How to feel in control (and not do something you’ll regret later)

When the doctor hits the patella of your knee with that little hammer your leg jerks up – you can’t help it, it’s a natural reflex. Though it sometimes feels the same with our emotions, it’s not. True, we can’t control the specific emotion that wells up in a particular situation, but we can make a choice as to what we do next and how we respond.

As with any new habit or skill, however, it takes awareness and practice to become the master of your emotions. (What, you were expecting a quick fix? ? You’re in luck, however: I’ve put together a step-by-step training plan that lays out exactly what and how to practice.

Okay, here we go:


Have a morning practice.  

Just as pilots check their flight plan, set the controls and evaluate the instrument panel in readying for take-off, you too will benefit from preparing yourself for the day ahead. Whatever you do — meditate, take a walk, do yoga, read a motivational book or write in your journal – investing the time (even 15 minutes is beneficial) to quiet your mind and plug into your inner energy source will give you a sense of perspective and allow you to stay grounded as you move through the chaos of the day. (And don’t even think about making the “I don’t have time” excuse. That’s like saying “I don’t have time to find my car keys so I’m going to walk to work.” You always have time to set yourself up for success.)

Like the Dalai Lama says: “We all know that on days when we are in a good mood, when the whole world seems to be smiling at us, we can accept predicaments or bad news more easily than if our mind is already upset, frustrated or troubled, when the slightest incident might cause us to explode with negative emotions.”

Identify your triggers.

Pretty certain you have seen or heard of a colleague loosing his temper or you’ve gotten critical feedback from a boss or colleague. Though we may feel ambushed, there are recurring scenarios where we can anticipate potential friction and think through how we typically react.

So, start a running list of those situations that tend to stir up negative emotion – you know, the juicy stuff like anger, resentment, insecurity, guilt. Now you can strategize what you’ll do or say in the heat of the moment when it may be difficult to think clearly.

Visualize and practice.

So you may have been at an office party, and your obnoxious colleague – who gets even more obnoxious when he’s drinking — starts bragging about how much his bonus was. Imagine how you’ll respond when he needles you about yours and insinuates that his was much higher. Imagine the various ways that scenario could play out and how you’d handle them (I’m thinking one of them could involve a suave James Bond impression).

(Don’t worry that imagining a scenario will make it more likely to happen. Actually the opposite is true – simply envisioning a solution may make the problem moot.)

Then, as much as possible, look for opportunities to simulate what you feel in those emotionally charged situations – to practice or rehearse when the stakes are low and your emotional reactions won’t be as costly.

For example, if you’re uncomfortable with confrontation or rejection, practice returning an item to a store or asking for a refund. If you’re worried about losing your composure during your performance review, practice receiving criticism from a friend or trusted colleague.

Forward-thinking and preparation are critical to navigating emotional minefields and not losing your cool in the moment.

So now that you know how to prepare, what do you do in the heat of the moment when your emotions flare up?


Recognize the signs of the fight or flight response. Heart racing, stomach churning, palms sweating: these are signs that your amygdala – the part of your brain that is on the lookout for threats to your survival – has been activated. Your brain, however, might very well interpret shallow breathing – which is what often happens when you feel insulted, angry or upset — as a threat.

So Step 1: take a deep breath.

Use your body to anchor you to the present. When your boss says “I need to speak to you later,” for example, your mind starts racing – into the past (is he upset about the question I asked in yesterday’s meeting?), or the future (Am I being taken off the project?). Neither is helpful. What you need to do is get out of your head and back into the present moment. Your body can help you do that.

Step 2: Feel your feet on the ground, your arms on your desk, your butt in the chair.

Hit the pause button. When are your emotions most likely to cause you trouble: when you’re talking or not talking? I thought so. Often, people start talking because they’re uncomfortable with silence, not because it will help the situation. If someone is intentionally needling you, they’re looking for a reaction. If you don’t react, there’s nothing for them to attack.

Step 3: Learn how to sit with the silence. Give yourself 10 seconds (at least) to let your rational brain kick in.

Check the crystal ball. Before you start talking, do a quick peek into the future. If you say what you want to say, how will the other person respond? Will it help or harm the situation?

As speaker Larry Winget notes, we start to think: “I’m working with this a—hole; I can be an a—hole back and it won’t really matter.” But it always matters — which is why you need to think about the future. “In 10, 12, 15 years, that a—hole’s your boss,” says Winget. “I’ve watched this happen too many times and it’s happened to me. I lost a deal because of it.”

Step 4: Watch your tongue and be forward-thinking.

After an emotional flare-up the best thing to do is move on and not think about it, right? Wrong! If you don’t recap and understand what happened, you’ll simply repeat the pattern again until you do.

Do a debrief. When you have some distance and are feeling calmer, take a moment to ask: “What was going on there? Why did I get so angry?” See if you can identify the exact trigger: “I hate when my boss gives me that obnoxious smirk.” Why is that upsetting? “Because it looks like he thinks I’m incompetent.” Oh really, why would he think you’re incompetent? “ And by drilling down, you’re able to understand why that situation hits your buttons – whether it triggers a feeling of powerlessness, frustration or pain from the past — and what your beliefs are about what they’re saying.

Make a choice. Once you understand what triggered the emotion, you can come up with a strategy for what you’ll do the next time it happens. Or, if it’s simply a reaction to something you can’t control, you can decide to let it go. Ask yourself: How much time do I want to spend thinking about this?

Yet nine times out of ten the reason we get so irritated with the people who are closest to us is that they show us that we do not in fact correspond with the ideas we have of ourselves. We are meaner, weaker, dumber, and less interesting, tolerant, and sexy. In short, we are human, which typically comes as extremely disappointing news.

When it comes to emotions, there is no quick fix. There is only practice: in identifying them, preparing for situations, and in processing them.

Also, if you want to learn more about this, check out one of our most read posts on amygdala hijacks!