Act before you think? Say things only to regret all? Explode your emotions onto others despite promising not to? Your issue might be emotional self-regulation.
What is emotional self regulation?
Emotional self-regulation is psychology speak for an ability to control your emotional responses in an acceptable and productive way. You know how to take charge of your thoughts, feelings, and physical responses to stress.
If you can navigate stress without panicking or lashing out at others, and can get things done despite your emotions? Congratulations, you have good self-regulation.
Note that emotional regulation doesn’t mean we never show our upset. It means that we innately understand the right moments to do so. So we don’t freak out if another driver yells at us as we aren’t driving fast enough for their liking. But if a colleague steals our work and claims it is their own, we can make our fury clear and refuse to be manipulated.
And poor regulation doesn’t mean that we are constantly a mess and incapable of any control at all. We are all regulating our emotions all the time, with each decision and social interaction. Emotions are part of everyday life, and are also useful. We need anger to set boundaries, or sadness to process grief and mourning. You might do just fine, despite poor regulation, as long as things stick to routine or the familiar. Unfortunately, though, life tends to present challenges.
Why does it matter if I regulate my emotions or not?
It matters a lot, because we live in a society that requires we can control ourselves if we want to be accepted and appreciated.
Of course not all cultures are the same. Some are known for embracing bigger emotions more than others, such as Latin countries like Italy and France, compared to England or Scandinavia. But in general, Western societies privilege those who exert self mastery.
An important benefit of emotional self-regulation is that we tend to understand the emotions of others better and respond to them in more useful ways. We can see that an angry colleague is having a bad day, and isn’t angry with us in particular. We don’t take it personally, spend the day anxious, or get upset ourselves, but get on with our work.
On the other hand, emotional dsyregulation can lead to negative ways of coping, including self-harm and addictions.
Regulation vs Dysregulation
So to summarise what the two look like, in case you aren’t sure where you fall on the spectrum?
Emotional regulation means you:
think before you speak or react
make choices from a place of consideration and calm
find it very hard to physically and mentally calm down.
Note that not all people who struggle with emotional self regulation come across as highly emotional or passionate. Some deal with their difficulty by suppressing all their emotions and hiding their true reactions, or creating a pleasing public persona. They can come across as distant or cold in the workplace, or too agreeable. It might only be in private relationships that the extent of their emotional difficulties is apparent.
Why do I suffer from poor emotional self-regulation?
We aren’t born to be an emotional mess, we learn how to be one. Yes, we might be born more prone to being sensitive, or to seeing the world through the lens of emotions over thoughts. It is true that some have a creative temperament, and some a logic one.
But it is the environments we grow up in – the people around us, the places we live in, the experiences we have — that are the greatest influence.
It starts with the parenting we receive as in infant. Attachment theory suggests we need at least one caregiver who is reliable. Who constantly provides the calm, unconditional love, and safety a child needs to flourish. If we instead have a caregiver who is anxious, or moody, or only sometimes available, we can learn emotional instability.
Childhood trauma is a key contributor to emotional dsyregulation. Trauma fractures a child’s sense of self and trust in the world. They are left constantly anxious and scanning for danger, growing up into an adult who can have complex PTSD. This means you are always on edge, ready to react, and can be emotionally unstable.
Emotional dysregulation and borderline personality disorder