This post is about emotions and emotion regulation.
I wonder if you have ever seen one of those “Man versus machine” science-fiction movies. They often show that the difference between human beings and robots lies in emotions. In the movies, machines may have equal or even superior intelligence. What they lack are human feelings.
Well, those pictures actually reflect one of the basic truths about the human condition: while the intellect creates the shape of our life, emotions are filling it with colors and taste. Without emotions we would look approximately like intelligent zombies, or machines.
Emotions make living beings alive, but emotions can sometimes be real troublemakers.
EMOTION REGULATION MADE SIMPLE
The part of our brain in charge of processing emotions is called the limbic system. It’s our “emotional brain”. From the evolutionary point of view, this brain is older than the part responsible for thinking and reasoning. We have inherited it from our animal ancestors, together with emotions.
When an event is identified as important – the emotional brain is immediately fired up and elicits a response. Any event that gives rise to emotions is called an ANTECEDENT. Antecedents can be external – something in our environment; or internal – like our memories, thoughts or bodily sensations.
HOW AND WHEN DO EMOTIONS BECOME PROBLEMATIC?
Emotions may be either positive or negative, pleasant or unpleasant, but they are never problems in themselves. But emotions impact our behavior, and they can do it in many different ways.
Sometimes we act on emotions, like shouting at others when we are angry; sometimes we do the opposite to what emotions say, especially when we want to retain self-control. Often, we are not even aware how much our behaviors are influenced by emotions.
Have you ever heard some behaviorists call emotions «private events»? In fact, they are anything but private.
The surest thing we can say about the human species is that we are social beings. The main function of emotions is to regulate our relations with others. Therefore, expressing emotions is an integral part of our emotional response.
You do not need to express anger for your own sake, because you already know you are angry. You show it to others as a warning shot when they are about to cross your «red lines».And when you cry it’s not for cleaning your eyes with tears. Tears are not a windshield fluid. They show others that you are in trouble and need support.
So, the most common behaviors activated by emotions are the emotional expression and behavior aimed at hiding or suppressing this expression.
Whatever behavior is triggered by emotions, it always has consequences. For example: you smile to someone and the person smiles back … or, perhaps, the person gets angry with you. Those are two totally different consequences. According to Behavior Analysis, the consequence of our behavior is what determines the probability that we will behave in the same way under similar circumstances also in the future.
The problem is that our behavior sometimes leads to positive and pleasant consequences in the short run, but to something opposite in a longer perspective. Like eating a cake feels so good here and now …. but backfires when you take the next weight check.
This is actually one of the basic behavioral problems we deal with. People often do things that feel great right away, but not so great in the long run. A person who has social anxiety may feel distressed by any invitation to social events. So, this person may repeatedly decline them, because saying “no” gives a pleasant feeling of relief.
But long-term outcomes of such behavior may be increased loneliness, alienation and social inadequacy. In other words, an action that seems to solve problems in the short term can make them worse in a longer perspective. It’s like sweeping the proverbial dirt under the carpet.
So, emotions are problematic not when they are unpleasant, but when they trigger behavior that leads to unacceptable long-term outcomes.
ANTECEDENT-FOCUSED EMOTION REGULATION
The simplest way to deal with problematic emotions is by changing situations that trigger them. For example: if you usually feel lonely on weekends, the simplest way is to start going out with friends on those days. If a bully pushes your buttons, the simplest way is to stay away from that person or confront the jerk. We call this strategy the antecedent-focused emotion regulation.
However, contrary to other animals, human beings respond not only to the physical realityper se, but first of all to the meaning they attach to this reality. In other words: emotional antecedents are events plus the attached meaning.
A friend cancels dinner with you, and you … feel rejected. Well, canceling dinner may mean a lot of things, perhaps she’s got tired of you; perhaps she has too many activities on her schedule; perhaps she doesn’t feel well, perhaps something else.
The meaning we attach to events echoes our life history and earlier experiences. And because none of us have experienced everything, the meanings we attach to current events are limited and may be inaccurate, biased, misleading or even absurd.
Once a meaning is attached to a situation and an emotion is triggered, we tend to perceive this situation through the lens of this meaning and ignore details that are incoherent with it. For example, when a situation is assessed as dangerous and the emotion of fear is activated, we start scanning our environment for a tinniest sign of threat, ignoring everything else.
Problematic meaning, when attached to a situation, may actually perpetuate earlier negative experiences. For instance, a person who has experienced emotional neglect or betrayal in earlier relationships – may scan current relationships for the tinniest sign of abandonment and betrayal.
The person may, for example, “see” signs of infidelity in the current partner even in a neutral situation, like an innocent smile at someone else. Then, the feeling of jealousy may push the person towards controlling behaviors, such as making accusations, arguing or even spying on their partner. This, in turn, may push the partner to seek a new, less coercive relationship.
Paradoxically, jealousy might push the partner exactly to what the person attempted to avoid – to being unfaithful. This outcome only confirms, once more, the person’s basic assumptions about abandonment and betrayal.
Such behavioral patterns may repeat themselves, creating self-perpetuating loops, when bad experiences lead to dysfunctional meaning-making, which triggers difficult emotions (like jealousy), which pushes people toward dysfunctional behavior (like excessive control), which leads to a new bad experience, over and over again.
So, targeting problematic appraisal of a situation, and not the situation itself, is another type of antecedent-focused emotion regulation. It can be done in multiple ways, such as:
- challenging old assumptions and cognitive distortions,
- distancing yourself from automatic thoughts,
- looking at the situation from different perspectives, or
- moving focus to other aspects of the current event.
