Psychologist Jonathan Haidt described the relationship between our rational and emotional minds as that of a person riding an elephant. The rational person can guide the elephant using reins, but if the elephant really wants to go a certain way, it will easily overpower the rider. Fighting against the elephant risks it throwing you off or going on a destructive rampage.
This analogy is helpful in making us understand that emotions are natural and powerful. Fighting against emotions (particularly strong, negative emotions) can be pointless and harmful. The best thing is to let yourself feel the emotion, so that it can resolve rather than build up.
This may sound defeatist, because it feels as if we cannot ever control our emotions and we are slaves to it. However, as the analogy points out, our thoughts are the riders atop our elephants of emotions.
Thoughts and perception lead to emotions, as emotions are typically a reaction to an internal or external stimulus. For example, if someone is rude to us, then we feel angry. If we have doubts or insecurities about ourselves, we feel anxious and sad. If we perceive ourselves to be loved, then we feel happy.
And there we have the secret to controlling our emotions. We cannot choose what we feel, but we can choose what to think. By changing the way we think about or perceive something, we can directly influence how often or how intensely we feel certain emotions.
Take road rage as a common example. It is so easy and automatic to think that someone cut in front of us, or going too slow, or too distracted because they are terrible people or stupid. This thought and perception makes us enraged and frustrated, creating stress and sometimes even making us engage in risky behaviour such as tailgating or aggressively overtaking. But if we try to think of it from their perspective, they may be an inexperienced driver, in a rush or having a horrible day. At the very least, we can think of the times we have done the same thing to other people unintentionally. This change of perspective helps us suffer less from our emotional outbursts and overall reduces our stresses.
Take anxiety as another case, where if we stop and think rationally, many of our worries and doubts can be settled. The problem is that because we give less attention to our thoughts, our emotions take over and drag us down into a negative spiral. When that happens, our emotions override our thoughts and we powerless, feeling that we have no control over either our emotions or thoughts.
To counteract this, we need to have a paradigm shift where we know that we have the power to think freely. When we feel an emotion that we do not like, then we can approach it with mindfulness by recognising that we are feeling the emotion, then trying to diagnose the problem. To do this, ask yourself the following questions.
- What am I thinking?
- Why am I choosing to think this?
- How does this thought make me feel?
The point of these questions is to figure out what thought is making you feel that way so you can fix the thought rather than the emotion. Even if you can’t, it puts you in the habit of forming a link between thought and emotion, leading to a healthier connection to your feelings and giving you back some control over them.