My blog this month is about one of my favorite topics, and it is one of those topics where my clients tend to slump in their seats when I mention it, roll their eyes, stop making eye contact and even sigh in resignation. What is it you ask…drum roll please, Emotional regulation! I love talking about emotions. Yes, I’m one of those people. I haven’t always loved emotions. In fact thirty years ago I hated talking about them. I didn’t want to listen, emotions were stupid, emotions got your hurt, emotions sucked. I could go on, but you get the idea. It wasn’t until I went on my own self-healing journey that I learned to honor my emotions. You notice I didn’t say love my emotions, because I don’t love or even like all of them. What I do, do, is honor them.
So, what are emotions. Emotions are our natural reaction when a stimulus occurs, it comes from past experiences, our mood, circumstances and relationships. It’s our instinct to feel emotions as human beings. However, when people have been vulnerable and had that vulnerability used against them, experienced trauma, have mental health disorders, or substance abuse struggles or other negative experiences it can cause people to turn inward. People try to “turn off” their emotions, which doesn’t work. Think of your emotions swirling around in a soda bottle. The more you ignore them, the more you shake that soda bottle. And we all know what happens when you shake a soda bottle, at some point it explodes.
People use many different ways to “turn off’ their emotions. Using drugs and/or alcohol or isolating are a few of the ways people attempt to turn off their emotions. Turning off our emotions while for many it’s a way to numb the pain or whatever emotion it is you’re avoiding, what in reality its doing is putting off the pain, and remember your emotions build and build, even while you’re attempting to numb them. So, when you are ready to deal with them, they can feel incredibly overwhelming. When this happens, people tend to end up in hospitals, or rehabilitation facilities.
One thing I’m not a fan of is when I hear people discuss their emotions as negative. I even hear other therapist’s use the phrase “negative emotions.” Stop doing it now! And I will tell you why. Our emotions are not negative or positive, our emotions just are! Let me say it again. Our emotions are not negative or positive, our emotions just are. If you are already feeling depressed, sad, frustrated and someone refers to those emotions as negative, that is piling onto the negativity you are already feeling.
Instead of negative and positive emotions, lets use these terms. What are emotions you are comfortable with and what are emotions you are uncomfortable with. Now the key here is not whether you like the emotion, it’s about what you are comfortable with. And I will give you an example. If you grew up in a chaotic household, you probably struggle with managing your anxiety as an adult. Why? Well as a child, you had no control over where you lived, who you lived with, where you went on vacation, what you ate for meals, etc. If you had chaos in your childhood, you had to be prepared to run and hide at a moment’s notice. Not necessarily from abuse, but from the constant chaos going on around you, you were trying to seek some kind of peace. (Children do better in more structured homes. There are several studies on this topic.) That anxious child used their anxiety to protect them. That anxious child lives inside of you and is still trying to protect you, how? By increasing your anxiety, telling you there is danger and to get a move on. So, if this is you, you don’t like your anxiety, you are however, very comfortable with it because you use it like a security blanket to protect. You use it as a security blanket to protect you from feeling other emotions.
It’s important to identify those emotions we are comfortable with and those we are uncomfortable with and why for each set. This will help you recognize those emotions you are trying to run and hide from. This will help you learn how to better react to those emotions when they occur. How do you do this? Through emotional regulation.
Emotional regulation is the ability of an individual to manage an emotion or set of emotions. People are going from an implicit or nonconscious way of managing their emotions to an explicit or conscious way of managing their emotions. Another example, let’s say you struggle with the emotion of anger. You lose your temper, start yelling and screaming, and possibly throwing things. The yelling, screaming and throwing things is your implicit way of managing your anger. You do it without thinking. It’s automatic, because it has become a habit. Remember that a habit is an unconscious act, once you become aware, it’s then a choice. I want you to choose how to better react to your anger, I want you to go from implicit to explicit. How?
I would first have you keep an anger journal. This means every time you became angry, you would write it down, what made you mad, what were the circumstances. Write it down. After the first week you are then going to go back a little farther, what were you feeling before the anger kicked in. Was it disrespect? Frustration? Irritation? Hurt? Fear? After a couple weeks of this, you start to see the pattern, that every time you are afraid or hurt your anger becomes very strong. You are going to realize that you are comfortable with the emotion of anger, you are uncomfortable with fear and hurt. Why? Because when you feel those emotions, you don’t know how to deal with them, so you hide them beneath your anger.
This is just one of the techniques I have used over the years to help people who are struggling with a particularly strong emotion. Emotional regulation is a dialectal behavior (DBT) skill. It takes time and practice to learn how to work with our emotions, honor our emotions and ultimately accept them. If you would like help in learning more about emotional regulation. Please contact Life Enhancement Counseling Services today at 407-443-8862 to schedule an appointment with one of our experienced mental health counselors.