The most important skill in love and life.

Posted Apr 15, 2020

There are several ways to define self-regulation skill. My definition is layered but not precise enough for research purposes. However, research definitions have no therapeutic value, and this is a self-help post. So here’s a therapeutic way to think of self-regulation skill: It’s the ability to act consistently in your long-term best interests. That entails regulating emotions and impulses that would cause you to act against your long-term best interests.

Behavior detrimental to long-term best interests is likely to occur when self-value is low, or when it drops abruptly: Someone says or does something that makes you feel devalued. Self-regulation skill is the ability to hold onto self-value when we don’t like other people’s behavior, or they don’t like ours, so we don’t feel personally devalued and are less likely to act against our long-term best interests.

When self-regulation skill is impaired under stress we’re apt to feel powerless and vulnerable. We become highly reactive, which puts us at the mercy of every jerk in the world and practically guarantees that we’ll act to our long-term detriment.

Self-Regulation in Love

In close relationships, self-regulation is holding onto the value of loved ones when we don’t like their behavior, or they don’t like ours, so we don’t devalue them because of it.

When self-regulation skill is impaired under stress family members are too reactive. A negative feeling in one triggers chaos or emotional shut down in the others, even when the negative feelings have nothing to do with them.

Partners and children begin to see each other as the source of all their negative feelings. They grow resentful and alienated.

Failed Self-Regulation Tactics

Some people mistakenly view self-regulation as:

  • Don’t care.
  • Dismiss (it’s insignificant).
  • Take the hurt but don’t react.

The "don’t care" tactic always fails in families; it’s impossible not to care when there’s an emotional bond. Although family members build defenses to shut out the internal world of each other, the defenses themselves make them hyper-vigilant. They end up shutting out the good (compassion and kindness) and letting in the bad: resentment and hostility. They care more because they’re hurt more.

The "dismissing" tactic is doomed to fail in families. It’s devaluing to loved ones, and, of course, always gets a negative response. To devalue loved ones is to devalue the self.

It breaks my heart when clients try to deal with family discord by “taking the hurt” but trying not to react negatively. It’s an ill-fated tactic that leads to loss of self-value and eventual contempt for self and loved ones.

Self-regulation never means “taking the hurt.”

Emotional hurt rises from the meaning we give to events and behaviors. Self-regulation changes the meaning by transforming a devalued sense of self into a valued one.

The strategy is simple. When we feel devalued, we need to do something that will make us feel more valuable. The tragic mistake so many people make is to confuse value with power. Instead of doing what would make them feel more valuable, they choose adrenaline, in the form of anger or resentment, to feel temporarily more powerful. When we exert power over loved ones, actively or passively, we never feel more valuable. We usually get depressed afterward, though we may mitigate the depression with chronic resentment.

From Devalued States to Valued States

In CompassionPower courses, we develop core value, the ability to create value and meaning. Core value is a place within, where we can go to calm down when upset or cheer up when down. In core value, we’re not reactive to loved ones’ defenses against vulnerability, usually expressed as anger, resentment, criticism, distraction, shut-down. Rather, we honor our deepest values and try to improve, appreciate, connect or protect.

Example 1 of Core Value Self-Regulation

My partner is late from work, yet again.

Old meaning: My partner’s unreliable and a liar. I’m not respected or loved.

Self-regulation: Get to core value (we use a technique called, “Your Core Value Bank,” which contains the most important things to you and about you, namely, your sense of humanity, meaning and purpose, love, spirituality, appreciation of natural and creative beauty, community connection, and recollection of compassionate acts you’ve done.)

In core value: I value my partner and myself, even when I don’t like specific behavior.

New meaning: My partner gets distracted and overwhelmed, especially knowing that I’ll be upset when (he/she) gets home. (People who are often late keep forgetting things they need to do, losing track of time. Hassling them about being late makes them more forgetful.)

I’ll make coming home more pleasant.

Example 2

My kids are disrespecting me.

Old meaning: They’re selfish little brats. They don’t care about me. I’m a failure as a parent.

Self-regulation: Get to core value, to be in touch with our deepest values.

In core value: I want my children to be safe and well.

New meaning: They’re feeling devalued, anxious, unlovable. I’ll teach them what they can do in the future when they feel this way.

Example 3

My partner interrupts me yet again.

Old meaning: My partner is rude and selfish. I’m unimportant, unloved, unlovable.

Self-regulation: Get to Core Value

In core value: I want my partner to be well.

New Meaning:  I interrupt, too, before the thought leaves me. (People who interrupt are afraid they won’t be able to make their points. Rarely does only one partner interrupt.) I’ll apologize for interrupting. (The best way to get an apology is to give one.) I’ll suggest we take turns speaking.

Example 4

My partner is controlling, demanding.

Old meaning: My partner is dictatorial, unreasonable, always has to “be right” and feel in control. I’m unimportant, devalued, unloved, unlovable.

Self-regulation: Get to Core Value

In core value: I love my partner.

New Meaning: My partner feels overwhelmed or out of control. I’ll respectfully negotiate in a way that shows value and compassion. That is, I’ll practice compassionate assertiveness.

Self-regulation transforms devalued, defensive, and reactive states into a proactive core value. It allows us to act in our long-term best interests, which includes being compassionate and kind to loved ones.