The Poison Tendrils of Negative Emotions
How negative emotions lead to self-regulation failure.
Posted July 13, 2016
For readers looking to jump into the deep end of understanding procrastination, I highly recommend the recent volume edited by James Gross, Handbook of Emotion Regulation. This collection of chapters provides the most current and thorough review of the research literature in the area. Because I have put such emphasis in my own writing on the role of emotions in understanding procrastination, I thought I would summarize aspects of just one of the many chapters of this excellent book. The reference to the chapter written by Dylan Wagner and Todd Heatherton is below.
I was amused and delighted by the metaphor and image that these authors used to depict the role of negative emotions (also called negative affect) in the self-regulation process. In a very typical, academic-style diagram of a model of self-regulation, they first depict a high-level theoretical perspective.
The essential components conceptually look something like this:
TEMPTATIONS & DESIRES GOALS & STANDARDS Success
(food, drugs, media use, etc.) Monitoring Capacity Failure
At the center of the model are our goals and standards. In other words, central to self-regulation is monitoring our progress towards our goals and our capacity to do this. What they depict as directly influencing our goals and standards are temptations and desires. You know, other more fun stuff. Finally, the model makes it clear that depending on how well we can ignore the temptations while maintaining our goal pursuit predicts whether we succeed or fail. In sum, it’s a common, simple model of self-regulation that is typical of a scholarly paper.
The amusing bit is how they chose to depict the effects of negative affect (negative emotions). They have the same diagram but with a giant black hole underneath the model out of which evil tendrils emerge. These tendrils, as tendrils will, grab on to every component of the model. This model now emphasizes a failure outcome, and the final piece of the model is how failure now feeds back down to the hole from which the tendrils emerge and feed the negative affect.
[Note: While I am tempted to add a photo of their diagram here, there are copyright laws that prevent usage in this way, so I hope that this description allowed you to imagine this quite vivid depiction of a psychological model.]
As they note in the caption to this figure, “Negative affect spreads poison tendrils into every aspect of self-regulation, amplifying desires, decreasing monitoring, depleting limited capacity, and encouraging misregulation strategies (e.g., mood repair and escape from aversive self-awareness), which can relieve negative affect in the short term but often lead to further negative affect upon failure to meet one’s goals” (emphasis added).
Well done! That’s certainly the lived experience of the effects of negative emotions on our self-regulation. The tendrils pull us down.
These negative emotions seem to emerge from a dark place within us, grabbing on to every aspect of our self, and undermine our ability to self-regulate. And, of course, as we fail in our attempts to self-regulate, the self-blame begins, as does the downward spiral of self-esteem and self-efficacy.
In the bulk of the chapter, Wagner and Heatherton summarize numerous studies related to the different ways that negative emotions, emotion regulation and self-regulation interact. It’s important to remember that these are interactive effects, or as I like to say, it’s a sort of dance between these processes that undermine our success. As the authors summarize this interaction, we learn the following:
- Negative affect (emotions) leads to a desire to “feel good now,” escaping the negative state by engaging in pleasurable activities and reducing self-awareness (to lower any potential feelings of guilt; a process I have described previously);
- These choices related to mood repair serve to increase the pull or attractiveness of immediately available rewards and temptations grow;
- With a focus on pleasure and lower self-awareness, the ability to self-monitor is diminished; and at the same time,
- Negative affect, which is related to rumination, puts an increased load on working memory that further weakens the ability to self-monitor and further undermines goal pursuit, or any further attempt at self-regulation (i.e., no monitoring, no self-control).
It’s not a pretty picture, is it? But it’s certainly one that I think every human being knows. It’s that downward spiral we experience when “we don’t feel like it” and negative emotions begin to “weave their tendrils” (as these authors depict) throughout our self-regulatory process.
Interestingly, Wagner and Heatherton paint this despairing picture even a little darker, writing:
“Throw in the fact that prior self-regulatory effort may leave the individual in a depleted state in which both resources for further self-control are lacking and the strength of impulses and temptations are increased, and it is a small miracle that people are not constantly acting out their fantasies, drinking, smoking, or indulging in every gastronomic desire” (emphasis added).
This is indeed a pretty dire picture, and it’s not helped by the fact that there is very little research documenting how positive emotions might reverse this. Although there is some evidence to suggest that positive emotions might buffer against ego-depletion and enhance self-regulation, positive emotions are not simply the antidote. In fact, positive emotions might feed further off-task behaviors if this becomes the new focus of attention; a sort of carpe diem or even “what the hell” effect where we give in and decide it’s time to eat, drink and be merry.
The authors end with this sentence:
“Negative affect is thus a particularly potent threat to self-regulation, because it not only reduces the capacity for control (increased working memory load, reduced self-awareness and monitoring) but it may also lead to increases in the strength of experienced desires and emotions, rendering them all the more difficult to resist.”
So, you might ask as you join me in this dark place, “what are we to do?” How do we manage to self-regulate? Well, this has been the focus of most of my blog writing over the past years, with all sorts of strategies derived from a variety of different studies.
In my last blog post, I re-emphasized the importance of not paying attention to these emotions when they arise. Not a simple thing, I understand, as I noted above that negative emotions (affect) are related to and even seem to cause rumination. This rumination is the antithesis of “not paying attention.” But you get my point, right? The research summarized in this chapter makes it clear that negative emotions really do undermine self-regulation through processes like rumination that puts too much load on working memory (which derails monitoring our goal pursuit), or by provoking a hedonic response to feel good now.
Gross offers some potential points of intervention in his own process model of emotion. And, although it’s simply not possible to go much further in a single blog post, I will note that one effective strategy that is incorporated into many successful procrastination interventions is learning to modify appraisals of our situation to alter its emotional significance (I’ll come back to this at some other time, as this was part of the work we did in our recent book Procrastination, Health and Well-Being). In any case, the focus here is on cognitive change, the kind emphasized in cognitive behavioral therapies, for example.
I hope that you can see that despite the “poison tendrils” of negative emotions depicted so vividly by Wagner and Heatherton, there are routes to self-regulatory success. For some of us, this is certainly made more difficult by personality traits such as low emotional stability, as we are more chronically attuned to negative emotions. However, we can learn to act out of character as we learn new strategies to cope. Strategies that are much more effective than avoidance, self-blame and behavioral disengagement, each of which has been demonstrated to be risks not only to our success, but to our health.
Pychyl, T.A., & Sirois, F.M. (2016). Procrastination, emotion-regulation and well-being. In F.M. Sirois & T.A. Pychyl, (Eds.), Procrastination, health and well-being (pp. 163-188). New York: Elsevier.
Sirois, F.M. (2015). Is procrastination a vulnerability factor for hypertension and cardiovascular disease? Testing an extension of the procrastination-health model. Journal of Behavioral Medicine, 38, 578-589.
Wagner, D.D. & Heatherton, T.F. (2014). Emotion and self-regulation failure. In J. J. Gross (Ed.), Handbook of emotion regulation (pp. 613-628). New York: The Guilford Press.