Who’s In Charge, You or Your Emotions?

Thanks to the Olympics, it’s been an inspiring week of seeing the most gifted and dedicated athletes in the world showing us the heights of human ability and self-control.

Speaking of self-mastery, Kyla Ross, one of the ‘Fab Five’ on the US women’s gymnastics team and, at 15, the youngest competitor of the entire 530-person American field, seems to have maturity beyond her years — often acting with more poise than her older teammates. When the women were named to the Olympic team, Kyla was the only one of the five who was not bawling.

“She’s just not a crier,” said McKayla Maroney, world vault champion and Ross’s best friend for a decade, told the Associated Press. “She’s just not as emotional as everybody else. She kind of keeps things inside.”

This ability to control her emotions is what gives Ross the demeanor of a fierce and focused champion, and is an excellent example for all of us.

Of course, the incredibly emotional moments of the Olympics are what make it exciting – not so much, however, in the corporate and other professional environments where most of us operate. As Tony Robbins says: “Whoever controls his emotions, wins.”


Just to be clear: we absolutely need to recognize and experience our emotions: They’re like a GPS system, guiding our awareness of what we want and spurring us to action.

Still, it’s important to make the distinction between feeling emotion and letting emotions dictate your behavior, i.e. being emotional.

Letting our emotions run the show shows lack of self-control and, especially in a professional context, can be interpreted as a liability. “Emotions need to be taken seriously,” says Sigal Barsade, professor of management at the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania. “They can provide a company with information [about] what people really feel and can help predict what kind of decisions will be made, what kind of behavior will occur, and what types of relationships will be formed.”

When reason is clouded by emotion, we literally can’t see the situation clearly and often say or do things that we wouldn’t have if our rational brain was in charge. (Like this engineer who let fly his rude flag fly when the job interview didn’t go as he wanted.)


Sure, you can say, “Well, I was taken off guard.” But if you’re not anticipating situations that might trigger your emotions, then you’re operating in reactive mode — which, by definition, means you’re one step behind.

Whether it’s criticism from your boss in a team meeting, a performance review or a dreaded conversation with a difficult colleague, don’t wait until you’re in the middle of an emotional situation to try and deal with it.

You need to formulate a plan, something simple that you can remember in the fog of emotion. Here are the basic components:

1. Take a deep breath.

Go into your body, where the emotion is. Instead of resisting that tightness in your chest or pit in your stomach, dive into it and feel it. This will help you get back to neutral.

2. Shift your focus.

When we’re feeling emotional, it’s hard to re-focus. Decide ahead of time where you’ll put your focus if you’re hit by a wave of emotion – something concrete, like fixating on the title of a notebook on the table, or a simple mantra like “Stay in control.” If you’re one of the few who know how to drive a gearshift, you could even imagine yourself shifting into neutral.

3. Pinpoint the source.

Later, away from the heat of the moment, do a debrief. See if you can pinpoint exactly what triggered your reaction. Did your boss mention that quarterly earnings were down and you jumped to the conclusion that there would be layoffs? Once you understand why you’re feeling what you’re feeling, you can come up with a plan of action — to get more information, for example, or simply blow off steam with a good workout.

Controlling your emotions, by the way, is a skill and it doesn’t happen overnight. So if you’re someone whose eyes instantly well up with tears or has a tendency to punch things when you’re frustrated, it will take practice to interrupt the pattern and choose a different one.  Now you have a plan for how to do that.

Let me know your thoughts in the comments!


  1. robert zorn August 5, 2012 at 12:04 pm

    Do you remember fifteen year ago? The Olympics Are working harder each year and they are wonderful this year! I Love It!

  2. Carl Harris August 5, 2012 at 1:38 pm

    It’s important to realise the internal world and the external world are completely separate things and you’re absolutely right, Renita, we need to acknowledge and work with our emotions whilst not becoming automatically ’emotional’ – when we do release our internal world onto the external it’s what’s known as ‘projection’. However, there are times when the only thing that gets others actually paying attention to what you’re saying and taking it seriously is an emotional outburst. This only works, however, if it’s a rare occurrence. Make it your default response setting and the only thing people will want to do is avoid you. Being ‘professional’ does not mean always being ‘unemotional’ – I get very annoyed by things done by others that prevent me from doing my job and sometimes there just isn’t a tool to resolve a situation ‘nicely’. The thing about Olympians is they’ve got a socially acceptable physical release mechanism for those tensions inside – we have to make sure we use our emotional energies in a similarly socially beneficial way producing outcomes good for all.

    1. Renita August 5, 2012 at 5:50 pm

      Thanks, Carl, such excellent points. Unfortunately, it’s true that sometimes an emotional outburst is the most effective way to get people’s attention and get them to take things seriously. I would make the distinction, however, that we should (if possible!) still be intentional about showing emotion — i.e. use it as a tool — and not simply losing it because we’re at the end of our rope and out of control.

    2. Another Yourself August 13, 2012 at 10:27 pm


      I agree with everything you say, except the first point: “the internal world and the external world are completely separate things.” I would argue that it’s quite the contrary. A lot of theories of consciousness along with a lot of spiritual traditions (though I won’t advocate any one in particular) have that as a central premise.

      If you’ve ever walked in to a meeting and the energy in the room is just awful, that’s the internal and external worlds intersecting. That probably makes it more important to not let your emotions overwhelm you. It’s not just the lack of an outward expression or outburst — it’s a tangible energy in the room.

  3. Jade Simmons August 5, 2012 at 3:35 pm

    Im loving the Olympics because it fires up my own competitive spirit. I took that spirit to the air hockey table to play with a cocky cousin. As I watched him play other family members, I noticed his weakness was that he was mistaking his emotional behavior for intensity which resulted in tons of tension. He would hit harder and less focused, mistaking that for power. I played that against him to win and it was a lesson for me in how self-control often gives us control of the entire situation, not just ourselves. That’s real power. Thanks Renita!

    1. Renita August 6, 2012 at 2:59 pm

      Nice, Jade! Such an interesting observation, too – that your cousin mistook emotional behavior for intensity. I bet it’s because we have so many examples of star athletes who show emotion on the court/field and so it’s natural to think there’s some correlation between that and their ability. In fact, they’re often successful IN SPITE OF their lack of emotional control. I know that tennis champ John McEnroe, for one, says he would have played even better if he had been able to control his temper…


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