6. Emotional Regulation
Anyone can become angry – that is easy. But to be angry with the right person, to the right degree, at the right time, for the right purpose, and in the right way – this is not easy.
Aristotle (Ancient Greek philosopher)
Emotional reactions are usually outward responses to what we feel, conveyed vocally or through body language and actions (frowning, crying, laughing, blushing, running away and shouting are some common examples). Although these reactions seem involuntary, there is actually much we can do about them.
Emotional reactions have multiple purposes. They are a way of showing others how we are feeling and can provide us with extra energy and motivation. You can utilise the latter when you embark on a physically or mentally demanding activity by giving yourself a pep-talk or invoking inspirational images. However, emotional reactions, even if enjoyable, are not always appropriate (e.g. laughing) and can be a hindrance rather than a help when dealing with challenging situations. There are several reasons for that:
- Emotional reactions impair your cognitive, assessment and decision-making abilities (try to do maths when emotional, and you will see how much more difficult it is than otherwise).
- They are unlikely to resolve anything, but if they take over, you may do or say something you will regret later.
- They almost never have a desired effect – in fact, they usually make things worse and do not even make you feel better in the long run. Research suggests that just giving vent to anger does ‘little or nothing to dispel it’.[i] Yet, this can become a vicious circle: the more you do it, the more easily it is set off.
This is why it is better to deal with your emotional reactions and the situation separately. This may not always be possible, though, so we will also look at what can be done in the heat of the moment as well as afterwards. Finally, we will suggest how to train yourself to respond to triggering situations the way you want.
Dealing with your reactions first
When you notice the welling of emotions, such as anger or upset, if you can, move away from the trigger and address them first:
- Acknowledge your reaction to avoid an inner conflict and then expend the emotional energy on a cooling-off activity: go for a walk or run, let yourself have a good cry, or express yourself in writing. You can also let off steam by beating a cushion or something else soft (but make sure you don’t vent your frustration on somebody who has nothing to do with it).
- After that energy is spent, try to come to terms, accept what happened. Examine if it is possible to have less upsetting interpretations (e.g. “It may have been a misunderstanding”, “She may not have meant it”, “It may be their issue, nothing to do with me”), and then address the issue more calmly.
However, we cannot always leave the situation to attend to our emotions, so let’s see what we can do in the heat of the moment.
When in the situation
Suppressing or blocking your emotions can be useful if dealing with difficulty or leaving an impression has to be prioritised (e.g. in an emergency or at a job interview). However, an attempt to suppress your reactions can lead to an inner struggle that diverts your attention and energy from the situation. Furthermore, it can lead to completely shutting down, which may be even worse than letting your emotions out, particularly for close and important relationships. For such situations, something else may be better.
You can defuse your reaction or turn down the emotional valve:
- If you catch yourself getting angry, don’t ask yourself if it is justified (anger always thinks it is justified). Ask if there is a point to it if getting angry will do any good.
- Acknowledge your reaction (“I am getting upset”), and try to relax and breathe its energy out.
- Soften up your reaction – you may be upset, but you don’t need to be upset in a hard, righteous and uncompromising way.
- Take a larger perspective, put the situation in context.
- If possible, try to see the funny or light side of the situation
- Rather than communicating with your emotional reaction, communicate what you really feel (e.g. disappointment).
If you can’t block or defuse it, try to turn your emotional reaction into another. Basic emotions seem to be mutually exclusive (you can’t react with fear and anger at the same time), but one can be transformed into another. For example, you get panicky in a stadium full of people, but you focus on cheering your team, and that reaction disappears! Similarly, couples can sometimes turn anger into passion. So, if you are not happy with an emotion that is welling up, you can try changing it into another one.
After the event
Emotional reactions usually spontaneously diffuse after an event (you probably don’t remember most situations in which you were angry or upset). There are, however, two common instances when this does not happen, and they need to be addressed:
- Keeping your reactions suppressed: it is well known that this can have negative consequences for the body and mind[ii]. This exercise can help you release even those emotions suppressed long ago. Try it first with mild negative emotions or positive ones such as joy or pride (they are often suppressed too):
Unblocking emotions: make sure that you will not be disturbed. Relax and start writing about a situation in which you suppressed your reaction without holding anything back. Remember, you can destroy your writing afterwards and nobody will every see it. As it is now safe, your emotions should start spontaneously ‘spilling out’. Allow them to pass through without interference or judgement. If this process brings up other memories, register but don’t dwell on them; just keep writing. After a while, your emotional reaction should subside (but it may reveal underlying feelings – to address them see Feelings).
- Feeding your reactions with thoughts that justify them (i.e. righteousness) can create an endless loop between thoughts and emotions such as anger. This only hurts you as it is all in your mind, so be kind to yourself and either do something constructive about what still bothers you or let it go.
In the introduction to this group, we highlighted that your feelings (experience) and your reactions are not the same (e.g. you feel let down and you react with anger). Knowing that allows you to choose your response rather than react automatically. This quote, attributed to a founder of Logotherapy, Viktor Frankl, captures it well: “Between stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom”. You do not need to be a slave to your emotional reactions – you can train yourself to react in the way you want. Knowing what to do in a tricky situation will increase your confidence too, which also helps retain calm.
Choose your reaction: pick a situation in which you overreact or react inappropriately and try these steps:
- Think about how you would like to react in such a situation (instead of screaming and shouting, perhaps you want to respond calmly but assertively). There is no situation in which you must get upset or angry. You can get serious instead or resolve not to take things personally and act like a professional.
- To reduce the grip of the habitual response first act out your reactions – make faces, gesticulate or pretend that you are shouting without any emotions involved.
- Now, imagine the situation, notice and acknowledge your feelings, but react in a way you want.
- Repeat it in your mind till the new way of responding is established, and then try it in the real world.
[i] Goleman, D. (1995) Emotional Intelligence. London: Bloomsbury, 1996, p.64.
[ii] See, for example, Pennebaker, J. W. (1988). ‘Confiding Traumatic Experiences and Health’ in Fisher, S. and Reason, J. (eds) Handbook of Life Stress Cognition and Health. New York: John Wiley & Sons, p.670-671.