We do a lot with our emotions, other than just feel them. John Milton wrote of the kingly merits of “reigning” over them. Oscar Wilde’s Dorian Gray wished to “use them, to enjoy them, and to dominate them,” while Vincent van Gogh spoke of “obeying” them like they were the captains of our lives.
Indeed, as if the sheer experience of emotions wasn't enough—the crushing weight of sadness, the maddening of anger, the solace of serenity and the grace of gratitude—we tend to spend a lot of resources on the pre- and post-production of our emotional storylines.
We pick our favorites (joy) and seek all chances of running into them. We also have our foes, penciled in ominous red (fear), to be avoided at all costs. And when these foes inevitably show up at our doors, we do everything to turn them away. We resist them. We deny them. We fight them. We reason with them. We redirect and reshape them. But they loiter and linger, watching us labor with their aftermaths. Until, suddenly, they tip their hats to their ill-mannered hosts and leave.
Emotion regulation—the processes by which individuals influence their emotions—has been the subject of a wealth of psychological research. These processes may be automatic and without our awareness (e.g., closing our eyes while watching scary movies), or they can require our conscious efforts (e.g., forcing a smile despite feeling nervous before a talk). While there are a myriad of methods we regularly employ to manage our emotions, researchers have identified a few defining features of emotion regulation. These include having a goal (e.g., watching an uplifting comedy to alleviate sadness), as well as influencing the dynamics and trajectory of an emotion (e.g., lessening the intensity of worry by distraction).
Although it may sometimes feel like they befall us out of the blue, emotions, in fact, unfold over time. According to the process model of emotion regulation, we can interfere with emotional processes at different points during the emotion generation timeline using different strategies. For instance, before the emotional reaction is activated, we can target the selection and modification of the situation itself (e.g., avoiding dreaded situations), our attention to the situation (e.g., looking somewhere else), and the way we frame its meaning (e.g., downplaying negative events). Once the emotion is on its way, we can alter our behavioral or physiological response to it (e.g., smiling when feeling fearful).
Not all strategies are equally adaptive at regulating our emotions. In a recent interview with one of the leading researchers on emotion regulation, Professor Iris Mauss explains two of the most widely studied strategies—reappraisal and suppression—and their consequences on our well-being.
“Reappraisal is cognitive in nature, which means that it involves how people think about and reframe emotional situations. It’s considered to be a positive type of emotion regulation because it is flexible and because it transforms the whole emotion, rather than just one piece of it. Reappraisal is associated with lower levels of depression and greater levels of well-being. Suppression, in contrast, is basically still experiencing the emotion, but inhibiting its behavioral expressions. It is considered to be a more negative type of emotion regulation. One reason is that the experience part of the emotion still persists. Another reason is more transactional in nature. It creates an asymmetry between how a person feels and what other people see, and that’s thought to be related to negative social processes.”
Research has shown that people who use reappraisal strategies are able to reframe stressful situations by reinterpreting the meaning of negative emotional stimuli. They deal with challenging situations by taking a proactive role in restoring their moods and by adopting more positive attitudes. These efforts are often rewarded with more positive and less negative emotions, as well as resilience, better social ties, greater self-esteem and general life-satisfaction.
Suppression, on the other hand, only affects the behavioral response of emotions, and does little to reduce their actual experience. It’s thought to be cognitively and socially costly—it takes continuous effort to control and suppress emotions—and can create feelings of inauthenticity. Studies have shown that people who used suppression were less able to repair their negative moods, despite “masking” their inner feelings. They experienced fewer positive emotions and more negative emotions, had less life satisfaction and less self-esteem.
So, how can we train our skills of effectively regulating our emotions? According to Dr. Mauss, emotion regulation is not as simple as learning a few tricks on reframing our circumstances. Various factors, including culture, are at play that can render different strategies adaptive or maladaptive. Emotion regulation also depends on the intuitive beliefs and mindsets people hold about their emotions. Do you think you have control over your emotions? If ‘yes’, then you are more likely to use reappraisal strategies than if your answer is ‘no’. Thus, as Dr. Mauss posits, training emotion regulation in more adaptive ways may involve “altering people’s mindsets and beliefs about their emotions.”
There is another form of emotion regulation (“a third axis”) that Dr. Mauss and her team have been exploring and that may help us see emotion regulation in the light of thousand-year-old traditions.
“Emotional acceptance is a stance of perceiving that one is emotional, but deciding not to do anything about it, i.e., not to alter the emotion. Somewhat paradoxically, emotional acceptance is related to decreased negative emotions, as well as resilience. Thus, the absence of emotion regulation can sometimes have the best emotion regulatory function. For example, people who accept their negative emotions when they are stressed out, experience less negative emotions than people who don't accept their emotions. It’s one of the core processes of mindfulness, which involves a number of different psychological processes. One of them is aware of your emotional and psychological states, and the other one is non-reactance or acceptance, which could also be thought of as the absence of emotion regulation. That might seem contradictory at first glance, but perhaps it’s the combination of both that you really want: a stance of emotional acceptance - acknowledging your emotions and not being threatened by them - and the knowledge that you can, if you want to, cognitively transform them.”
Wisdom is said to be the “harmony of reason and the passions”. In our search for this harmony, we go about our days feeling our emotions as much as trying to regulate them. What if we anchored our emotional experiences in the conviction that we have at our disposal the means to alter them? What if, instead of cherishing our favorite visitors and turning away the others at our door, we could “welcome them all and…treat each guest honorably,” as Rumi wrote centuries ago? Even the unwanted ones, with the ominous red letters. After all, while all guests, good or bad, come and go with each sundown, the duration and outcome of their visits may in part depend on our wisdom: how much we accept our passions and how well we know our reason.
Many thanks to Dr. Iris Mauss for being generous with her time and insights. Dr. Mauss is an associate professor at the University of California Berkeley and the director of Berkeley’s Emotion and Emotion Regulation Lab.
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Ford, B. Q., Lam, P., John, O. P., & Mauss, I. B. (2017). The psychological health benefits of accepting negative emotions and thoughts: laboratory, diary, and longitudinal evidence. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (in press).