes growth is on the other side of adversity.

  • When to resolve the emotion: If the negative emotion is strong and recurring or constant. You might opt to meditate or workout when you feel negative, you might suppress the emotion or just accept it, but chances are, that taking this approach with deep-seated existential negativity, will come back to bite you, leave the underlying issues unresolved, and consequently augment your pain.
  • When not to resolve the emotion: If it is mild and fleeting, and just a part of our day-to-day.

Reframe the Emotion

Finally, and perhaps in addition to accepting the emotion, we can choose to reframe it. For example, we might feel anxiety in the lead-up to a public appearance we need to make in front of one thousand onlookers. However, we can reframe this anxiety as anticipation of learning and growth.

We can reframe the anxiety as something that is a natural byproduct of stepping out of our comfort zone and facing adversity, something the Stoics remind us is the path forward.

You might reframe it as an opportunity to face the discomfort head-on — something too few people are willing to do — and that this is your competitive advantage.

Taking this approach, you’re more likely to lean in to the emotion and make it your ally.

  • When to reframe the emotion: If the negative emotion is standing between you and your goals, reframe it.
  • When not to resolve the emotion: If the emotion is trying to tell you that something needs to change.

By being more deliberate about when we adopt, say a Buddhist or a Stoic mindset, when we grit our teeth, and when we actually take ownership and do something about our negative emotions, providing the intensity and duration of the emotion calls for doing so.

As Steve Jobs put it, “I’ve looked in the morning every day and asked myself: ‘If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I am about to do today?‘’ And whenever the answer has been ‘No’ for too many days in a row, I know I need to change something.”

Psychology
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