Emotions, like thoughts, are something you can influence and change, within reason. If you don’t believe this, suspend your disbelief for a bit.
“Within reason” doesn’t mean that you can only change your thoughts and emotions a little. You can change them a lot, probably more than you believe or alieve. But consistent or at-will change takes practice.
Being able to change thoughts and emotions is highly useful, of course. If you’re in a bad mood for no reason¹, or something petty and irrelevant has set you off, snapping out of it is a social survival skill. The alternative is forcing others to shoulder the burden of your emotional processing, and I hope you don’t feel comfortable with that prospect.
Influencing or changing your emotions is a skill. Skills can be practiced. Great! So how do you practice this in a reasonable way, possibly without undergoing emotional hardship? I don’t really have a good answer, especially not a generic one. Ramping anger up or down requires a different skillset compared with sadness, or with joy, or with being a functioning adult during a global pandemic crisis. I’ll probably post details about some of these in the future².
Good news, though: An underlying skill for all of these is being able to remember an emotion.³ The goal is to have a repertoire of memories of emotions ready to access when you want to trigger an emotion or just reason about it. Building memories of emotions is a bit tricky, because human memory has about a million bugs and a highly questionable information architecture.
This is what has worked best for me: I’ll wait for a moment when I experience an emotion very strongly and clearly. Joy, anger, anxiety, love, helplessness, grief, calm, … anything that feels pure and true. I’ll try to become aware of the emotion, of how it feels, of what I think – and then I’ll imagine Future Me remembering this moment. This turns the moment into a very clear, and possibly even somewhat reliable memory.
These memories have stuck around reliably, but I’ve noticed that their intensity declines over time if I don’t think about them. Recalling them refreshes them, though, so I’ve added emotional recall to my deck of flashcards. Usually I have a mix of tech knowledge and literature/culture facts in there, but now I’ll occasionally prompt myself to recall an emotion. I like how disruptive it feels, and how it forces me to connect emotional recall and information recall.
¹ Spoiler: There is a reason.
² I’m currently learning about anger, and I was figuring out good ways of turning it up and down, when everything happened, and then everything stopped happening.
³ Caveat: Everybody processes emotions and memories differently, blah blah, and maybe you don’t need any recall to handle yours.