Do you often feel out of control of your emotions and actions? Do you feel like you are at the mercy of what is going on around you? Self-regulation is an important skill that we are often missing in our lives. So what is self-regulation? How do I do it and how can it benefit me? How will regulating myself help my marriage? Find out how in this week’s podcast episode.
Today I want to talk about self-regulation. I think it’s a word that gets thrown around quite a bit these days, so I thought we could dive in and talk about it in depth so that when you hear it, you will truly understand what it means and how to accomplish it.
What is self-regulation? I looked up the definition and it said this: “The ability to manage disruptive emotions and impulses. In other words, it is to think before acting.”
Now, I kind of hand to laugh at that definition because as we know from our CTFAR model, there is ALWAYS a thought that drives our actions. We don’t ever act without thinking first. But, often times we are unaware of what that thought it. It happens on a subconscious level. So I would alter the definition to read “The ability to manage disruptive emotions and impulses. In other words, it is to think intentionally before acting.”
Another definition which I liked was from Andrea Bell from GoodTherapy.org She said “Self-Regulation is control of oneself, by oneself.”
She also said ““[S]omeone who has good emotional self-regulation has the ability to keep their emotions in check. They can resist impulsive behaviors that might worsen their situation, and they can cheer themselves up when they’re feeling down. They have a flexible range of emotional and behavioral responses that are well matched to the demands of their environment” (2016).”
I think about that movie Inside Out, where the emotions are up in the little girl’s brain in front of a big control panel pushing buttons to make her feel this way or that. So often we feel like we have NO control over ourselves, out thinking, our emotions. But when we learn self-regulation, we learn how in control we actually can be.
Now, we can’t really talk about self-regulation without discussing emotional dysregulation.
Emotional dysregulation is the inability to control one’s emotional responses. It happens in 3 steps
- An internal or external event happens (the circumstance)
- A cognitive response (a thought) followed by an emotion-related physiological response (for example, an increase in heart rate or hormonal secretion)
- The process culminates in a behavior or action (avoidance, physical action or expression, etc.)
People who are struggling with emotional dysregulation react to relatively mild negative events in an emotionally exaggerated manner. They may cry, scream, accuse, or blame those around them, or engage in passive-aggressive behavior or other behaviors that disrupt relationships and escalate conflict.
My experience with emotional regulation
I first learned about emotional dysregulation many years ago when I was working with my daughter. I’ve mentioned before that I have a 17-year old daughter who is Bipolar. She has been seeing psychiatrists and been medicated for it since she was 8 years old. But they don’t like to diagnose 8-year olds with bipolar, so her first diagnosis was Mood-Disorder non specified. Super helpful…
A few years later, they came out with a new diagnosis which she fit called Disruptive Mood Dysregulation Disorder. That is where I first learned about dysregulation. I’d seen it many times before, that her emotional response was not proportional to what was actually happening.
But, what I noticed is that I was also dysregulated. I was not regulating my emotions in response to her not regulating HER emotions. So when she would have an extreme emotional response, I would also escalate. The two of us would ramp each other up until it was this huge emotional situation. It felt like a hurricane.
When she would have an emotional response my thoughts would be something like
- Why is this happening again?
- Why does she have to act like this?
- Why can’t she just act normal?
- Why can’t she just figure this out?
- I’m so tired of this!
- She’s acting like a two year old.
These thoughts created my emotional response, which caused me to act out and scream and yell and pretty much act just like her.
So when I started learning about emotional regulation, and learned to control my thinking and get a different emotional response, things changed drastically.
Of course my brain would still offer me the thoughts like
- Why is this happening again?
But instead of continuing down that path, I would purposely choose to think instead
- I wonder what brought this on?
- It’s ok that she is acting this way
- Nothing has gone wrong
- What can I do to help her in this moment?
- I love her so much, I want to help her.
- How can I show up as my best self in this moment
These thoughts brought very different emotions and actions for me. And guess what? They diffused the situation a lot easier. As I learned to self-regulate, she also learned to self-regulate much more. We don’t have near the outburst and explosions we used to. And if we do, it doesn’t come from me. I’m able to stay calm and cool and collected in almost every instance because I manage my thoughts.
As I began regulating my own emotions in response to my daughter I also recognized how dysregulated I was in many other situations in my life. Including my marriage.
My husband would do something, or say something, or NOT do something, or NOT say something that I thought he SHOULD and my thoughts and emotions would kind of spiral out of control.
But when I learned to recognize that dysregulation in my life, I was much more able to change my thinking and keep my emotional responses to what I wanted them to be instead of being overrun by thoughts and emotions that I didn’t have control over.
Fight or Flight
I had a client ask me how to stop the fight or flight response in situations with their spouse. The fight or flight response comes from something that is terrifying either mentally or physically. It comes from thinking a thought (either consciously or unconsciously) that you are in danger. The thought triggers a release of hormones that prepare your body to either stay and deal with a threat or run away to safety.
