I often imagine how much easier my life would be if I didn’t have any feelings. I wouldn’t get upset each time I hear about yet another mass shooting in the news; I wouldn’t get so angry when I come up against ignorance or social injustice; I wouldn’t lose sleep worrying about my business plan; I wouldn’t feel threatened by my colleagues who are after the same promotion as I am; I would be able to express my opinions without fear of criticism; I would easily overcome my shyness during networking events; I would be able to say, “I was wrong,” without sweating with shame; I wouldn’t get bored during long meetings, and I wouldn’t have gotten so enthralled with the new season of Game of Thrones and prioritize it over writing this blog post! All my decisions would be based on logic and mathematical precision and all my actions would be in accordance with a well-crafted plan.
Alas, we come equipped with emotions. And that makes life messy. Despite the extensive real estate that our frontal lobes occupy in our brains, the emotional centers remain as active and as loud as ever. They have their tentacles attached to almost every human activity. They are the cause of many pleasures and many pains. They influence our decisions, they shape our personalities, they determine the size of our social networks, they affect the quality of our lives, and when they are left unsupervised they cause trouble. Whether positive or negative, intense emotions can cause a lot of suffering to many people and can lead to a range of self-destructive actions. But how many people can claim that they are really good at operating this part of our mental machinery?
Emotions have been the topic of many self-help books and programs. A good portion of these resources focuses on how to deal with specific emotions. Popular topics include: How to conquer fear, How to manage anger, or How to overcome depression. There are also resources that focus on the bright side of emotions and promise to teach you how to be eternally happy. The problem with this kind of divide-and-conquer approach, however, is that it views each emotion in isolation, as if that specific emotion exists in a separate part of the brain—in its own little cocoon within the folds of your cerebral cortex. And after you gain control over said emotion, you no longer have to worry about it. You can go on with your life or you can pick up another book to learn how to control the next emotion that’s making your life hard.
Conquering fear, managing anger, and overcoming depression are very important goals for many people. These emotions can cause a lot of problems and learning coping skills to deal with them more effectively can be extremely helpful.
But instead of having to start from scratch and learn a new recipe for each emotion, there is one mental skill that applies to all emotions.This mental skill has a supervisor’s role over a wide range of emotional states. It enables us to use our emotions more effectively. To use them to understand what’s going on in our surroundings. To gauge how far or close we are from achieving our goals. To solve complex life problems. To connect with other people. To avoid risk. To feel more empowered. To experience more joy. The important skill I am referring to is emotion regulation.
Emotion regulation is the ability to monitor, evaluate, and modify our emotional reactions. It is not anger management. It is not fear deconditioning. It is not positive thinking. It is not mindfulness meditation. It is all of that together and more. It is the ability that makes it possible to choose how you want to feel in the moment, based on the circumstances and your objectives. Emotion regulation is the mental skill that underlies emotional intelligence. Emotion regulation means that you are scared when you need to be scared, and you are fearless when you need to be fearless. It also means that in both cases, you will most likely do what will better serve your objective and lead to the best possible outcome. Emotion regulation can lead to more confident decisions, more effective actions, and a calmer state of mind. All in all, emotion regulation can play an important role to having a fulfilling and balanced life.
How do we get better at it? How do we become masters of managing our own emotional wiring? Being a mental skill, emotion regulation can be strengthened the same way we strengthen our other mental skills. Through training and practice.
Psychologists have begun to develop and test different approaches and techniques to improve emotion regulation in different populations. And there is now evidence supporting the usefulness of emotion regulation in reducing stress and anxiety, in improving well-being, and in facilitating goal pursuit.
As much as I want to imagine that life without emotions would be easier, the truth is that emotions are who we are and that by knowing how to read them and use them, we can certainly make our lives better.
Gross JJ, Thompson RA. Emotion regulation: Conceptual foundations. In: Gross JJ, editor. The handbook of emotion regulation. New York: The Guilford Press; 2007. p. 3-24.
Tsaousides, T., et al. (2017). Improving Emotion Regulation Following Web-based Group Intervention for Individuals with Traumatic Brain Injury. Journal of Head Trauma Rehabilitation, 32, 354-365.
Berking, M., et al., (2008). Emotion regulation skills as a treatment target in psychotherapy. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 46, 1193-1250.