There’s a simple mantra out there that can really help with self-control. Especially emotional self-control.

It’s, “Respond not react.”

Sounds easy, right?

It’s not. Learning how to control your reactions to what’s being said or done around you can be difficult. Our culture is dominated by people who are constantly and even violently reacting to one another. Whether it’s Twitter, Jerry Springer or The Real Wives of some city, it’s everywhere. And over-reactions are justified completely. “The rest of you dumb asses need to wake up.” “This makes me furious and you’re incredibly stupid.” “You’re a big f…ing liar!”

I’m not at all suggesting that anger is a bad thing, in and of itself. You get angry about something because it threatens your values. And we each have values that are important to us, and we’re ready to stand up for them, even fight for them.

It’s the level or intensity of the reaction — the impulsivity involved  — the non-thought-out, way-over-the-top immediate reaction that can be dangerous.

Self-control is about learning how to filter, to manage your emotional reactions so that they become decisive responses to whatever is threatening you, disappointing you or just making you feel like you’re going crazy. Basically, you keep your mind hooked up to what your heart is feeling. And you respond, not react.

What your value system has to do with self-control…

Stephen Covey, in “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People” said: “The ability to subordinate an impulse to a value is the essence of the proactive person.” So what does this mean? Proactive people, people who are doing something about problems that are around them, don’t act on impulse. They act on their values. They don’t let impulses guide their behavior.

Years ago, a man and women came to my office for the first time for couples work. The actual room I was using was tiny — three people was a bit of a squeeze. So it was cosy, to say the least. I opened the session in my normal way, asking, “What brings you to therapy and how are you hoping I can help?”

The woman started crying immediately. Her husband looked perplexed. “I’m not really sure why we’re here,” he said.

There was silence. And then she looked at me. “I’m planning to move out this weekend. I want a separation. I’m miserable in this marriage.”

The husband looked at first shocked. Then he became angry. Very angry.

“You’ve waited until we’re in front of a stranger to tell me this? Why couldn’t you tell me at home? What do you expect me to do? You’ve had an affair, haven’t you? ”

I thought he might get up and leave.

I asked a few questions. How long had they been together? Did she know what was causing her unhappiness? It certainly sounded as if he was flummoxed by this move, and I gave both support for what was a very painful moment in their lives.

I learned they’d been together for over twenty years. They’d had an affair before they married. They had two children, one in college and one a senior in high school. She’d been a stay-at-home-mom. He worked in a huge corporation and had done very well financially.

“We’ve grown apart. He’s so wrapped up in his work. I want to get a job and feel like I have choices of my own.”

It was a story I’ve heard a lot over the years — two people who’d both done what they believed they should, worked hard, raised their kids, but forgotten to nurture their own relationship. They’d likely never addressed problems with trust that arise when a marriage starts out with an affair. Whatever the reason, the pain was palpable in the room.

He stared at me, and still fuming, said, “Well, she’s taken all the control. I don’t have a choice.”

My response? “What do you want more than anything? You have lots of choices. You could leave this room, slam the door and head to the meanest divorce lawyer you can find. You can call your children and tell them how their mother is abandoning your marriage. You can let your anger and hurt be in control, and try to hurt her back. Or… you can hear what she’s saying and see where it goes.”

He could respond, not react. He could decide what value was more important to him than flying off the handle.

How do you respond when someone suddenly pulls in front of you when you’re driving? Do you get enraged? Or do you remind yourself that you’ve done that unintentionally as well, after you changed your mind about the best way to get somewhere? What’s more important to you — having a chance to get angry, or being understanding? What do you value more?

The way you react is due to a lot of things. Maybe you’re triggered by something from your past, something that you’ve never resolved — something that’s keeping you from what I call being an “emotional grown-up.” Maybe you’re exhausted, and your over-reaction is due to being out of reserves. Maybe you’ve been angry or resentful for a long time, and your self-restraint is used up completely. Maybe you’re taken aback by something you’re not prepared to hear. So you explode.

Three things that lead to self-control and healthy communication…

There are three things that can help with control of your emotions, while also giving the message that you care about the conversation. Let’s say you’re getting way too overheated in a conversation you’re having with your partner — and you’re starting to feel like you’re losing control of your emotions.

1. Recognize when you’re having an over-reaction.

Stop and ask yourself, “Wait. is my reaction too intense? Is it rational?” The very act of stopping your emotions and questioning their validity can offer you the few seconds you need to realize you’re over-reacting.

You can search for the reason you’re getting so highly triggered. If you’re tired, get some rest. If you’ve been resentful for a long time, get a book such as “The Dance Of Anger” and learn more assertiveness. If you’re being triggered by something from your past, journal or work with a therapist on just how that’s happening.

When you understand, you’re far more likely to respond well.

2. Be careful if you need to choose to withdraw.

You may need to leave a conversation in order to pull yourself together. You can reveal that you’re having an over-reaction — and that you don’t want to — and state you need time to think things over. You need time to try to understand what’s underneath your reaction so you won’t say or do something impulsive.

“I can feel myself getting angry about this, and I want to try to understand. I’m going to take a break and cool off. But I want to get back to this, because it’s important we be able to talk about it.”

3. State very clearly that you’ll return to the conversation — because it’s important to you to resolve the issue.

This last part is very important — the message that you will be back. Withdrawal can feel very controlling. If you disappear, go into another room, leave the house or immerse yourself in a video game, that can feel terrible to the other person. Saying you want to continue the conversation is a must. Otherwise, they’ll follow you and things are likely to escalate. It’s called an approach/avoidance pattern in psychology.

“I try to leave the room, and he follows me.”

“She won’t leave me alone if I tell her I need some time to think about things.”

These reactions, which are mostly about fear, can be helped by a simple, “I’ll be back in an hour. And we’ll continue to talk.” Or, “Let’s pick this conversation back up in the morning, when we’re both not so tired.”

By the way, the guy whose wife wanted a separation? He made the decision that he cared more about the marriage than he did his pride. He calmed down, He sat and listened. When they came back the next week, he’d helped her move out. They’d, together, talked to their children. He joined a men’s group and started exercising. She was gone around six months. And when therapy stopped, she’d been back in their home for around three months.

Good things can happen when you think — when you monitor and manage your emotional reactions. And when what you value the most remains your top priority.

Not getting even or getting mad. But understanding. And loving well.


You can hear more about mental health and many other topics by listening to my podcast, SelfWork with Dr. Margaret Rutherford. Subscribe to my website and receive one weekly newsletter including my weekly blog post and podcast! If you’d like to join my FaceBook closed group, then click here and answer the membership questions! Welcome!

My new book entitled Perfectly Hidden Depression has arrived and you can order here! Its message is specifically for those with a struggle with strong perfectionism which acts to mask underlying emotional pain. But the many self-help techniques described can be used by everyone who chooses to begin to address emotions long hidden away that are clouding and sabotaging your current life.

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