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Emotional Regulation | Obtaining Life Objectives
BY: T. Franklin Murphy | December 19, 2019
Emotions energize and push for action. Healthy regulation capitalizes on the richness of emotion and directs the energy towards life objectives.
Underneath our skin and flowing through our veins is enormous energy; vast waves of feeling traveling through our bodies and brains. Armies of neurons continuously fire, sending and receiving information in responses to life events. The trillions of small episodes become the miracle of life. Only a minute fraction of these internal movements breakthrough into consciousness. The immeasurable parts and pieces engaging in the larger organism’s fight for survival aren’t always harmonious. We experience these flows of energy as emotion. We feel something and then integrate the feeling into graspable language. Sometimes with peaceful and happy explanations other times quite disturbing. When felt experience derails, creating chaos, and colliding with logic, we stumble in disorder. For the demands of stability, we must slow the runaway power of dysregulated emotion and regain control experience.
A grown man punched his girlfriend’s eleven-year old son in the eye, He arrogantly proclaimed to the responding officer, “I had no choice.” Was he not free to act differently?
When felt experience derails, creating chaos, and colliding with logic, we stumble in disorder.
Ancient philosophers considered emotion a pesky carryover from a barbaric past. Plato, in his chariot metaphor, suggests that two opposing forces exist inside of each of us.
The horse that is on the right, or nobler, side is upright in frame and well jointed, with a high neck and a regal nose; . . . he is a lover of honor with modesty and self-control; companion to true glory, he needs no whip, and is guided by verbal commands alone. The other horse is a crooked great jumble of limbs . . . companion to wild boasts and indecency, he is shaggy around the ears—deaf as a post— post—and just barely yields to horse-whip and goad combined. (location 12811. Plato: The Complete Works)
The chariot metaphor portrays conflicting drives of emotion and rational thought. But emotions and thought are not singular (nor are they disconnected); each composed of their own minions, conflicting and fighting. Modern science broadens our understanding with complexity. Our conscious capacity is too finite to comprehend the massive contributors leading to action. Feelings are much more than an unruly horse that we should tame with logical thought. The internal pushes of feeling are necessary. Our logical minds would sift endlessly through mounds of information, never settling on appropriate action without the gentle (sometimes powerful) inclinations to act one way over another.
Our internal rumblings are not chaotic. Emotion is adaptive. We are biologically structured to respond to the environment. As we observe life around us, feelings charge through our being with varying tones, dynamics and intensities to motivate action. Susan David describes our observations as “billions of bits of sensory information” (2016).
Perhaps, instead of two opposing horses pulling our chariot, we are driven by a band of feral horses. All the horses are wild, yet remain in a herd, coordinating and responding to each other as they work towards a shared goal of survival. None of the horses are necessarily good or bad, just performing different functions, responding to cues, absorbing ‘the billions of bits’ of information (from within and without) and then communicating perceived dangers and opportunities to the group.
In response to complexity, organisms evolve. Humans adapted, developing a new tool to sort through the melee of information. We became conscious. The abnormally large prefrontal cortex of the human brain hosts executive functions. However, executive functions, praised by the ancient philosophers, are far from a redemptive panacea. Consciousness solves some problems while complicating life on different fronts. If you don’t believe me, thumb through the latest edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), currently on the fifth edition.
Rational thought often serves emotions rather than controls them. Rational thought is a misnomer. Consciousness often thrives on irrational thought; justifying, explaining and misinterpreting events, and then bending reality to excuse inappropriate or irrational actions. Our thinking brain often compounds problems with faulty adaptations rather than smartly finding the best answer.
We swing first; and then mediate the stupidity with a convoluted story that explains the necessity of punching a child in the face. “You see, I had no choice. You would have done the same thing.” We are irrational beings.
Life is unpredictable. Whether armed with consciousness or not, animals and humans miss cues and overlook dangers. Our biological apparatus is not a disaster; it serves us well. We’ve existed for millions of years in hostile environments. The biological guidance system works. While emotions and conscious thought may collide, they’re effective enough for survival and even wellness—sometimes they magnificently work together, other times they act more like quarrelsome siblings, poking and pinching while they continue to work towards a common goal.
