A wise friend once instructed me, “Emotions are like wild horses. Beautiful. Powerful. Yet, if they are to be useful in everyday life, emotions—like horses—must be tamed.”
Is it true? Can emotions truly be tamed?
Less Like Horses, More Like a Riptide
It seems to me, and to countless other women I counsel, that emotions have quite a mind of their own. Less like horses, and more like tumultuous ocean waves, our emotions seem unwilling to yield to even our most ardent commands.
We feel at the mercy of these dangerous whitecaps, whether they be anger, despair, loneliness, or envy. Granted, waves of positive emotions engulf us from time to time, too: gladness, surprise, awe. But do we really have to take the bad with the good?
Is there a way to experience relief from those emotions that seek to drown us?
Self-Control, a Fruit of the Spirit
Scripture says, “Yes.” While our negative emotions threaten to control us, God promises that a fruit of HIS Spirit is self-control (Galatians 5:22-23). Even in our emotional life, we can seek God’s good gift of self-control.
Self-control doesn’t mean “stoicism.” Christ Himself provides examples of deep emotion in Scripture. At Lazarus’ tomb (John 11:35) and in the garden of Gethsemane (Luke 22:44), for instance, we see that Christ experiences deep sorrow and anguish. The catch: He doesn’t allow His sorrow to lead Him into sin. He submits to God’s will and puts other people before Himself in each trying circumstance, even amidst powerful feelings.
This is the kind of self-control we should aim for in our emotions. For help, we must ultimately rely on the Holy Spirit for lasting change, of course (Galatians 5:16). Even with this in mind, though, how can we fight for self-control, in tangible ways, on a daily basis? What are some practical steps we can take in an effort not to be trampled on by our wild stallion emotions?
Believe in God
Jesus says, “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God” (John 14:1). Life’s troubles can grow up around us so that we can’t see the forest for the trees. Jesus calls His disciples in such a moment to believe in God. It’s a discipline of the mind to remember His goodness. Keep some Bible verses handy that especially encourage you in this belief, or better yet—memorize them.
Call out to God
Let’s not underestimate God’s willingness to hear our prayers and answer them. James writes, “Is anyone among you in trouble? Let them pray…” (James 5:13-18). We are loved by a kind God; He will help us in our times of emotional need.
Take an Inventory of Blessings
So often our minds become consumed with the negative: what we don’t have, why life is going wrong. Paul reminds us that in addition to calling out to God in prayer when we are consumed with negative emotion, we should take stock of what is good:
Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things… and the God of peace will be with you (Philippians 4:4-9).
The next time your mind becomes inundated with negative thoughts, why not take a pen and paper and literally list out all you can think of in your life that falls within these categories: true, noble, right, pure, lovely, admirable, excellent, praiseworthy. The point: turn from the negativity to remember how God has blessed your life.
Reach out to a Friend or Family Member
Emotional spirals do their greatest damage in isolation. Give a friend the chance to help you “tame” that emotion that’s getting the best of you. An added perk: vulnerability is contagious—your transparency may encourage your friend to turn to you when he or she is struggling in the future.
It’s true: merely changing locations can sometimes give you the extra perspective you need to see your circumstances in a more rational light. Stuck at home, our minds can play tricks on us, and there are no boundaries to what we might allow ourselves to do, say and believe in an effort to wallow in misery. A walk outside, a trip to the coffee shop, an errand run into town, and the next thing you know, you might be able to see your situation in a more thoughtful light.
Rest Your Mind
Sometimes our negative emotions can strike at the most inopportune time, such as at night—when you can’t reach out to a friend or change locations so easily. Everything is clearer in the morning, so do yourself a favor, and give your mind a break from the problem until you’re more capable of dealing with it (i.e. tomorrow!).
Become Familiar with Red Flags, and Intervene Early
Learn the early warning signs of an emotional spiral for you. For those who struggle with anger, irritation might be that red flag. Don’t let those initial emotions snowball into what will eventually feel like an avalanche. Intervene early by engaging in the steps above before you are in crisis mode.
Fighting for self-control is not easy, but remember God’s Word to us: “Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable” (1 Corinthians 9:25-26). Be encouraged that one day we will no longer need to fight for self-control, because in heaven we will finally receive the prize of becoming like our Savior.
Join the Conversation
Perhaps other steps have proven useful to you or to a friend when battling for self-control amidst strong negative feelings. Care to share?