Emotional Regulation

A few posts back I asked the question, what get’s in the way of our relationships with our spouses, friends, community and ourselves?

There are two important aspects that one can focus their attention on to improve the quality of their relationships: communication and emotional regulation.


Even though this article was written for a business publication, I think it is a great introduction to active listening, and can be very helpful in improving the quality of your relationships. After a friend read this and practiced it with his girlfriend he told me he realized how pointless arguing is, and that learning to listen was powerful and transforming to the quality of his relationship. Even if you think you have the argument won from an intellectual standpoint, no one ever ends up winning, that is to say, no one feels closer to each other when it’s done.

The principles of active listening are simple, but can be challenging to apply. One reason is that you have to consciously practice them. Try them the next time you get stuck with a friend, coworker, or your partner. It will sound awkward at first, but eventually I think you will find the results fulfilling. We’re taught communication in school to read, write, and speak. Most people are not taught how to listen though, and it’s a process that needs to be developed, just like reading, writing, and speaking.

The second reason active listening may be challenging to apply is poor emotional regulation. This then brings us to the second aspect of focus when trying to improve your relationships: improving your behavior that results from your emotional reactions.

Emotional regulation

It’s usually pretty clear to us when children are acting out, that is, they act out their feelings instead of expressing them in an appropriate manner. An example is when they fall on the floor screaming instead of saying to you, “you know, it really makes me angry that I can’t have a cookie right now.” I suppose we would look at a two year old with amazement if they did the latter, but acting out happens to adults as well, especially in places where they think they can get away with it like close relationships, as opposed to the workplace. How often have you heard someone excuse their behavior (like yelling and screaming) by saying what the other person did?

“Why are you yelling?”
“Because the bathroom is still a mess!”

True, but it’s not an excuse for yelling at people you care about. Your emotional disregulation is your own, and has its own unique origins (differentiation), and you need to own it and get on top of it. Otherwise, you better hope your partner has got on top of their active listening and emotional regulation and can diffuse it: “Gosh, you sound really freaked out. How about I go deal with it and you just finish up the last of these hors d’oeuvres.” Otherwise what you’ll probably get is more yelling: “GET OFF MY BACK AND CLEAN IT YOURSELF!”

Listening is your best hope of being listened to. Yelling is most likely going to be met with yelling. The second one seems obvious, the first one a little less so. So to be our best selves, with our best responses, we have to have our behavior in relation to our emotional states under control.

This post could get lengthy if I’m not careful, so to wind this down, let’s briefly look at some of the components: emotions, feelings, thoughts, behaviors.

Emotion: this is the sensory input from the body, sensations. All animals have emotion, and I’m using Damásio’s convention for the terms emotion and feeling. For example: my heart is racing, I feel hot in my chest, I feel tension in my jaw.
Feeling:  our perception of what those sensations mean. To continue with the example: racing heart, feeling hot, tense in my jaw means I’m feeling angry. It seems strange to make this distinction, but, for example, one can be experiencing the emotion of anger and not be aware they are angry. This can lead to the above scenario of acting out on our emotions unconsciously.
Thought: our cognitions. Thoughts can trigger emotions, and vise versa. Questioning your thoughts can help with emotional regulation. Example: “She’s doing this just to bother me.” Maybe. Probably not.
Behavior: In short, what you do. Our behavior is often based on some preceding thought or feeling.

What are some therapies that attempt to improve emotional regulation?

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) works on the relationship between thoughts, feelings, and behavior, and how they affect each other, in an attempt to create better emotional regulation. CBT attempts to make interventions on the three components of thoughts, feelings, and behaviors.

Somatic Experiencing is interesting, in that it is an attempt to get at the root of emotional disregulation not through a top-down method (i.e change your thoughts, as in CBT), but in a bottom-up approach. It works with body sensations to bring the body and mind into better regulation, and thus better regulation of emotional states. It’s based on the more recent understandings that have come out of neurobiology. It also pulls from attachment therapy and client centered therapy to help the client create a safe secure base from which they can disinhibit to explore difficult sensations. I will expand on this in the future, but for the curious, check out the work of Peter Levine, Rober Scaer, Bessel van der Kolk, and Steven Porges. It’s important to know though, that the roots of emotional disregulation can be in trauma, and trauma takes us out of relationship with ourselves and others. Trauma is a loaded word which we will unpack in the future as well.

Wrapping up, difficulties with relationships can be positively impacted by improving couple communication, for which couples therapy is effective, and improving emotional regulation, for which individual psychotherapy can be effective. As you can see, one can do a lot on their own if they’re willing to do some reading and practice. It all depends to what degree you are satisfied with the sate of your relationships.