Control Yourself

I don’t hate a lot of things but I do have many pet peeves. One of those boils down to pretty much the entirety of “self help”- especially when it involves the topic of emotion.

No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.

The above is a popular quote that’s attributed to Elanor Roosevelt- former First Lady of the United States and wife to Franklin Roosevelt, our 32nd President. However, there’s no evidence to support she ever said it. At least, not in those exact words anyways… Which is a bit funny to me, personally, because the original is much more interesting in  context (at least in my opinion):

“A snub” defined the first lady, “is the effort of a person who feels superior, to make someone else feel inferior. To do so, he has to find someone who can be made to feel inferior [in the first place].”

Her actual words were said in response to someone refusing to host her event for what are arguably irrelevant reasons. At the time, however, this refusal was seen as a sort of social snubbing of the nose to the First Lady by… Well… Everyone but the First Lady herself. And she didn’t see it that way because she knew she wasn’t inferior to the Woman everyone thought had snubbed her in the first place.

Simply put: Mrs. Elanor Roosevelt, former First Lady of the United States, damned well knew her personal worth and wasn’t about to let some nobody make her question it; to me, in context it’s a prime example of how important developing self confidence in your abilities is- and just how far it goes in helping you to ignore the irrelevant shit people throw at you.

Somewhere along the way, though, it got twisted. The fact that she never actually said this twisted version (nor that her actual words have a much different meaning in context), however, hasn’t stopped people from using it to tout on about how you have control over many things you don’t actually have any control over… Like emotions; to those people, for some reason, the twisted simplification of her words epitomizes (at least in some part) the irrational idea that we can consciously choose when or how we feel certain emotions.

In that regard, I’ve always had a problem with this quote and ones similar to it in nature… And boy, are they a dime a dozen in the “self help” section; Positivity Culture is a thing, and it’s going full steam ahead. What strikes me the most about Positivity Culture, though, is that the material it produces belays a complete lack of understanding of how emotions work- and what they actually are.

Not only that, but they can be used to excuse or perpetuate some incredibly harmful ideologies; to use Love as one example of many in order to illustrate just how it can (and has) been used for nefarious purposes in the past:

If love is a choice that we can consciously make? Suddenly loving multiple romantic partners, or even romantic partners of the same gender, comes down to “making a choice”. And if that’s the case, then you could easily choose not to be Polyamorous, Gay, Bi, or any number of things- all of which largely go against common cultural and moral conventions, and are often considered unacceptable forms of love. Ergo, if you’re still “choosing” to be any of these things then obviously you’re not only making a poor decision, but something must either be wrong with you- or you must be lying, or attention seeking.

See how quickly this can become a problem? And this isn’t a slipper slope issue, either… This is a legitimate line of thought influenced by Positivity Culture and the “choose your emotions” mindset that people on this planet actually believe, and have actually used to hurt people; that’s not to say that everyone will choose to actually use it like that… But it is to say that the potential is certainly there- and that some people have actually done so.

Biological and Social Sciences, however, don’t back anything like that up. What it instead tells us, is that every emotion is characterized by three primary things: Physiological Response, Subjective Feeling, and Expressive Behavior.

Physiological Response refers to the scientifically measurable bodily responses. This includes crying, sweating, fainting, increased heart rate, and breathing- as well as a measurable release of various chemicals and hormones within the brain.

Subjective Feelings refers to our immeasurable (though not necessarily indescribable) thought patterns, opinions, or other mental reactions.

Expressive Behavior is the outward action and behavior that we express. This includes actions such as punching a wall, frowning, swearing, yelling, or crying.

In other words, it shows us that emotions are a complex mix of biological, physiological, and psychological reactions that occur in response to stimulus that we experience. That stimulus can be our own internal thoughts, certainly, but more often than not it’s provided by our environment.

Someone spitting in your face may trigger Anger. Learning that a loved one had passed away may trigger Grief. And seeing someone accomplish something you’ve tried and failed to accomplish yourself may trigger jealousy, or envy; in all cases you have an event or thought (stimulus) which triggers a response (emotion and behavior).

But the most important thing that science tells us about emotion, is that the core of these emotions are involuntarily experienced; you simply can’t control the biological and physiological change that comes from experiencing the stimuli which triggers it- and all emotions are exactly the same in this manner; there is no singular exception to this rule.

While we may not have the choice of emotion, though, we will always have the choice of action. Take one of the above examples as illustration:

If someone spitting in your face is something that triggers anger for you, you’ll probably always get angry when it happens. That’s not something that you can control, because you can’t control emotions in that manner… But you can control whether or not you punch them in the face as retaliation for it. Furthermore, you can identify and understand the reason why it made you angry to begin with- and then work on reducing it’s ability to trigger those sorts of responses from you.

You’ll still get angry when it happens, sure… That’s the nature of emotions after all. But your capacity to respond differently, and even dismiss the episode, will be greatly enhanced.

This is a prime reason why good Behavioral Therapies focus on identifying the cause of an emotional reaction… And then aid you in achieving a different behavioral output; why good Anger Management teaches you to calm down and identify the source of your anger- and provides coping techniques you can use to do several things: Stop yourself from performing off the cuff reactions, allow yourself to deal with the matter in a more constructive way, or simply let it go and move the fuck on with your life.

In order to recognize that choice of action, however, you need two things.

First, you need a healthy dose of rationality. Second, you need to recognize your emotions as a source of vital knowledge- and they are; our emotions provide us a wealth of information that can be better utilized to make healthier decisions in various aspects of our lives. They can even teach us some incredibly important things about ourselves- whether that’s a strength we never realized we had, or an area in which we could stand to improve ourselves.

But tapping into that knowledge and rationalizing our way through them as they run their course? That ultimately requires us to accept our emotions and understand their true nature- not the false controllable nature that most self help books and positivity rhetoric ultimately likes to portray them as having. And Emotional Acceptance means just that: Acceptance.

It’s the process through which we let go of that control freak inside of us and allow ourselves to just feel our emotions- and do so without judging ourselves. More than that, though, Emotional Acceptance is the act of coming to terms with the fact that these emotions are a normal, valid, natural, and (most importantly) involuntary response to events we experience.

The validity of our emotions, however, doesn’t always mean emotions are always right or appropriate; it may be perfectly normal and completely out of our control to experience the emotions we do… But it doesn’t mean all emotions are healthy or appropriate ones to experience in all circumstances (or even at all)- and no emotion is ever a valid excuse to justify negative, harmful, or even abusive behavior (especially not towards others).

By continuing to say that the whole of emotion itself is a choice, though, we’re placing emphasis and responsibility on the wrong aspect of it to solve our problems; instead of placing responsibility on the controllable behavioral responses, we place it on the uncontrollable physiological and psychological ones… And the psychological responses, especially, tend to get left in the dust with stuff like “positive attraction” instead of being utilized in any sort of legitimately beneficial or constructive manner.

But doing this ultimately sets us up for two things: Severely stunted emotional growth, and potential psychological and behavioral failure… Neither of those are healthy things to chase if we genuinely want to become the best versions of ourselves that we actually can be.

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4 thoughts on “Control Yourself

    • Anna B. says:

      I personally don’t know if we can ever really turn that shit off, tbh. But I know we can work on having better reactions to it- which is a far cry for the idea that we can simply choose not to be angry in the first place.


  1. Piggy says:

    Beautifully written. And you can imply it to the stigmatization of “victimhood” as well! People who try to criticize others for “being a victim” are neglecting the fact that one cannot help how one feels about experiencing something traumatic. One can only make a decision about what actions to take in order to heal.

    Liked by 1 person

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