Thoughts on Feelings (Part 1): The Fear of Losing Control Over Strong Emotions

Thoughts on Feelings series

We know that when we are overwhelmed by intense and strong emotions, that we lose the capacity to reflect or think about our own experiences in a meaningful way.  This has massive implications particularly since we begin to experience a whole gamut of complex emotions as we transcend each phase of life.  The challenge here is to hopefully develop our emotional regulation capacities sufficiently that we may navigate the intrinsics of what may be viewed as more highly sophisticated ways of "managing" our emotions.  For instance, society expects kids at a young age to learn to deal with their own feelings competently, and in many cases to "behave".  In other instances, adults are also expected to be able to pull themselves together since they should technically know better.  However, in reality, we know this to be a tall task, though we may continue carrying around our mental schemas and beliefs that these are valid expectations.  In fact, we are all at the mercy of our feelings, and wishes, but we still try to control them nonetheless.  Why not consider that our feelings are a normal part of our existence, and feelings are a way we can learn to evaluate and make sense of our daily experiences.


The Thought on Feelings series of posts were inspired by my own personal experiences seeing a wide variety of disturbed clients who find it a struggle to manage their own feelings.  These posts are intended to provide in a less complicated manner what may be useful or challenging for a vast majority of readers, who may have experienced some degree of these descriptions.  May these thoughts create a stir to question our own practices and beliefs.

We need control

As mentioned earlier, we can't help but try and control things.  Our finances, our schedules, and relationships are just some examples - we even like it sometimes!  For many of us, keeping a bird's eye view or being on the ball,  helps many people feel safe.  That things in their lives are within grasp, and that it's not disorganised.  It is when we begin to perceive that we are losing control over things that it causes us to feel insecure and fearful.  This is applicable to our own experience of feelings, and to what extent we can perceive ourselves to be on top of them, regardless of the situational context.

Fear of strong emotions

We know that the ability to regulate our own emotions is important both as an organisation of human functioning, and coordinating needs with environmental demands.  It has also been shown that the initial years of life are fundamentally crucial to the regulation of emotion.  Research had explored children's developing conceptions of and capacities for emotion regulation and focused on children's emerging understanding that they can and should control their emotions.  This process of developmental change is seen to be influencing the abilities related to interpersonal relationship and internal emotional functioning.  

Throwback to my 4th year undergrad thesis:  The Effects of Age and Gender on the Fear of Losing Control Over Strong Emotions in Adolescence (2006).  Having developed a questionnaire called the Adolescent Emotions Survey, and gathered data from a group of 3,316 non-clinical adolescents (normal everyday kids), aged 12 - 17 years old, interesting results were found.

When taking into account age (grade level) and gender, grade 10 (about 15 - 16 years old) is the identified point where male and female participants experienced the most difference in their fear of losing control over their strong emotions!  Results showed that male participants were significantly more afraid of losing control over their strong positive emotions than were the females, whereas female participants were significantly more afraid of losing control over their strong negative emotions than were the males.  Overall, female participants were significantly more afraid of losing control of their strong emotions than were the males.  Not only were these results consistent with the research in adolescent experience of feelings, but also tells us a lot about the perceived struggles typical kids have with learning to deal with strong emotions.  So what if the process of emotional development is disrupted by way of inadequate care, nurturance and guidance by significant others?  Maybe strong emotions would then not be welcome, or others may even learn to devalue one's own emotional experience as it is viewed to be problematic or fearful when out of control.  In essence, this would be disturbing when emotions are supposed to be a normal part of human experience, and as highlighted earlier, important for our socio-emotional interactions.

Looking back to what I had found, we also know that if we do not achieve some degree of competence in emotional regulation by adolescent (and some might argue in the first years of life), and young adult years of life, we would experience a wealth of difficulties that would render us lacking in confidence with emotional control, competence, forming and maintaining relationships, and sense of self.  It would also be a time we achieve and solidify a personality style, so it is crucial for us to value our emotions, and seek ways to understand and express them in safe, adaptive ways.

Having seen many a client with interpersonal problems stemming from dysregulated and chaotic responses to their emotional experiences, be it hurt or pain, we have an ethical mandate to help the public understand that there is a need to support the development of the basic and necessary competencies of healthy emotional regulation from as early as infancy.  Too many individuals upon reaching adulthood with significant and problematic ways of coping with their emotions, lead them toward the track of emerging personality disorders (aka characteristic problems).  Hence, parents, caregivers, family, friends, a child's immediate social circle, and environmental systems can play roles that mean a great deal, which can mitigate or steer their loved ones toward emotionally healthy lives.  Let's spread the word now.  

For more on Emotional Regulation, check out these references here.