Bounded and Unbounded Emotions

This article is about how to change your bad emotions. Good emotions matter to life too, but won’t be covered here. My previous article on changing emotions applies to good emotions as well as bad ones. Improving bad emotions is something where people often get stuck at the beginning, without getting anywhere, so this article focuses on a way to get started.

Emotions are either in control or out of control. They’re a lot of other things too. This is just one characteristic, and it’s neglected but important.

In control doesn’t mean total control and the emotion just does whatever you want, stops on a dime, starts on command, etc. In control just means it stays within some boundaries or limits. You have some control over it. There are things it would never do, because it’s too controlled to do that. There are things which are out of bounds, and you have enough control over what’s going on to avoid those things.

By out of control I mean completely out of control. You are along for the ride, the emotion does whatever. That doesn’t mean a strong emotion, it just means you aren’t deciding how strong it is, even within a range.

An emotion can be out of control and mild, but you didn’t choose for it to be mild, it was out of your hands. And an emotion can be severe but in control – you don’t know how to limit it to be milder, but you won’t let it get even stronger, and that is within your power.

Getting emotions under control is a great first step towards solving emotional problems. It may sound hard, but it’s not. Out of control means the emotions have infinite scope, anything can happen. In control means there are limits.

If you get quite angry, and do things you regret, but you won’t ever go into a murderous rage, that is an example of having control over your emotions. That means your anger is under control in one way, like putting a fence on one side of it. It’s not in control yet – you still need fences on the other sides. But it’s not that hard to make a fence prior to infinity – if you put fences at 1,000,000 points of emotional severity, those would be boundaries. Start with big limits and make them more precise later.

Fences are an OK analogy, but not perfect. Fencing in an emotion is not like fencing in a cow. You don’t ask a cow about the fence. You just build it and then the cow can’t get out. With your emotions, you need to persuade them. You need to treat them with respect and use reasoning, arguments, and collaborative problem solving. Work with your emotions. They’re another voice in your head which you can cooperate with. Trying to use force against yourself will just hurt yourself and make a mess. You don’t want a civil war in your head. You need to figure out how there is mutual benefit in limits for emotions – why does it make sense from the emotion’s perspective? What does the emotion value and what kind of limits are compatible with that? Use empathy instead of just trying to will your emotion out of existence. Find win/win solutions with your emotions instead of trying to push win/lose decisions on them.

Limiting your murderous rage is achievable but it’s not as easy as it might sound. Lots of people think “I would never ever go into a murderous rage” – and then they do. That is a thing which happens. There are people who know they might get murderously angry, and do it. But there are plenty of people who think they wouldn’t, but still do it.

To limit your anger so murderous rages are out of bounds, you need some knowledge:

  • What is a murderous rage? How can I correctly evaluate which rages are murderous or not?
  • How close to a murderous rage is it safe to get? At what point before my rage reaches murderous levels do I risk going too far and need to use emergency measures to stop?
  • What can I do to stop or lower my rage, in a worst case scenario?
  • What are warning signs that things are starting to get bad, and what milder measures should I use in those cases to avoid going in the direction of a murderous rage in the first place?
  • What can trigger a murderous rage quickly without me having much time to react? What can I do about the danger of that happening?
  • Have you ever done anything while emotional that you previously thought you wouldn’t ever do?

And you need to be able to use all that knowledge while angry. Some of it – the last resort stuff – needs to be ready for use while almost murderously angry. You need to be able to remember this stuff while angry, and still see it as important. This stuff needs to be intuitive, automatic, and a really high priority for you – or it will be discarded when you’re super mad.

So, it’s not trivial to limit your anger so that you’ll never be murderously angry. Many people haven’t done that, even if they think they have. But other people really have done it. It’s achievable. And they did it without written English explanations of what the issues are, without the above bullet point list of things to think about, etc. With this help, it’s easier to achieve.

There are other ways anger can get out of control besides a murderous rage. Like you could start destroying your property. You should limit that too. Ideally, you should have some sort of limit on all the directions/ways/types your anger could get out of control. Some of them can be big limits and you’d rather not go anywhere near the limit, but at least the limit isn’t infinity. Having limits short of infinity is the place to start. It’s infinitely better than having no limit. It’s a way to begin making progress and getting your emotions under control.

Aside: I think this is part of what Howard Roark meant about his pain and suffering only going down to a “certain point”. He had them under control, within limits. That doesn’t mean he could limit his pain however he wanted. Maybe his pain got up to 500, and he didn’t know how to keep it lower. But he had enough knowledge, control over his life, reasonableness, etc., that his pain couldn’t go past (let’s say) 1000 in any direction, at any angle. And for what actually happened - the situation and type of pain it was – the limit was 500. And his pain stopped near or at the limit, that’s what the “certain point” was about. (Stopping at an exact number isn’t realistic, so I think Roark’s pain didn’t actually go down to a certain point, it approached a certain point and stopped short, with enough margin for error not to pass that point.)

This article is also inspired by David Deutsch’s ideas about infinity.

Question: What are some limits on emotions that would be good to have but you don’t currently have?

Next Steps: Putting any limits at all on your bad emotions (or figuring out what limits you already do or don’t have) is a good way to get started. After that, try to improve the limits. Try to prevent non-murderous rages too, not just murderous ones. Or limit your shame, nervousness, worrying, broken hearts, or condescension.

Once you have some emotional limits established, it’s easier to make tighter limits. You’ve already figured out how to limit your emotions and be in control. Adjusting the limits is easier than creating limits in the first place.

But remember, your bad emotions aren’t your enemies to be fenced in like animals. Don’t limit emotions by building (mental) bunkers filled with gunmen. The path to a great, rational life involves learning to work cooperatively with your emotions. Limits should come from rational persuasion, not authoritarian imposition.

What’s the point of your anger? Perhaps you don’t want people to walk all over you while you’re passive. Perhaps you want to identify your enemies. Perhaps you want to know when something is hurting you, and react strongly. Perhaps you want to be strong. Perhaps you want attention for your problems, instead of to have your grievances ignored after you’re mistreated. Perhaps you want people to avoid doing something bad to you in the future. All of these concerns are at least partly correct, and are compatible with never being murderously angry. Murderous anger won’t help you effectively accomplish these goals. Once you look at the world from the perspective of the emotion, you can find limits which make sense from its perspective, and which actually help it better achieve its goals. The same kind of analysis can be done with all your bad emotions – they aren’t entirely bad, and getting infinitely out of control won’t actually help them achieve their goals.