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What no one told me about Emotional Self-Regulation

Updated: Jun 27, 2023

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. Which makes sense. Unless you live in a war-torn country, there just aren't as many daily situations that will kill us in our modern world. And with close to 8 billion people now living on this planet, our species survival (from a numbers standpoint) is hardly at risk either. So the emotional nervous system that humans function with today, doesn't need to fire up the same way as it did when we were cavemen. Back then, we needed to fight daily to stay alive, and we needed to increase the numbers of an under-populated species. Humans have evolved. Our brains are bigger. And we have far more skills, capabilities and resources available. And the general environment that the majority of us live in, although overpopulated in many areas, is safer than it used to be. Which means our overall need for general physical protection has also evolved. In other words..

....despite the life-threatening situations and terrible human experiences that do still general, as a species, our overall health and physical safety is better today, than it was earlier in our evolution.

So if we have an emotional nervous system that never learned how to manage the amount, intensity, frequency and appropriateness of its activation as we were growing up, it can fire up in some pretty raw and unrefined ways.. and at some pretty inappropriate times. That means that as adults, we basically now have two options: we can 'regulate' and manage our current emotional system 'as 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 can do more than just manage it or 'cope'.

To add to the possible confusion, the term is also used interchangeably. Some people use the same phrase - 'emotional regulation' - to describe both the management strategy as well as the development process - two very different approaches with two very different goals. But those differences aren't explained very often.

Emotional regulation describes the 'coping', or management practice that temporarily controls an over-active response, but without changing the response itself. Said differently, it controls the response, but doesn't change the response.

Emotional development continues an emotional refinement, moderation and differentiation process that was interrupted or not completed earlier in life. And it 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 personally find using the term 'regulation' not only to be a robotic description for such a human experience, but I also sense that the growing focus on this shorter-term strategy has resulted in people forgetting that it may not always be a long-term solution. Emotional self-regulation is a strategy 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-state-as-is' type strategy stops working, or stops working consistently.

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, philanthropic 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 and affordable ways. 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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