A MindTools.com article about emotional self regulation opened with this illustration.
There is a Native American story called “The Two Wolves.” It starts with an old Cherokee telling his grandson about a battle that often goes on inside people.
He says, “My son, the fight is between two wolves. One is evil. It is angry, envious, jealous, sorrowful, regretful, greedy, arrogant, self-pitying, guilty, resentful, inferior, dishonest, proud, superior, and egotistical. The other is good. This wolf is joyful, peaceful, loving, hopeful, serene, humble, kind, benevolent, empathetic, generous, truthful, compassionate, and faithful.”
His grandson thinks for a while, and then asks: “Which wolf wins, Grandfather?” The old Cherokee simply replies, “The one you feed.”
What if you don’t know wolves exist, or don’t care?
In this story, the wolves represent our emotions. Dan Goleman, in his work on emotional intelligence (understanding emotions in ourselves and others, and choosing our response to them) pays off big time.
Is Emotional Self-Regulation Worth Big Money To You?
I’m going to give you just two examples:
The Surgeon and His Temper
George Anderson, a clinical social worker, helps professionals harness their anger in positive ways.
He told a story about an accomplished surgeon who came to him for help.
He’d struggled with controlling his temper for years.
He was in crisis when he lost his temper during an operation and began throwing scalpels around the room! Human Resources paid him a visit.
Surgeons make about $265,000 per year.
Assuming it would take 4 months to find a new job, this surgeon’s poor emotional self regulation cost him $88,333!
The High Cost of Divorce
There are many reasons for divorce.
According to a University of Utah study, too much arguing is one of the risk factors leading to divorce.
Arguing itself doesn’t lead to divorce, but arguing in hurtful ways harms the relationship.
Improving self regulation can help both you and your partner argue constructively.
How much does divorce cost?
According to this Huffington post article, the average divorce costs between $15,000 to $30,000!
The Physical Cost of Poor Emotional Self-Regulation
Anxiety and Depression take a physical toll on our bodies.
Anxiety and depression often cause costly hospitalizations or other physical health issues (diabetes, heart problems, etc).
There’s no way to accurately measure the cost of the losses of health, relationships, and employment, but if we did, the cost would be high!
Would you agree that improving our emotional self-regulation would be worth it?!
You and I can improve our quality of life, our relationships, and our careers by improving our emotional self regulation.
What Is Emotional Self-Regulation?
Emotional self-regulation is part of a larger concept called emotional intelligence – the ability to choose how we think, how we feel, and the actions we take.
As we grow in emotional self-regulation, we learn to recognize our thoughts and feelings about situations, and to choose the best response to those thoughts/feelings/impulses.
If you’d like an extreme example of the benefit of emotional self-regulation, check out this video/podcast episode.
Jeffrey Zeizel’s emotional self-regulation skills helped him cope with uncertainty and stress while he ran the Boston Marathon during the bombing attack.
Some of the abilities (also known as competencies) that are part of self-management are:
- emotional self-control – controlling impulsive emotions.
- trustworthiness – being honest and taking action that is in line with your values.
- flexibility – being able to adapt and work with different people in different situations.
- optimism – the ability to see opportunities in situations and the good in other people.
- achievement – developing your performance to meet your own standards of excellence.
- initiative – taking action when it is necessary.
source: change management coach
How Does Emotional Self-Regulation Improve Relationships?
Don’t Follow My Example!
One day, my son and a friend were upstairs. They must have been 8-9 years old.
My wife and I were trying to get our P-90X fitness routine into our busy week.
The P-90X routine is exhausting.
As I was sweating and heaving, I heard my son screaming at his younger sister.
Between the exhaustion of working out, my desire to finish my workout, and my impatience at the screaming, I lost my temper.
I went upstairs, yelled at the top of my lungs at my son, his friend, and my daughter, reducing all of them to tears.
Then I drove his friend home.
Then I came back to an upset wife, upset kids, and a guilty conscience.
All because I couldn’t control my temper.
If I’d been more self-aware and exercised better self-control (emotional regulation), I wouldn’t have done the damage that required me to eat humble pie, and apologize to my son, his friend, my wife, and my daughter. And even after that, it took time for me to feel better.
Emotional Self-Regulation prevents us from acting on our emotions in an impulsive or destructive manner
Here’s a quote from a character in the movie, Shawshank Redemption.
He goes before the parole board for his final time, to talk about whether he’s been rehabilitated or not:
“We hope for so many things, but our hope must have an object, and for me, I wish for … a conversation with the young man who put me behind bars for most of my life. I wish I could fix that angry, impulsive kid before prison turned me into an old man!”
I can’t remember the name of the program, it was one of many on National Public Radio, that made such an impression on me.