RESPONSE-FOCUSED EMOTION REGULATION
We can regulate emotions at any stage of emotional processing. So, if we can’t target the antecedent to prevent an emotion from arising, we can do something with the emotional response after it has reached its full intensity.
This can be done in many ways, for example by intentional triggering of an opposite emotion.
Well, emotions are like waves: they arise, reach full intensity and decline to the baseline. But our minds are like the ocean: there is space there for many waves at a time.
For instance, you feel sad after losing a close friend, yet you decide to engage in a pleasant activity to trigger a feeling of excelling in something – like giving a concert. This move would be like bringing a beautiful flower to a cold and abandoned house. It won’t make the house warmer. The positive emotion of excelling in something won’t change your feelings about losing a friend. But it will bring a new color to your emotional palette. So, your emotional experience as a whole will be transformed.
One of the most popular response-focused emotion regulation strategies is self-compassion. When you fail at something or feel rejected by someone, you may relate to yourself in a kind and compassionate way instead of lashing at yourself. The defeat or loss will still feel equally painful, but self-compassion will transform your emotional experience.
CONSEQUENCE-FOCUSED EMOTION REGULATION
As mentioned earlier, problematic emotions are problematic because they make us do, or stop doing certain things, which leads to unwanted long-term consequences. Sometimes, however, our behavior is the only thing we can effectively control and change.
When an alcoholic feels a strong urge to drink, this urge can’t be downregulated by any of the mentioned strategies. Of course, removing alcohol from sight (an antecedent-focused strategy) and a big dose of self-compassion (a response-focused strategy) won’t hurt, but usually they’re not enough. The urge, and distress it causes, won’t disappear.
The real job to do here is:
- to retain control over the behavior, despite the urge,
- and to willingly accept the distress this choice will cause
- because long-term consequences are more important than the temporary relief
The immediate consequence of any behavior is always a stronger reinforcer than the remote one. This is the central problem for any educator: (how) to motivate learners by the prospect of future gains. This is why kids need good upbringing to have a good future: they need to learn how to invest in long-term outcomes instead of being controlled by immediate benefits.
If you can’t change difficult emotions and you don’t want to be governed by them, the best choice is:
- to accept emotions as they are, and
- to let long-term consequences govern your behavior.
Our ability to retain control over behavior, despite difficult experiences, is a central part of what we call psychological flexibility. It can be developed and enhanced, just like any other set of skills.
Imagine someone who is afraid of spiders. The person knows that spiders in this country are neither dangerous nor harmful. But the fear is stronger than reason. One day he spots a spider on the floor during a job interview. The idea of running away feels very attractive, as it would bring immediate relief from fear. But it would ruin the interview and be disastrous in the long run, since he’s applying for a “dream job”.
So, the choice is:
- to escape and feel immediate relief, or
- to accept the awful experience and carry on with the interview
The second option is unpleasant here and now, but is aimed at long term outcomes that are linked to his personal values, such as career and professional development.
THE MAIN PITFALLS OF EMOTION REGULATION
None of the above-mentioned strategies is better than the other, but sometimes they may exclude or undermine each other.
It’s very useful to have the ability to retain control over own actions in face of difficult emotions, because from time to time life brings shit that cannot be re-interpreted or downplayed in any way. It can only be accepted.
Yet, you can’t develop this skill when you simultaneously engage in changing the difficult experience.
It’s like workout in a gym: you won’t get bigger muscles by asking others for help in lifting weights each time they feel heavy. Asking for help may be a very important social skill, but it may be counterproductive in some situations. Just decide which skill you want to practice at a given time: acceptance or change.
So, the first pitfall you may fall into while learning emotion regulation skills is their incoherence, like acceptance and change.
The second one is focusing on a wrong part of the emotional process.
Some people claim that our problems are created in our minds. Well, it’s not true. The majority of our problems are real, and we can’t solve them merely by changing our thinking or by fooling our feelings. The biggest trap you can get yourself into is trying to change the meaning of what happens in your life, while it is the life itself that demands your actions. For instance, many people who persevere in degrading jobs, live in oppressive neighborhoods, have disloyal or bullying partners seek mental help to feel satisfied instead of solving their problems.
We are equipped with emotions not for our entertainment. They are not like TV channels to be switched between when you’re not satisfied with one of them.
Negative emotions are neither party crashers, nor uninvited guests in a good company. Sure, they sometimes say more about your past than about your current situation. Sure, they are often misplaced or exaggerated. Sure, they can be acted on in a more or less useful way.
But doing something about them is in no way the golden rule.
Emotions, both negative and positive, are here to make us move our asses and do something about our life, not about the emotions.
Trying to suppress or ignore emotions just because they are unpleasant would be like ignoring road signs because you don’t like their colors: your trip won’t end well.
THE GOLDEN RULE OF EMOTION REGULATION
So, what is the golden rule of emotion regulation?
When you look at the diagram of the emotional process, the golden rule is: start regulating emotions from the left, from the situation. If there’s nothing to be done about this stage, move to the next one.
Questions to ask yourself are:
- Does the situation require your intervention?
- Or is it your mind “playing tricks on” you?
- And if none of the above, is there a chance of transforming your emotions?
- Or should you let them be and engage in values-congruent behavior?
It may still be difficult to assess whether or not something can be changed, but a therapist can help you.
And you can always use the serenity prayer for guidance:
I conclude this post stressing the magic word wisdom. Wisdom to know what to change and what to leave as it is. This is the key to understanding and regulating our emotions.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.