What is Emotional Self-Control?

by Steve Faulkner on 07 June 2018 | filed in Freelancing Leadership Procrastination Productivity Self Development

Imagine, for a moment, that your phone goes ping, you look at the screen and see that you’ve had a few mentions on Twitter. You feel that little warm fizzle of acknowledgement, which soon goes to shit when you realise, with horror, that you are the subject of a discussion, but not in a good way. That little dopamine drop is soon replaced with a nauseous feeling of dread. (No, this is not based on a true story…ish).

Imagine how this would feel. Now imagine how this would feel if you were in the middle of something important; at work, with friends or with family. How much would this affect your mood, your demeanour or your performance? Would you still be an effective parent, colleague or team member, or would you be completely stressed, distracted and unable to concentrate?

If you were able to just carry on regardless, unphased, caring not a jot and with no emotional blip, congratulations, you’re probably a robot. But if you could recognise your emotions, feel the pain, continue to function and recover quickly (for the time being), you probably have, in this context, a high level of emotional self-control.

Emotional Self-control is the ability to maintain a level of effectiveness when hit with day to day challenges or unexpected negative events. Importantly, it is NOT about suppressing emotions through trauma, grief and personal difficulty.


In my experience, this is more about context than about personality. Yes, there are a few of us who seem able to overcome any challenge and those that seem to be at the mercy of their emotions, but most (all?) of us will have strengths and weaknesses when it comes to controlling our emotions.

For example, in the late nineties, I decided to become a street performer in Covent Garden. I failed again and again, in front of my peers, for years. I had no innate talent but, despite experiencing constant humiliation, I finally succeeded through sheer grit and determination.

Conversely, probably due to having a stable upbringing and no real trauma in my childhood, I spent much of my adult life ill-equipped to deal with certain types of emotional challenge. Even an incidental argument with a girlfriend would leave me in a state of distress for hours, being unable to sleep or concentrate, until everything was resolved.

In certain circumstances, I can be very resilient, but in others not so much.

Over the years, due to being a freelancer and separated parent, and a divorce that I didn’t, initially, cope with very well, I’ve had to build my emotional self-control. If I don’t work, I don’t get paid and no children want to see their dad in a crumpled mess. So I had some work to do.


One way to measure fitness is by measuring recovery. For example, when I used to be a personal trainer, a client would get on an exercise bike, leather it until their heart felt like it was going to explode (I am not, in any way recommending you do this), then measure the time it took for their heart to go back to a normal, resting rate.

Similarly, you’ll get a good idea of your emotional self-control by being aware of how long it takes for you to be able to get back to normal, effective performance. Fortunately, just like physical fitness, this can be improved with practice and training.

We all have areas we can work on, it’s just knowing what they are. Not sure? Watch my Top 5 Self- Awareness activities video here, and in a future video and post, I’ll be looking more deeply into what you can actually do to build your emotional self-control.

I think you’ll find some useful exercises unless you already have your own, which I would love to hear about.

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Steve Faulkner is an accredited ILM leadership trainer, speaker and coach. If you want to know more, get in touch