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  • Kevin Patton

Help, I can't Control My Feelings!

OK, if trying to control how you feel doesn’t work, what’s the alternative?

If I had a magic wand so these feelings couldn’t hold you back in any way, what would you do differently in your life?

Obviously, I don’t have a magic wand but it’s possible to learn some skills so that these feelings no longer hold you back.

Instead of trying to control our thoughts and feelings, we learn to stop our thoughts and feelings controlling us, and there’s a wide variety of techniques open to you, some only take a few seconds, while others can take up to fifteen or twenty minutes.

At this point, I need to emphasise that not having your feelings hold you back from being the person you want to be (and really are) is a process, not a technique. The techniques are just ways of going through the process.

If you look under the Resources section of the Living Well website, you can find a Mindfulness exercise, Courtesy of Russ Harris, put together using eight different techniques: observe, breathe, expand, allow, objectify, normalize, show self-compassion, and expand awareness.

As you go through this exercise, one of two things will happen: either your feelings will change— or they won’t. It doesn’t matter either way. The aim is not to change or reduce feelings but to accept them— to allow them to be there without a struggle. Why? Because when we aren’t investing so much time, energy, and effort in trying to control how we feel, we can invest it instead in moving towards the person we want to be and living life the way we want.

When we accept our feelings, they may or may not reduce in intensity. We can’t predict it. But we can predict this: when we try to control or avoid our feelings, it’s very likely that they’ll increase in intensity and cause us more distress.

A Closer look at these Eight Techniques


In order to accept a feeling or sensation, we must first be aware of it.

This can be summed up in a short exercise lasting only a few seconds;

Notice that feeling. Notice where it is. Notice where it’s most intense.


A lot of people— but not everyone— will find breathing into a feeling enables them to make room for it. Slow, diaphragmatic breathing seems particularly useful for a lot of people. I will explore this in more depth in my next blog.

This can be summed up in a short exercise lasting only a few seconds;

Notice that feeling and gently breathe into it.


This is about around making room and creating space for your thoughts and feelings. What you resist persists.

The short version of this exercise might look a bit like this;

Notice that feeling, and see if you can just open up around it a little— give it some space.


Acceptance does not mean liking, wanting, or approving of a thought or feeling: it means allowing it – after all, you already know that the feeling has kept coming back (in spite of everything you have done to stop it).

This can be summed up in a short exercise lasting only a few seconds;

This feeling isn’t pleasant, you don’t like this feeling, but see if you can just let it sit there for a moment. You don’t have to like it— just allow it to be there.


When we turn a feeling into an object, it helps us experience that this feeling is not bigger than we are; we have plenty of room for it.

This feeling is something you experience, it is not part of who you are.

The short version of this exercise would look a bit like this;

If this feeling was an object, what would it look like?


If we can recognise that it’s normal and natural to have painful feelings— that this is an inevitable part of being human— we’re more likely to accept them.

Run through a list of the nine basic human emotions in your head. There’s debate about this, but most “experts” tend to agree on these basics. As you think of them, give them a thumbs up or a thumbs down. Thumbs up means it’s a “good” or “positive” emotion. Thumbs down means it’s a “bad” or “negative” emotion.










Six out of nine of the normal human emotions get a thumbs down from most of us. This tells you something about what it is to be human. Two-thirds of the normal human emotions that every human being will repeatedly experience throughout life do not feel good! We live in a feel-good society that tells us we should feel good all the time, but how realistic is that?

A short exercise to help practice this technique might look like this;

There’s a gap here between the reality you want and the reality you have. And it’s not just a small gap— it’s huge. Consider this: What would you expect any human being to feel when there’s such a big gap between what you want and what you have?

So that distress you’re feeling is a normal human emotion. This is what we feel when there’s a gap between how we want things to be and how they are. And the bigger the gap, the bigger and more painful the feeling.


Experiencing these difficult thoughts and feelings does not make you mad, bad, or dangerous to know (although what you do about them might!). Not only does everybody go through this stuff – they have to go through in order for the stuff our senses report to us to have any meaning. Otherwise, it’s all just data. Being good at feeling bad helps us make our way through life. Feeling this stuff is part of what makes us human – you don’t have to like it, just stop beating yourself up for feeling it. It already hurts, you don’t need to hurt yourself any more.

The quickie exercise to practice this looks a bit like this;

Just place a hand where you feel this most intensely— and see if you can open up around it … Hold it gently like it’s a small child or a frightened puppy.

Expanding Awareness

At times, we may want to focus on our emotions— such as when we’re learning a mindfulness skill or grieving for a loved one. However, much of the time, if we’re too intently focused on our feelings, they’ll get in the way of living life. We want to be able to make room for our feelings and engage with the world around us to do whatever we need to do to make our lives work.

A short exercise in expanding awareness might look like this;

Notice the feeling. And also notice your breathing … and notice your body. Also notice the room around you. Notice there’s a lot going on.

Acceptance is about re-focusing your attention and energy away from trying to control your thoughts and feelings and on to doing things that will move you towards the person you want to be and the life you want to live.

In the Resources section of the Living Well website, you can find two short videos illustrating this point.

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