We can’t operate without feeling. Antonio Damasio argues, “the first device, emotion, enabled organisms to respond effectively but not creatively to a number of circumstances conducive or threatening to life” (2003). Rollo May suggests that creative response is formulated when there is a pause between stimulus and response. In his fabulous book Freedom and Destiny, May adds, “Freedom is the capacity to pause in the face of stimuli from many directions at once and, in this pause, to throw one’s weight toward this response rather than that one” (1999). In the pause, we discover the freedom. We actually have a choice.
Many feelings (stimuluses) battle for dominancy. The strongest forcibly draws our attention. At this juncture, after the feeling, we must insert a pause. The feeling brings a message, not a command. We shouldn’t ignore these messages; they contain valuable information; but the message, however, isn’t necessarily rallying for the most appropriate action. The message is being relayed only by one horse in the herd of many. We need to consider other ‘bits and pieces’ of information, receiving guidance from those messages too.
Life is messy and so is the process of mashing feeling and thought into a unified order. Organizing the varieties of emotion is like stacking rocks of various sizes and shapes, not assembling perfectly uniform bricks. The piles of our lives will not resemble perfection; but certainly, the piles signify the presence of purposeful labor.
A flourishing life isn’t experiencing through a few tidy emotions. A full range of emotion is optimal—including some negative feelings; discomforting emotions are not maladaptive. Negative feelings may signal to stop, slow down, or adapt. The healthiest people integrate many emotions into serviceable piles. The emotions—nice and naughty—participate in a health dance with external events. The biology of our bodies responds to situational demands, adapting and organizing the incoming data, marking memories for future retrieval.
A full range of emotion is optimal—including some negative feelings; discomforting emotions are not maladaptive.
Some feelings are discomforting, even downright nasty. In the throes of powerful emotion, our biological system is thrown into a tizzy, impatient and anxious for escape. The first impulse is to regulate the emotion by giving into the demands; run from the fear, fight with anger, hide in sadness or retort in sharpness. Sometimes these responses are appropriate; running from the bear, fighting the intruder, and pulling back in grief. But other times, the immediate reaction is destructive; we miss opportunities, harm a loved one, or stew in loneliness.
A key component of healthy regulation is a functional relationship between the emotions and the immediate event in the context of more important goals (Cole, Michel, & Teti, 1994). We must evaluate if the emotion meets situational demands and leads to larger life objectives. When honest evaluation uncovers misaligned actions, we have work to do.
Emotional messages can be obnoxious, loud and demanding. Many people have adverse relationships to these feelings. The waves of energy commandeer attention and disable cognitive functions. Instead of healthy regulating of emotion, they respond in dysfunctional ways. The dysregulated feelings clash, fight and destroy.
Healthy emotional regulation creates order from the complexity of felt experience (the pile of rocks type of order, not the stacked bricks). We absorb energy from surroundings, and should react by imitating, maintaining, and modulating the intensity and expression of the feelings. (Shaw and Starr, 2019) We lasso in the bubbling feelings, utilizing the energy to effectively respond to ongoing demands. Healthy responses draw upon a wide range of emotions and are expressed in socially tolerable ways, maintaining sufficient flexibility to permit delay or modification of a spontaneous reaction. (Masters, Zimmer-Gembeck, & Farrell, 2019).
Uninhibited expressions may be ignorant and selfish. We claim the freedom to “be ourselves,” suggesting true friends should accept us as we are; but then explode when others express their feelings on how our uninhibited expressions made them feel. We must take some responsibility for the emotional impact of our words and actions. We want others to be sensitive to us; and we should be sensitive to others. We can be sensitive while still maintaining our individuality.
We regulate emotions in both healthy and unhealthy forms. Defense mechanisms are emotional regulators. They soothe emotions. Sometimes a mechanism will relieve pressure, allowing space to operate, getting back to the business of living. Other times, however, the defense is an escape, preventing growth, harming relationships, and destroying futures. We must learn to differentiate between healthy and maladaptive defenses.
Dysregulated emotions are not unregulated emotions. When our patterns of regulating emotions jeopardizes or impairs functioning, we disrupt tasks necessary for development. Our impairment then contributes to faulty adjustments. Our emotions are dysregulated, and our lives pay a heavy price.