The reporter was interviewing teenagers who ended up spending long prison terms because of a single action.
Emotional regulation prevents self-destruction
One young man shared that he replays, over and over, the one moment when someone insulted him. The anger boiled up within him, and he could think of nothing but revenge. Before he knew what was happening, he had taken a gun from his pocket, aimed it at the offender, and shot him dead.
Now, years later, this man reflected on how one moment of anger and impulsiveness cost him his life.
Aspergers/Autism and Emotional Self-Regulation
Many Aspergers/Autism authors have written about difficulties identifying and responding to emotions in themselves and others.
In her article, Aspergers Emotions and Adult Relationships, AS author Lynne Soraya describes the challenges with emotions and self regulation:
Just as the neurological system can be less than efficient in handling sensory input, so can it be with emotional input. A person with Asperger’s may feel raw emotion, but not be able to immediately identify it or its cause. Not only does this cause breakdown in communications in common, everyday situations, it can also be very dangerous.
The inefficient processing of emotion can be very draining – as the emotion temporarily takes over it can impede awareness and rational thought. The emotional warning signs that are meant to protect you from difficult or harmful situations may malfunction, or work with such a delay that they lose effectiveness. This means that they may be less than prepared to defend themselves verbally (or, in bad situations, physically) in an argument or conflict.
Alexythimia: Inability to Identify Emotions
As if emotions aren’t challenging enough, a good percentage of people both on and off the autism spectrum struggle with alexythymia.
In the words of Aspergers author Cynthia Kim,
Alexithymia refers to people who have difficulty identifying and describing emotions as well as differentiating between physical and emotional sensations. It’s not a formal diagnosis, but a way of describing a common set of experiences related to emotional dysfunction.
If you’re interested taking the alexythymia questionnaire, go here.
Here are a few examples those with alexithymia experience:
- Difficulty identifying different types of feelings
- Limited understanding of what causes feelings
- Difficulty expressing feelings
- Difficulty recognizing facial cues in others
- Limited or rigid imagination
- Constricted style of thinking
- Hypersensitive to physical sensations
- Detached or tentative connection to others
source: The Emotional Blindness of Alexithymia
How To Improve Emotional Self Regulation In 60 Minutes
60 minutes will get the momentum of personal growth and change going.
Of course, that’s the beginning of a challenging but rewarding journey into emotional awareness.
The Scientific American article, The Emotional Blindness of Alexithymia, states there are ways to improve emotional awareness of yours and others’ feelings.
For the scientific evidence behind each of these methods, please read the entire article.
Journaling: Practice writing in a diary every day, preferably in the morning. Go beyond just writing about the events of the day, and record your thoughts and feelings about those events.
Resources I’ve used:
The Artist’s Way Workbook, by Julia Cameron. Check out Tim Ferris’ article about how he has used this workbook.
Read Novels: Authors write about feelings with a rich variety of words. According to Kidd, D. C. & Castano, E. (2013). Reading literary fiction improves theory of mind. Science, 342, 377-380, reading novels can help us develop both expressive and receptive language skills.
Skills Based Psychotherapy Treatments: Skills-based therapy is a brief form of therapy focused on teaching skills. Dialectical behavior therapy, cognitive mindfulness training, and short-term interpersonal therapy teach us how to be more attentive to our own and others’ emotional states.
Dialectical Behavior Therapy:
Free overview of dialectical behavior therapy
The Dialectical Behavior Therapy Skills Workbook: Practical DBT Exercises for Learning Mindfulness, Interpersonal Effectiveness, Emotion Regulation & Distress Tolerance, by Matthew McKay.
Mindfulness of Emotions (article)
Workbook: A Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Workbook, by Bob Stahl.
(I don’t know enough about short-term interpersonal therapy to address it currently, but I will do so in a future article).
The Expressive Arts: Acting, dance, art, music, or movement therapy class has been shown to help people recognize and externalize feelings. Research some of these classes via community programs, adult non-credit continuing education, or other local workshops.
Group Psychotherapy (please read the article for more information)
Relaxation and Hypnosis Training. (please read the article for more information)
[I didn’t comment on group psychotherapy because I’m not sure how well this mode of training works for Aspergers adults. As for relaxation and hypnosis training, I’m not sure of that either. I do believe that relaxation and hypnosis could work as a type of cognitive mindfulness training].
The Most Precious Things In Life Are Worth Training For, Even When Difficult
Your career, your relationships, and your wellbeing are worth the cost of time and discomfort it will take to improve your emotional self regulation skills.
Take 60 minutes to learn more about the strategies listed above. Commit to working on one of them. Even better, take a night off to watch Inside Out, which beautifully illustrates everything I’m talking about in this article.
You are worth it!
photo credit: Abhijit Bhaduri
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