An emotion, which is a passion [a passive state], ceases to be a passion, as soon as we form a clear and distinct idea thereof. […] An emotion therefore becomes more under our control, and the mind is less passive in respect to it, in proportion as it is more known to us. (Spinoza, Ethics)
The clearer you understand an emotion, the better you can control it; but what can you do to clearer understand an emotion? Label it! Give it a name.
Once you have walked bravely into an emotionally challenging situation, start paying attention to your bodymind to figure out what distinct emotion would best describe what is going on inside of you. Notice and identify the emotion as it arises in your body and speak, “This is hate,” “This is resentment,” “This is contempt,” “This is false pride,” “This is shame,” or “This is envy.” Whatever it may be.
The great challenge here is to not just blurt out (or write down on a piece of paper) what you are expecting to feel in such a situation. For example, just because we live in a culture of anxiety that readily throws that word around does not mean that anxiety is what you are actually feeling. You may only have gotten used to using that label. All words have cultural baggage, but they can still be useful to understand and control emotions better.
By giving your present emotional state a simple name, your mind builds cognitive patterns of whatever is going on in your bodymind at that moment (heart rate, respiration, skin conductance, muscle tone, amygdala activity, thoughts, non-verbal behaviors, conscious actions, etc.) and associates those patterns with the situational context (social environment, duties, goals, expectations, physical surroundings, etc.).
By giving your present emotional state a clear name, you open a conceptual box to put in all the physiological, cognitive, and situational data from the present moment. (By the way, the greater your mindful awareness, the cleaner the data will be.) Your mostly non-conscious mind then processes that data to produce affective self-knowledge. The more often you open the box to throw additional information into the mix, the more lucid and refined your understanding of the emotion will become. This is how wisdom works, basically.
As numerous studies* have shown, affect labeling (using named boxes of emotional data to form clear and distinct ideas of emotions) is an effective emotion regulation strategy. Verbally labeling negative feelings decreases autonomic reactivity (the body’s stress response, measured as heart rate and skin conductance) and activity in the amygdala (a brain region associated with fear, anger, and anxiety).
When the brain is actively categorizing data to name a feeling, it shifts from a state of irrational emotions to a state of rational analysis, that is, to a state of mindcoolness.
Some practical tips on how to improve your emotional self-control skills:
- Use simple words to label the different feelings you experience throughout the day; jot down their names on a piece of paper.
- Practice meditation to notice and identify your emotions faster.
- Think about your brain to enter an abstract, rational mind space.
- Make habitual use of reappraisal to adopt a positive mindset that downregulates your amygdala even more.
- Understand how emotions interact to flank-attack negative ones.
- Stay away from drugs, including alcohol and sugar, to keep your will strong and your mind steadily cool.
- Practice deep diaphragmatic breathing; you can tie it to your daily mindfulness practice.
- Never back down from an emotionally challenging situation!
- Willpower Condensed: Master Self-Discipline to Do Your True Will
- 8 Reasons Why People Regulate Their Emotions
- This One Word Makes Your Self-Talk More Effective for Emotion Regulation
- How Scientists Measure Emotion Regulation
- Night Owls Have Bad Emotion Management
- Is Suppressing Emotions Bad For You? (Jocko Willink Vs. Science)
- How to Control Your Anger in Five Steps