Dysregulated emotions interfere with functioning in three basic ways: we emotionally react to things most people wouldn’t react to, our emotions are more intense than situations warrant, and once emotions are aroused, it takes longer to recover. (Van Dijk, 2012, p. 2)
The dysregulation is a disconnection between consciousness, external events and emotional experience. (Gill, Warburton, & Sweller, 2019). This disconnection confuses interpretations, muddling data, and inviting cognitive justifications to explain the chaos. We misdiagnose, deny and suppress emotions to achieve some balance to the chaotic mess of the internal battles between disconnected forces. When confusion and helplessness surround emotion, we perceive emotions as negative.
In 2004, Kim Gratz and Lizabeth Roemer proposed four dimensions of emotional regulation and dysregulation.
They further suggest that absence or deficit in any of these abilities indicate the presence of emotion dysregulation. (2004). Gratz and Roemer’s four dimensions of emotional regulation and dysregulation correlate nicely with Dialectical Behavior Therapy’s (DBT) four sets of skills necessary for wellness and healing (Van Dijk, 2012).
Our patterns of regulating, although strongly influenced by individual biology and family learning, are not unchangeable. We can challenge automatic reactions that interfere with emotional development. Understanding Gratz and Roemer’s four-dimensions provide an effective framework for improving faulty regulation styles.
Awareness and Acceptance of Emotion:
Gratz and Roemer’s first two dimensions of awareness and acceptance are also key elements of mindfulness. We can’t reorganize the faulty functioning of a dysregulated system when we have a strained relationship with emotions. Our internal conflict hampers integration. Suppressed and despised emotions never heal.
One of Daniel Siegel’s clients (Anne) had an emotionally defunct childhood. She resolved early in life to never feel again—life was too painful. She figuratively severed communication between her body and mind.
“Here’s the basic problem: The conditions Anne experienced as a child—the painful loss of her mother and grandparents, her new family’s neglect and harshness—no longer existed. She had adapted as best she could, but she’d had no support to help her resolve her losses—then or now. So her adaptation, which initially gave her strength and enabled her to move forward in her life, actually had come to imprison her.” (Siegel, 2010, Location 2197)
Blindness to emotional sensations impedes development. Emotion connects organisms to their environments. The conscious mind needs this input to effectively function. We are emotional theorist. We create theories from the flow of emotion, seeking internal and external events to account for our feeling (Gill, Warburton, & Sweller, 2019). When emotion is not felt, the logical mind is handicapped, losing essential information to evaluate experience. Without emotion, we can’t effectively weigh the impact of an event on our wellness. Our logical computations are constrained by missing facts, leading to illogical answers.
While dousing emotional flames has some adaptive qualities, the “truncation of emotionality… has serious long term consequences for adult functioning.” (Cole, Michel, & Teti 1994). By making valuable emotions inaccessible, we dysregulated a biological process, hampering adult development. We lose valuable guidance cues. Anne discovered that to live the life she desired she had to reconnect to her emotions. “What seemed to be missing was the sense of energy and engagement that can give even ordinary experience richness, depth, and meaning” (Siegel, 2010, location 2269).
Blocking emotion is a survival response, creating space from tragic experiences. “To survive the intense emotions and generalized distress that they experience, many children seem to cut off from sensations, blunt the experience, and absent the sensations and emotions from consciousness (Cole and Putnam, 1992). Victims create space by suppressing devastating sensations from consciousness. The hidden emotions still exist, but operate unnoticed, dysregulated and disorganizing.
Physician and award winning author, Gabor Maté, argues that we become susceptible to disease when we suppress emotions from awareness. He wrote, “repression—dissociating emotions from awareness and relegating them to the unconscious realm—disorganizes and confuses our physiological defenses so that in some people these defenses go awry, becoming the destroyers of health rather than its protectors.” (2011, location 197).
