Emotional Self Regulation – What is it All About?

emotional self-regulation

Photo by: Erik Mclean

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.

But if you tend to lose it easily in the face of difficult conversations or life challenges, and are completely sidelined by your feelings and the way they make you physically feel? Then you have what is called ‘emotional dysregulation’. (On a good note, this can be helped. More on that later).

But I only have self-control some of the time

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. 

photo by Mimi ThianEmotional self regulation means we have working relationships, can advance in our careers, and have a supportive social life.

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
  • can handle criticism
  • navigate stress without resorting to anger or tears
  • don’t react to others moods
  • have healthy, supportive relationships
  • get along well with colleagues
  • can function despite feeling upset
  • know how to calm yourself (self-soothe). 

Emotional dysregulation means you:

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?

emotional self control

By: Allen

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

Child sexual abuse in particular is known for causing problems with emotional self-regulation. A high incidence of those with borderline personality disorder (BPD) experienced sexual abuse. BPD leaves you lacking an emotional ‘skin’, over responsive to everything and with wildly swinging moods.

How can I learn to regulate my emotions?

[Sign up to this blog now to receive an alert when we publish the next in this series, ‘Self Regulation Skills That Help You Navigate Your Emotions’. ]

There are certain types of therapy that focus on helping you regulate your emotions, and recognise and manage your thinking that leads to your emotions. These include:

Ready to stop being controlled by your emotions and control them instead? We connect you with highly regarded London-based talk therapists. Or use our booking platform to access UK-wide therapists and affordable worldwide online counselling


Still have a question about emotional self-regulation? Post your questions or tips below. 

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