There are very few circumstances in a marriage where the fight tor flight response is needed. I would say ONLY if you have a husband who is physically abusive. But for the most part, in our marriages, we are not physically or emotionally in danger. And if we think we are emotionally in danger, it again comes from the thought that what they are saying may cause us pain. But remember, that what someone else says can not cause us pain. It’s our own thought about WHAT they said that causes us pain. And it’s usually something along the lines of “maybe what they said is true.”
If you are having the fight or flight response to non-violent interactions with your spouse it is because of your thoughts and your unregulated emotions. This is great news, because it’s something you have complete control over.
How to Self-Regulate
So how do we learn to self regulate? Truly, this is what we are doing in coaching. We are bringing awareness to our thoughts, emotions, and actions, and what they are creating in our lives.
When we can learn to identify what our thoughts are creating for us, we are much more able to choose the thoughts that we want to have, choose the emotions we want to have, and act accordingly.
- When I want to feel more positive emotion (such as joy, amusement, or love) I change what I am thinking about.
- When I want to feel less negative emotion (such as sadness, anger, frustration or resentment) I change what I am thinking about.
- When I’m faced with a stressful situation, I make myself think about it in a way that helps me stay calm
CultivatingConnection.org gives 8 methods and self-regulation strategies that you can use to build your skills.
- Leading and Living with Integrity: being a good role model, practicing what you preach, creating trusting environments, and living in alignment with your values
- Being Open to Change: challenge yourself to deal with change in a straightforward and positive manner and work on improving your ability to adapt to different situations and stay positive through it all
- Identifying Your Triggers: cultivating a sense of self-awareness will help you learn what your strengths and weaknesses are, and what can trigger you into a difficult state of mind
- Practicing Self-Discipline: commit to taking initiative and staying persistent in working towards your goals, even when it’s the last thing you feel like doing
- Reframing Negative Thoughts: work on your ability to take a step back from your own thoughts and feelings, analyze them, and come up with positive alternative thoughts
- Keeping Calm Under Pressure: practice keeping your cool by removing yourself from the situation for the short-term—whether mentally or physically—and using relaxation techniques like deep breathing
- Considering the Consequences: when you are faced with a strong temptation towards “bad” behavior, stop and think about the consequences (e.g., what happened in the past, what is likely to happen now, what this behavior could trigger in terms of longer-term consequences)
- Believing in Yourself: boost your self-efficacy by working on your self-confidence; focus on the experiences in your life where you succeeded and keep your mistakes in perspective. Choose to believe in your own abilities and surround yourself with positive, supportive people (Kline, n.d.)
David Snarch is a physchologist. He said “If you can’t regulate your own emotional temperature, you’ll regulate everyone around you to keep yourself comfortable.” – David Snarch
This brings up a great point because so many times we don’t want to regulate our own emotions or don’t know how and so we try to control everyone else around us so that we can feel good. If everyone around us behaves that we want and need them to, then we can control ourselves, right? It’s so much easier! But when people around us don’t behave the way we want them to, then that requires us to have to do more work to control ourselves.
But once you learn how to self-regulate. How to think the thoughts that you want to think. How to create the emotions you want to feel. You won’t need to control everyone else around you because you’ve learned to control you.
I see this so often with my clients. We’ve talked about this a lot with the concept I teach called The Manual (Episode 39). That we need our spouse to behave in a certain way so that we can feel good. But when they don’t behave that way, we feel bad. And then we blame it on them. But self-regulation solves this. We learn to regulate ourselves, no matter the circumstance. No matter what our spouse says or does, we regulate how we want to think and feel. And when we do that, we are able to feel whatever we want to despite what is going on around us. It’s amazingly freeing. It feels so good to not have to control everyone and everything around us so that we can feel good. We can feel good anytime we want. It just depends on what we are thinking.
Bringing in the Spiritual
If you’ve listened to this podcast for a while, you know I like to bring in a spiritual aspect to a lot of these discussions. I liken the un-regulated self to the Natural Man. We let our tempers, our desires, our pride get in the way of doing what is best for ourselves and others. Most of the time I don’t think this is a conscious thought or effort. We just let the Natural Man roam free and do what comes…well, naturally. But if our desire is to become more like our Heavenly Father, we need to learn how to self-regulate. How to control the natural man. I don’t think Heavenly Father has a problem controlling his thoughts and emotions. I imagine He is perfectly regulated in what he chooses to think and feel. This is the ultimate act of agency. He has complete control over what He chooses to think and feel. He wants that for us too.
When we, with faith, control our tempers and subdue our pride, the Holy Ghost gives His approval, and sacred promises and covenants become sure.” – Henry B. Eyring
The Benefits of Self-Regulation
The benefits of self-regulation are numerous. In general, people who are good at self-regulating tend to
- see the good in others
- view challenges as opportunities
- maintain open communication
- are clear about their intentions
- act in accordance with their values
- put forth their best effort
- keep going through difficult times
- remain flexible and adapt to situations
- take control of situations when necessary
- can calm themselves when upset and cheer themselves when feeling down.
If these are things that you would like help with, that is what I am here for! That is exactly what we do in coaching. I would love to help you learn to self-regulate and become the person you were meant to be.