The lost art of domesticating one's emotions

In the 2009 Star Trek movie franchise, there's a scene where Kirk gets into a fight with Spock on the ship and as a result he is exiled to Delta Vega.

McCoy isn't particularly happy to see his impulsive hot headed friend exiled from the spaceship by the calm, stoical commander Spock.

The following exchange takes place between them:

MCCOY: Permission to speak freely, sir.

SPOCK: I welcome it.

MCCOY: Do you? Okay, then. Are you out of your Vulcan mind? Are you making the logical choice, sending Kirk away? Probably, but the right one? You know, back home we got a saying, "If you're gonna ride in the Kentucky Derby, you don't leave your prize stallion in the stable."

SPOCK: A curious metaphor, Doctor, as a stallion must first be broken before it can reach its potential.

While Spock is in fact my favourite character in the franchise, I've come to realise that Kirk and Spock, and their intensely contrasting personalities are both strong in their own way.

But the real magic is in their partnership. Think about it — if even one of these two characters didn’t constantly balance each other out, the franchise would not be as interesting.

Just imagine having Kirk go gallivanting across the universe, being impulsive and acting based on emotional pulls - he and his crew wouldn't last more than a year in deep space.

On the other hand, if the franchise was only about Spock journeying into the unknown reaches of space, it seems very unlikely that Starfleet would make a great deal of progress discovering new planets and life forms. Spock tends to be too regimented to take risks in the manner Kirk does.

But bringing the two of them together makes for great stories and endless adventures.

In real life, people's personalities aren't always as cut and dry as those of fictional characters. In my own life, I can list out instances that can paint me as someone who is the type to behave like Kirk. I can just as easily list out instances where I've behaved like Spock, verifying that that's the kind of person I really am.

The reality is that I am capable of acting like both these characters depending on what the situation demands.

The key difference between the manner in which Kirk and Spock operate is how they regulate the manner in which they use their emotions.

Kirk doesn't regulate his emotions very much.

Spock lives very carefully using logic to build dams to control the waves of strong emotions.

It's not as though one of them is better than the other.

There are some situations where Kirk makes the most sense even if he's operating based on strong emotional cues. In other situations, Spock's cool, collected logic brings forth solutions that Kirk couldn't work out in his emotionally agitated state.

The trick to optimising our lives is to know when to behave as Kirk would and when to behave as Spock would. The ability of making the best use of one's emotions based on the situation at hand is one that requires practice.

Emotions by themselves aren't good or bad.

Every emotion exists for a reason. Even to so-called negative emotions serve an important function that aids our survival — there’s no flaw in the design.

It's usually the degree with which these emotions are felt that makes them either good or bad for us.

Think about it.

Getting angry because of unfair treatment is legitimate if it inspires you to take action to set things right. Being overly rational about it will not change the status quo. However, being angry to the point of wanting to destroy everything in one's path is when there's a problem.

Fire by itself isn't good or bad. Depending on how it's used it can either provide warmth or burn things down.

In order to make the best use of our emotions, the first step is to learn to domesticate them — I am not referring to denying emotions, or explaining them away.

Take some time to feel any emotion that comes over you but once you’ve done that take a pause. Consider the situation you’re in — what does the present circumstance demand of you? Does getting upset or conflating the emotion you’re feeling give me more ways of dealing with the situation at hand?

If it doesn't, consider letting go of the emotion. Breathe it out so it can loosen its grip on you. In the absence of this conscious effort to regulate your emotions, you'll likely have bouts where the emotions control and talk you into doing things you'll regret. You may unwittingly have to spend years and years in the trial and error phase before you can establish some semblance of control over yourself.

The assumption is that this control comes with age and that older people are thus somehow better at emotional regulation than younger people. This isn't necessarily true, emotional regulation requires practice and practice by nature is deliberate. Don't wait for old age to teach you something you can easily learn with practice.

Use the little stresses in your day as practice material — there’s plenty to go around and there’s really no reason to not apply yourself to regulating your emotions. Gaining a foothold on the smaller emotional freak-outs will help you build fortitude for the bigger ones.

Don’t let a crisis pass you by without using it as an opportunity to get better at managing your emotions — if you don’t do it yourself you’ll be forced to.

Author of 'How to be a Lighthouse'. I write for those pursuing excellence and meaning.

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