The longer I have been providing therapy, the more I’m convinced that, along with acquiring the skills to walk and talk, a basic task of being human is to learn to manage our emotions. Sometimes, the ways that we regulate our feelings are helpful, while other times the way we manage them can be harmful to ourselves and others.
How We Learn to Manage our Emotions (Self-Regulate)
As a baby, your caregivers were charged with providing comfort when you were teething, hungry, or needed changing. When you were in distress, your caregivers should have remained calm. When you looked to them, they’d essentially be saying, “Don’t worry. I got this.” You would have been soothed, which in turn would calm your caregivers further, creating a positive feedback loop of mutual regulation, and all would be well once again.
As a child, your parents were supposed to help you understand, express, and manage your feelings. Let’s say you skinned your knee. Their first words should have been, “What happened!?” And as you told your story in between sobs, they should have responded with words of understanding, like, “Oh no! You were pushed down? That must have been scary!” And then the next several minutes should have been spent providing you with a physical remedy and an emotional balm. Again, the feedback loop would occur, and you would have calmed down.
As you grew, you would have naturally internalized this repeated mutual regulation process. This is what leads to the ability to self-regulate.
But if you were met with indifference (“It’s just a scratch. Whaddya crying about?”) or with horror (like it was the worst thing in the world), the mutual regulation process — and therefore self-regulation — would have been interrupted. And if your parents abused or neglected you, learning to self-regulate would be difficult if not impossible.
What Happens if You Didn’t Learn How to Self-Regulate?
If you didn’t learn to self-regulate, you most likely developed a particular set of coping strategies. These are unique to each person. They serve a very important function and are generally difficult to change.
Certain childhood coping mechanisms can be helpful from the get-go, such as focusing on school or participating in sports. But other coping strategies to deal with difficult emotions might be less helpful in the long run.
Here are four examples of how you might have reacted when your parents were fighting:
- Ran into your bedroom and put in your ear buds to drown them out.
- Found solace in cake and cookies.
- “Acted out,” which is an unconscious attempt to get your parents to stop arguing by turning their attention toward you.
- Intervened by directly stepping in to get your parents to stop.
In adulthood, these same four examples from childhood can evolve into a more advanced form of the same strategies, such as a tendency to:
- Run away from conflict, either physically or by activities such as playing video games or texting with your ex.
- Indulge in self-destructive behavior such as overeating, excessively gambling, or abusing drugs and alcohol.
- Act out in ways such as lashing out at people or trying to control others.
- Avoid conflict by going along with others’ decisions when you don’t really want to.
Ironically, your coping strategies can make your long-term circumstances worse, in part because you can become more and more overwhelmed at the mere thought of having these daunting feelings, let alone expressing them.
What Are Your Triggers?
Even the most calm, level-headed individual may have trouble managing their feelings in periods of great uncertainty and confusion. And due to the times we’re living in, at least occasional emotional dysregulation should be expected.
In regard to learning how to better regulate your emotional responses, you need to know what your triggers are and how they originated. Knowing this can not only lead to better regulation, but you can control your anxiety and other secondary emotional responses.
Triggers exist because you have a pre-existing sensitivity (i.e., a button) to certain situations and the feelings they bring. You can discover your triggers by looking at where you “overreact” to situations. We don’t all have trouble with the same emotions. Some people have trouble with anger, others want to avoid feeling fear or helplessness, and many others don’t want to feel pain or sadness.
To illustrate, let’s say that you’re seeing a therapist and you say, “I don’t like it when other therapists come to the waiting room to get their patients and I’m the last one to be brought in.”
The therapist should ask, “Is this feeling familiar?” Inevitably, you’ll find that it comes from past public humiliations, like always being chosen last on sports teams or your parents repeatedly forgetting to pick you up at school. You naturally want to avoid feeling humiliated or abandoned.
Please note that you don’t need to have a “right” to your feelings. It’d be great if we could choose our emotional responses. However, you’re not responsible for your feelings, but you are responsible to them, and you can only choose how to respond to them once they come up.
Seven Ways to Learn to Self-Regulate
This leads to seven ways that you can learn to self-regulate, respond to your emotions differently, and replace old coping strategies.
1. Consider the “No wonder!” Goal
To continue the above example, once you understand why you have an aversion to being chosen last, you can say, “NO WONDER why I hate being the last person in the waiting room. There’s nothing wrong with me. Our gym teacher should have never let other students pick their teams (a dumb idea in my humble opinion), and my parents should have picked me up from school on time. Furthermore, they should have helped me to understand and accept my emotions rather than dismissing me.”
2. Stop Trying to Get Rid of Your Unwanted Emotions
Trying to rid yourself of uncomfortable emotions does not work. In fact, it only generates more uncomfortable feelings. As noted earlier, feelings come up — you literally have no control over them. Learn to tolerate them more. Eventually, you can accept them.
3. Reduce the Misery Index
The misery index is the distance between how you feel and how you think you should feel. Closing the gap means saying, “Good or bad, right or wrong, it’s how I’m responding right now.”
Rather than falling into a shame spiral, which can lead to feeling depressed and anxious, you can validate and accept your emotions, which come from a very young part of your brain and are never ridiculous.
4. Recognize That Your Only Recourse Is to Change Your Behavior
One way I define being a grown up is being able to separate your feelings from your behavior. It’s a lifelong process and — like self-actualization — you can never grow up 100%. But you can continue to work on it.
Passive-aggressive coping strategies are simply a way of expressing your feelings indirectly. They include the Silent Treatment, asking numerous questions (when you’re challenging someone), and accusations. These actions may help you to self-regulate momentarily, but they also destabilize relationships. Try to be more direct. Start your communication with “When you did… I felt…”
5. Take “The Pause”
To self-regulate, it’s important to take the pause, also known as, “Don’t just do something, sit there!”
Before responding to emotional triggers, take a moment. Literally take a breath or two. You may need as little as five seconds. Sometimes, it’s best to take a bit longer, maybe even sleeping on it before you react. Recognize, sort out, and organize your feelings before responding.
6. Learn to Trust
You may be wondering why this suggestion is included. Changing your coping strategies requires something you may be most afraid of: Being vulnerable. Despite the fact that your coping mechanisms came about in response to your past, try to stretch by becoming more open with others.
Part of why you developed coping strategies is because you think that other person might ridicule you, get mad, ignore you, or — even worse — leave you. Therefore, consider starting out small, using the words, “This makes me uncomfortable,” rather than getting into your specific feelings about something that bothers you.
7. Be Willing to Change Your Coping Strategies
This is a tall order. I sometimes think of growth and maturing as “tool replacement.” Take a good look at your maladaptive coping mechanisms and learn how to replace them with helpful ones. Know that it took you years to develop and solidify your coping strategies, and it will take a while — as well as resources such as a 12-step program, therapy, and reading self-help books and articles — to replace them.
I wish I could be more specific and that there was a recipe for this. But because you are unique and your combination of coping mechanisms are unique, I’m only asking you at this moment to be willing. And know that with awareness and willingness, you’re half-way toward making the changes you want to see.
Emotions are an essential and natural part of life, and as you learn the basic task of regulating them in new, healthier ways, you’ll be empowered to use new coping strategies that will make you stronger, control your anxiety, and strengthen your relationships.