“Emotional regulation refers to the process by which individuals influence which emotions they have, when they have them, and how they experience and express their feelings. Emotional regulation can be automatic or controlled, conscious or unconscious, and may have effects at one or more points in the emotion producing process.”
(Gross et al. 1998)
In the Pillars of Resiliency, the third Pillar is emotional regulation. Emotional regulation is an interesting thing, in that oftentimes people only associate this with negative emotions, but in fact, it’s applicable to positive emotions too. It plays a large role in how we perceive and manage ourselves and others through change.
When someone has well-developed skills in this space, they tend to see things more positively and can navigate conflict and give or receive feedback well. In instances where someone lacks in this area, you see detriment within those same areas.
Emotional Regulation: Why?
Emotional regulation acts as a “filter” – it helps us assess information and motivates us to respond to the information in a way that won’t enable stress or fear; our foundational resiliency skills impact how we manage this.
Research has shown that emotions are adaptive responses that have a deep-rooted basis in evolutionary biology – they lead back to our childhoods and beyond. The way we feel and how we interpret emotions influence how we think, how we make decisions, and ultimately how we behave. Studies on emotional regulation show that there is a significant positive correlation between emotion regulation and depression management, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise that people with well-developed emotional regulation also have lower levels of anxiety and higher aptitudes when it comes to social-emotional intelligence.
Our emotions activate the amygdala, the area of the brain that regulates the fight-flight-fright responses. If someone has well defined emotional regulation, they’re often able to “buy time” neurologically before the fight-flight-fright component of our brain is triggered.
Case in point
I am a very positive person; I see the glass as half full and always look to find a silver lining within any situation. It’s just who I am and how I was raised to think, respond, and behave to “life”. During my career, I’ve received feedback on how to improve my emotional regulation from the “positive” standpoint. One instance stands out clearly: I was on a large transformation project and was working with a professional corporate communicator - I’d sent her project communications for review per our approvals process. After reviewing the content, she returned the approved communications with a message that not only made me smile but has also stayed with me throughout my career: “Using too many exclamation points in your communications is almost as obnoxious as laughing at your own jokes. :)”
Her message, which I thought was funny, was not lost on me: tone it down a bit – approach situations and circumstances with a positive tone, but! Not! Everything! Is! This! Exciting!
On the other hand, we all know or work with someone who has a terrible attitude, or perhaps they have a “hair trigger” emotional response to bad news. This is something I do work with often in helping leaders decode why they struggle with building trust within their workforce or with certain stakeholders. Oftentimes, this is a circumstance of a toxic or misshapen culture and in other cases, it can be an indicator of arrested development within individuals in leadership positions, including the most senior leadership.
In some of the industries I’ve worked in, there is sometimes an “accepted” sub-culture of venomous behaviour – both business and otherwise. In business, I’ve sat with CEOs who have come across major project hurdles, and rather than working with their leadership teams to problem solve, they’ve halted any and all progress due to their aggressive demeanor, choosing instead to lead through fear. In other instances, I’ve worked with professional sports coaches who would reduce other coaches or players to tears when they’re frustrated or not getting the output to win. In both of these situations, the leader’s inability to articulate their needs through non-violent communication leads to a psychologically unsafe environment, which almost always festers a deep lack of trust and encourages presenteeism, which acts as barriers to organizational success. The root of these issues will almost consistently come back to emotional regulation.
When each person is born, we’re placed on a fresh, clean slab of concrete. The concrete symbolizes the foundation of our resilience. In more cases than not, our psychological state at birth is “clean” – our fractures or breaks within the foundation are based on our upbringing and subsequently, how we form our initial and early opinions on the world based on how we’re treated or how people react to us when we need or want something.
Think about learning to walk – say a child trips and falls – consider that a small, hairline fracture on that child’s concrete foundation. If someone is there to pick them up and dust them off, and perhaps hold their hand as they continue to learn to walk, it would be as if someone came and “patched” the fracture in the concrete. There would be no lasting impact or impression on the child and for all intents and purposes, the child would carry on with their happy little life and all would be right with the world.
Now, think about learning to navigate conflict as a teenager. Say a teen finds themselves at odds with their parents or siblings and there is a BIG family fight and the only way the teen can feel heard is through participating in the violence with yelling and encouraging the vicious family fight. Let’s go a step further and suggest that this is the only way the family knows how to communicate or manage conflict. That type of interaction would be like someone coming along with a sledgehammer and SLAMMING it down, shattering or damaging the teen’s foundation in a significant way. If the teen’s parents or siblings are involved at the same level, it’s likely that you’d see some form of arrested development within the teen. This is where the skilled ability to communicate technically “ends” until the teen learns new norms. In the event the teen doesn’t learn new norms, this is how they may handle conflict for their entire life – and if that’s the case, it’s possible that they’ll have stunted or toxic relationships and possibly even limited opportunities in life.
How to strengthen Emotional Regulation
Self-awareness: Understand what is going on for you in the moment. If you’re feeling jealous or upset about someone else or their success/possessions – ask yourself what you’re feeling it. Name it. Ask yourself, “Why am I feeling this emotion toward X?” Be honest and consider writing it down to truly acknowledge the emotion that you’re feeling. (You gotta feel it to heal it!)
Mindful awareness: Consider breathing exercises or exercises like a mental body scan to bring your mind to a different place. Disarm the amygdala by focusing on something else. Consider what your toes feel like. How do your legs feel? What is your breath doing? Slow down. Focus on the physical to take away from the emotional.
Internal Dialogue: Words matter; we are what we say we are. Turn the messaging from “my boss hates me and everything I do.” to “My boss is frustrated with me right now; everyone makes mistakes and I know I can fix this.” (This is also where you’d go into your problem-solving process.)
Empathy: Instead of feeling wrapped up in the emotion, put yourself into a different scenario. How would you support a friend through this situation? What advice would you offer to them? How could you work with someone else to ease the burden and make it easier for them?
Self-Love: Take some time for yourself each day. Journal and reflect on things that went well during the day or week; a common thing for people to do is to keep a gratitude journal. Take a walk, go to the gym, have a massage, or a trip to the hair salon to freshen up your look. Whatever self-love looks like to you – take the time for yourself. This feeds into your self-confidence and only stands to help you see that you’re worth the effort.
Have questions or see an opportunity to improve your emotional regulation? Reach out – a call doesn’t cost a thing!