Bessel van der Kolk, Professor of psychiatry and director of the National Complex Trauma Treatment Network, has dedicated his career to research on the impact of trauma on the human psyche. He wrote in his best selling book, The Body Keeps Score, that “as long as you keep secrets and suppress information, you are fundamentally at war with yourself. Hiding your core feelings takes an enormous amount of energy, it saps your motivation to pursue worthwhile goals, and it leaves you feeling bored and shut down.” (2015, location 4330).
Simply stated, and scientifically supported, is the fact that by suppressing emotions, we injure our mental and physical health, and these lacerations to our wellbeing cast long dark shadows onto our futures.
Mindfulness brings lost emotions back into awareness. We can suppress conscious experience of feeling, but our bodies continue to react to the emotion. The energy still exists. It still flows through our veins and motivate action. We just lack awareness of the process. Our blind adherence to emotion creates the need for illogical justifications. We think we’re logical while acting like an idiot.
Sherri Van Dijk explains, “mindfulness is about living in the present moment with awareness and with acceptance; what this means in terms of emotion dysregulation is that you learn to become aware of your personal experience, including your emotions, thoughts, and behaviors, giving you the opportunity to make changes in any of these areas” (2012, p. 5).
Mindfulness creates Rollo Mays’s ‘pause’—the space between stimulus and response. We can acknowledge emotion, without being driven to react. Perhaps, for a moment, we don’t need to regulate the feeling, just witness it, giving time for the beauty to unfold. With a mindful approach, we learn that the emotions are not dangerous. They come and go. Our need to escape softens. And maybe, most importantly, our negative perceptions of emotions diminish. We delighted in our feeling experience.
Many emotions are painful but as long we understand them, we can resonate with their purpose, and allow ourselves to experience the feeling before moving on.
See for more information on mindfulness practices:
Ability to Control Impulsive Behaviors:
The third dimension of Gratz and Roemer’s model is the ability to control impulsive behaviors and behave in accordance with desired goals.
Not every emotion pushes towards life objectives. Human motivation is rife with conflict. Evolution can’t keep pace with modern demands. The body is programed for survival in ancient conditions. Our bodies warn of dangers or signaling safety when wisdom suggests otherwise.
Impulsivity is emotionally reactive. It is expressed in disastrous finances, unmitigated violence and broken relationships. Impulsive behaviors exchange the future for the measly rewards of immediate gratification. We sell our birthright for a bowl of porridge. We can’t just react; we must choose how to act. We must put on the brakes, slow the motion, and create a pause. The self-discipline to pause is essential for healthy regulation. Instead of bowing to internal calls for action, we stop and examine and sometime adjust.
Self-discipline is the exercise of freedom over internal and external forces. We may discover that many instances are too powerful. Instead of an unwinnable battle, we need novel and creative solutions. We may find success with practices of distress tolerance or planned escapes to mitigate chronic stress. Self-discipline isn’t forcing action against impossible odds. Self-discipline is redirecting efforts in a manner likely to succeed.
In the classic The Art of War, the great fifth century Chinese military strategist Sun Tzu provides helpful guidance. He provided five essentials for victory. The first two are applicable to everyday battles in life. First, Sun Tzu promises that “He will win who knows when to fight and when not to fight.” Sun Tzu continues, “He will win who knows how to handle both superior and inferior forces.” (2007, p. 6). Self-discipline isn’t strength in the traditional sense but utilizing strength with wisdom.
The ability to use situational appropriate emotional regulation strategies flexibly to modulate emotional responses in order to meet individual goals, Gratz and Roemer’s fourth dimension of emotional regulation, depends on the other dimensions of awareness, acceptance and self-discipline. We utilize the motivating forces of emotion effectively only with knowledge of ourselves in contextual relation to the interfering obstacle.
We first must know ourselves through awareness and acceptance; second, we must have an accurate vision of the challenge; then we can respond wisely to accomplish important life objectives. Healthy regulation basically is knowing who we are, where we are going, and when the internal emotional pushes are appropriate in relation to the current circumstances. When these pieces are in place, we benefit from the power of emotion. We experience its richness, glory in its complexity, give honor to its power; but wisely intervene to guide emotions influence towards the life we wish to live.
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Cole, P., & Putnam, F. (1992). Effect of Incest on Self and Social Functioning: A Developmental Psychopathology Perspective. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 60(2), 174-184.
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