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What no one told me about Emotional Self-Regulation

Updated: Jun 22


smiling woman

When Daniel Goleman's book popularized the concept of Emotional Intelligence, the general public was introduced to the phrase Emotional Regulation - the strategies that keep an over-active emotional response from basically ruining our interactions with others.


Over time, and as we've learned more about how our brain works and the neurobiology behind relational attachment, the language of emotional neurodevelopment started to become more commonplace. Now, the word 'regulate' is the new buzz word we use when it comes to managing our emotions in pretty much any setting. And although learning to regulate my emotions has been very helpful for managing my emotions in the moment, I used to believe that it was pretty much the most we could do. In other words, I didn't realize that managing my emotional state was only one option. No one told me there was a lot more I could do.


A quick refresher


'Regulation' by its simplest definition is the the act of controlling, managing or maintaining the rate or amount of something so it operates functionally. As example, we use medication to manage or regulate high blood pressure so that our heart and circulation runs more smoothly. A parent might manage or regulate the amount of television a young child watches so they get needed schoolwork done. In the personal development world, 'regulation' is used to describe the way we manage or 'cope with' an emotional nervous system response that activates too intensely, for too long or too frequently relative to the how life-threatening or beneficial a situation actually is.


mother and baby holding hands

When we're born, our brains and emotional nervous system are not fully developed when we first come out of the womb. I mean they work, in a basic infantile manner. But just like our brain, our emotional response is designed to be sort of 'curated', refined and developed to reflect and support the world we're now living in.


And if you’re someone who experienced a traumatic upbringing, or if you're like me and grew up in a household decades before parents understood how important this stuff was or how to even how to do it….and if your emotional nervous system (for a variety of reasons) never learned how, or didn’t finish learning how…. to turn on and off in the appropriate amounts, intensities, and at the right time… well, now as adults it can fire up in some pretty raw and unrefined ways. And at some pretty inappropriate times, right? And given that our pace of technical advancement keeps increasing, it’s no wonder that our day-to-day stress levels are increasing on top of that. That’s a topic we’ll cover another time, but in all systems, there’s a sort of ‘sweet spot’ ratio between rate of expansion or growth, and the strength of its supporting foundation that keeps things from imploding. So if our emotional stability isn’t reliable or stable enough, we can easily imagine how the rate of our intellectual advancements could over-power our emotional ability to handle it.

 

So that’s another reason why emotional development is so important. Our baseline state either needs finish what wasn’t finished earlier in our life. Or, since we’re now adults with different lives, part of the work of learning to thrive in this modern world is learning to slow down and reconnect in some areas, while also developing our emotional stability so it reflects our current capabilities, as well as the demands of the world we live in. That way our emotional nervous system can support the life and relationships we really want. In a nutshell, our emotional state need to 'grow up' or expand its function, so it can handle the world we live and work in. Now of course...


...no one’s stopping us from living with, and coping with modern day stress using the nervous system state we were handed growing up….but I personally didn’t find it very effective long-term, or that it worked consistently across different situations. And I found that it just didn’t support the life I wanted to live now, as an adult.

So now as adults, we basically now have a couple of options: we can 'regulate' and manage our current emotional system 'as it is' through learned coping skills, and....we can also finish developing the emotional response itself.


couple arguing on couch

So when I hear or read people using the term 'self-regulation' to describe how they cope with or manage the current state of their emotional response system, I also wonder if they know that if they want to, they could also change the baseline emotional state itself. 


Before I go on, let me clarify the difference emotional management (or regulation) and emotional development. One is a tool or a strategy, the other is a process- and each one has a different goals.


Emotional regulation describes the 'coping' strategy or management practice that temporarily controls an over-active (or under-active) response. But it doesn't change the response itself. Said differently, regulation controls the response, but doesn't change the response.


Now on the other hand, emotional development does change the underlying activation response. It’s actually the continuation of the emotional refinement, moderation and differentiation process that wasn’t completed earlier in our life. And that process results in a new default state where emotional 'management' or regulation isn't needed as often. In other words …


...we can both manage the emotional system we have, and develop the system so it doesn't need (as much) management anymore.

asking a question


Wait, whaaat?


I know at first read, that sounds a bit cryptic. So if it helps, think of it this way: imagine an employee at a fast-growing company who's technically savvy but never learned solid social or relational skills. And so you're frequently intervening to manage difficult interactions with other employees. You can either continue to manage (regulate) that employee 'as they are' ....or you can also help develop that employee so they eventually don't need as much management. Get it?


Part of the reason I wrote this post is that I sense that the growing focus on the shorter-term regulation strategy has resulted in people forgetting that it may not always be a long-term solution. Emotional self-regulation is a strategy, or a tool, that's part of a longer-term, development process. I'm not sure how many people know or understand this. Maybe they just don't care. Or maybe they don't know why it might be in important to care. So..


...the main reason it matters that we understand the difference between managing our emotions and developing our emotions.... is so that anyone reading this knows that there’s an additional option available if the 'managing-my-current-state' type coping stops working, or stops working consistently.

And realize, that until the last few decades, we didn't really understand that it was possible to actually change the the emotional response we had. We used to believe that our brain and emotional response was pretty much 'set in stone' after the age of twenty-five, and the best we could do was 'manage' it the way it was going forward. Now we know differently. Although we may not be able to directly influence the primitive-instinctual 'fight or flight' response (nor would we want to), we can influence how intensely it activates, when it activates and for how long it activates with specific practices that recondition it's associations. Granted, if we don't keep learning and keep our brains generating new pathways, it can get more difficult each decade of our life. But it is possible to make changes to our brain and nervous system all throughout our adult life.


 

In the next post of this 3-part series -"Is it time for a 13th EQ competency? - Is Emotional Self-Regulation really enough?" - we cover the benefits of emotional management and self-regulation, as well as how to tell when it's time to consider up-leveling to emotional development work.


 

The Human Infusion Project is a grassroots, not-for-profit personal development platform that draws from the combined fields of modern brain science, applied psychology and spiritual philosophy. Our mission aims to augment and supplement the work of professional practitioners in simplified, practical ways, and to give clients an affordable home program they can use in between sessions. 100% of all online class profit funds the Wellness Assistance Grant. If financial constraints limit your participation, please contact me and we'll work something out.

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