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To feel better, focus on what is most important.

Key points

  • Self-regulation is the ability to calm yourself down when you're upset and cheer yourself up when you're down.
  • To improve self-regulation, it helps to understand the biology and function of emotions.
  • Consistent self-regulation requires focus on your deepest values rather than feelings.

Research consistently shows that self-regulation skill is necessary for reliable emotional well being. Behaviorally, self-regulation is the ability to act in your long-term best interest, consistent with your deepest values. (Violation of one's deepest values causes guilt, shame, and anxiety, which undermine well being.) Emotionally, self-regulation is the ability to calm yourself down when you're upset and cheer yourself up when you're down.

If, like most of us, you can stand to improve self-regulation skill, a good place to start is an understanding of the biology and function of emotions in general and specifically feelings. Emotions move us. The word, "emotion," derived from the Latin, literally means "to move." The ancients believed that emotions move behavior; in modern times we say they motivate behavior. They energize us to do things by sending chemical signals to the muscles and organs of the body; they prepare us for action.

Whether subtle or intense, conscious or unconscious, overt or covert, all emotions have one of three motivations:

  • Approach
  • Avoid
  • Attack

In approach motivation, you want to get more of something, experience more, discover more, learn more, or appreciate more — you increase its value or worthiness of your attention. Typical approach emotions are interest, enjoyment, compassion, trust, and love. Common approach behaviors are learning, encouraging, relating, negotiating, cooperating, pleasing, delighting, influencing, guiding, setting limits, and protecting.

In avoid motivation, you want to get away from something — you lower its value or worthiness of your attention. Common avoid behaviors are ignoring, rejecting, withdrawing, looking down on, dismissing.

In attack motivation, you want to devalue, insult, criticize, undermine, harm, coerce, dominate, incapacitate, or destroy. Attack emotions are anger, hatred, contempt, and disgust. Characteristic attack behaviors are demanding, manipulating, dominating, coercing, threatening, bullying, harming, and abusing.


Feelings are the conscious and most misunderstood component of emotions. In contrast to the simplicity of basic motivation, feelings are complex, ever-changing, and subject to moods (like depression), sensations (like warmth, cold, pleasure, pain, comfort, discomfort), and physiological states (like hunger and tiredness). All these can feel like emotions, which is why people often give psychological meaning to anything that feels uncomfortable. Discomfort seems close enough to negative emotions to keep us hopelessly confused, as long as we focus on feelings instead of motivations.

In mammalian organisms, feelings are not ends in themselves but a means of focusing attention, so we'll act on the motivation of the present emotion. For instance, if you're interested in something but don't approach it, the usually unconscious emotion of interest starts to feel like anticipation, excitement, a nagging hunch, or anxiety. If you have ignored someone you love and don't approach to kiss and make up, the usually unconscious emotion of guilt will begin to feel like impatience, frustration, anxiety, or depression. If you blame it on your partner, unconscious guilt becomes anger and resentment.

When we act on the basic motivation of emotions, we are usually aware of little or no feelings. That's how you can get interested in something, look up at the clock, and notice that several hours have passed, during which you were largely unaware of your feelings. It's also how you can pay no attention to someone you love in avoid motivation and be sincerely surprised when your partner accuses you of ignoring him/her, which you were entirely unaware of doing.

Of course, you can become aware of feelings if you reflect on them, but that will often stop the motivation and change the behavior, as well as distort the feeling. For instance, you can probably recall a romantic moment, like walking on the beach or lying in front of a cozy fireplace, when your partner almost ruined it by asking, "What are you feeling right now?" You had to stop sharing interest and enjoyment to think about what it feels like to share interest and enjoyment.

Self-regulation is more attainable when focused on values rather than feelings. The latter should be evaluated as signals about reality - a means to self-regulation, rather than an end in themselves. Indeed, self-regulation is difficult when focused on feelings, simply because focus amplifies, magnifies, and distorts them.

  • "I feel bad..." focuses attention on the bad feeling, which invokes assessment, explanation, justification, and often interpretation of them:
  • "This is how bad I feel....These are the reasons I feel bad....I have a right to feel bad.... This is what the bad feelings mean about me or those around me...."

All the above keep you focused on what is wrong. If you blame your feelings on someone else, they will stimulate retaliation motives that will prevent you from improving whatever is truly causing the negative feelings.

Feelings are an important part of how humans create meaning and motivate behavior, but they are never the only important — and rarely the most important — aspect of the meaning-behavior complex. Indeed, focus on feelings without regard to values will more likely lead to addictions and compulsions than beneficial behavior.

Consistent self-regulation requires focus on your deepest values rather than feelings. It's also the best way to feel better. Violation of values invariably produces bad feelings, while fidelity to them eventually makes you feel more authentic and empowered.

More from Steven Stosny, Ph.D.
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