Some of us are instantly consumed with rage when we are cut off in traffic. Others seem to barely notice when the same thing happens to them. The New York Times reports on recent research revealing exactly how we manipulate our emotions. Some pop off in anger at the slightest provocation, while others suppress their expressions like a champion poker player. Apparently, it’s all in how you’ve developed your psychological tools.

Recent research shows that people develop intricate, ingrained social tools to navigate their way through the world. Sigmund Freud called the process of sublimination “an unconscious mechanism whereby undesired instinctive drives are diverted into the socially acceptable.” It seems that some of us subliminate emotions either far too little or far too much. While lacking control of one’s emotions is typically seen as a sign of mental illness, having too much control over them can also be destructive. Repressing your emotions can become subconscious, leading to unintended social problems and extreme stress.

James J. Gross is a psychologist at Stanford University. As he told the NY Times, “One reason we’re so attuned to others’ emotions is that, when it’s a real emotion, it tells us something important about what matters to that person ….[When you suppress emotions] people think, damn it, you’re not like us, you don’t care about the same things we do.” Studies have been conducted revealing people who score highest in repressing their feelings have the most difficult time making new friends. What’s more, people who suppress themselves too much are inevitably more stressed out.

Researchers also found that older people are more capable of regulating their emotions and were more likely to focus on the positive. They also found that people take on emotions that they think will best serve a situation. For example, in a study for which people were instructed to play video games, one group was told they would be hunted by monsters and the others were told they would create a theme park. Before playing the game, the study volunteers rated what type of music they wanted to hear, according to the NY Times article. Those prepped for the monster game inevitably chose scary musical soundtracks to deal with the task at hand.

Further, those who seem to have complete control over their emotions may simply do so because of practice. Dr. Maya Tamir is a psychologist at Hebrew University in Jerusalem and at Boston College. She told the NY Times that remaining calm and patient in a crisis situation can be learned to the point of becoming an automatic reaction, therefore sparing a person the experience of extreme emotions.

Ultimately, it seems that the well-adjusted among us are those who practice an assortment of emotional tools. Stefan G. Hofmann is a professor of psychology at Boston University. As he told the NY Times, “The people who get into trouble socially, I believe, are the ones who are inflexible — who stick to just one.”

For further reading:

Do you suppress your emotions or blow your top?
Scientists look at our different emotion regulation strategies.