“The appearance of things change according to the emotions and thus we see magic and beauty in them, while the magic and beauty are really in ourselves.” – Kahlil Gibran
Emotion regulation is all about identifying, managing, and responding to emotions in a way that allows them to be useful and productive aspects of your internal experience. To “regulate” an emotion does not necessarily mean to make it disappear any more than it necessarily means to intensify the emotion. Depending upon the situation you are in and other contextual factors, it may be in your best interest to either calm an emotion or tap into an emotion more deeply.
Mindfulness enables you to become a more cognizant observer of your experience, allowing you to become more “tuned in” to what you are feeling inside. When emotions feel confusing, overwhelming, or paralyzing, they are not serving the healthy and productive function that those very same emotions are able to serve when used constructively.
It is important to understand that the emotion itself – be it anger, fear, sadness, or joy – is not the “enemy.” There is no such thing as a “bad emotion” anymore than there is a “good emotion.” Emotions can have the consequence of making you feel good or bad, but it is often the interpretation of the emotion and the way that you respond to the emotion that creates this subjective experience.
For example, the emotion of anger can be experienced as “bad” when it results in lashing out inappropriately at other people or creating an internal state of feeling out of control. On the other hand, the same emotion of anger can be experienced as “good” when it is acting as a motivating force to urge you to stand up for yourself, protect yourself, or right a wrong.
Dialectical Behavior Therapy: Emotion Regulation
Consider integrating the following components of emotion regulation coping skills into your growing emotion regulation “toolkit:”
(1) Understand your emotions
Practice taking a step back from your emotional experiences and giving yourself the time and space to notice and describe what you are feeling. Choose not to immediately become swept away by your emotions, but rather mindfully take a pause and actually notice what you are experiencing. This might sound like a simple concept, but it is not easy. Reflect on the role that emotions have played in your life and make an honest self-appraisal of how well you have been able to truly understand your emotional experiences. Consider how your life might be changed for the better if you allowed yourself internal space to mindfully observe your emotions.
(2) Allow exposure to your feelings
The more that you choose (consciously or otherwise) to avoid your emotions, the more likely it may be that they will become persistent and simply wait around for you to acknowledge them and experience them. The idea is to carefully, mindfully, and gradually allow yourself to sit with uncomfortable feelings and truly experience them. When you create a story in your mind about your emotions being unacceptable or frightening, there is a natural tendency to avoid them at all costs. As you consider your willingness to experience your emotions, reflect on the following Robert Frost quote: “The best way out is always through.”
(3) Use counterconditioning procedures
The idea behind counterconditioning is that a response to a particular stimulus is replaced by a new response. This new response is intended to deter you from the stimulus. Systematic desensitization is one technique that falls under the counterconditioning umbrella. To use this technique, you basically learn to use relaxation and other distress tolerance techniques when faced with uncomfortable emotional experiences (e.g., fear, anxiety, sadness, anger, guilt, shame). Actively and deliberately practicing relaxation techniques directly in the face of distressing emotions allows you to reduce the sense of urgency that often accompanies painful emotions (i.e., urges to take immediate action).
(4) Increase positive experiences
Consider the saying “you are what you eat.” Try applying this same adage to your internal psychological experience: “you are what you think” or “you are what you do.” When your attention and conscious focus is consistently shifting toward negative, distressing, or unpleasant thoughts and behaviors, it is easy to see how your emotions might closely follow suit. Just as you are capable of creating an intense internal state of distress, you are equally capable of creating an internal state of peacefulness and calm. Actively direct your thought and deed toward positive and healthy endeavors. Choose to cultivate an attitude of gratitude and open your lived experience up to the light in the world, rather than the dark.
If you are struggling to consider how you might increase positive experiences, consider a few of the following suggestions:
- Talk with a friend or loved one.
- Take a walk or hike outside.
- Take a bubble bath.
- Listen to soothing or uplifting music.
- Writing in your gratitude journal.
(5) Increase mindfulness of your current experience
When you choose to make contact with the present moment, you are simultaneously letting go of your attachments to the past and future. Mindfulness enables you to fully step into this moment – right now. Quite often, worries about the past and future take us so fully away from the present moment that we can begin to feel disconnected from ourselves and our lives. Check back in with yourself and tap into this moment in time. Are you basically “okay” right now? No matter how intense or unpleasant emotions may be in the present moment, it is guaranteed that they will pass. Remember that emotional experiences are temporary. Allow yourself to become a mindful and curious observer of your experience and you will notice that it is possible to have a new relationship with your emotions. They have no magic power over you that you do not hand over to them.
(6) Increase competence in using coping skills
Learning to effectively regulate emotions is like learning any new skill… it takes practice. Remember that the ultimate outcome of feeling that you are the “captain of your own ship” is worth it. Your emotions don’t have to take over your life or interfere with your important relationships when you learn how to understand, manage, and respond to your emotions more effectively. Become mindful of your own personal tendencies and emotional triggers. Notice what situations tend to prompt emotional responses in you. When you increase self-knowledge in this way, you are better prepared to competently and confidently employ emotion regulation coping skills no matter what the situation.
When you make the decision that it is worth it to you to consistently and actively apply principles of emotion regulation skills to your daily life, your experience with your emotions with naturally evolve. Many parents don’t raise their children with an “emotional how-to” book that encourages them to teach their children how to effectively identify and manage their emotions. Often times, when these basic emotion regulation skills are not learned in childhood and adolescence, it can make for an adulthood rife with emotional confusion or distress. There is no time like the present to learn to use your emotions constructively, allowing them to work for you rather than against you.
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Marra, T. (2004). Depressed & anxious: The dialectical behavior therapy workbook for overcoming depression and anxiety. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications, Inc.
Featured image: 278/365 – Hey Guys Hey Guys Hey Guys by Helga Weber / CC BY-ND 2.0