Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


You Are the Master of Your Emotions

Emotion Dysregulation and Self-Sabotage

In my previous post "A Love Hate Relationship" I discussed how most self-sabotaging behaviors have both positive and negative influences that drive them. In this post I'm going to talk about a major negative driving force of self-sabotage: emotion dysregulation. Emotion dysregulation is a concept that refers to the ways we think or act in response to negative emotion that actually make things worse for us. For the typical person, we experience emotion as coming and going throughout the day. Something annoying happens at work and we experience anger and frustration. We are disappointed by something, and we feel sadness. We get some good news, and we feel happy. Notice how in all of these examples "we" are passive, responding to each situation that happens to us with the appropriate corresponding emotion.

Yet we are not passive creatures, we have the ability to respond in ways that will worsen or improve our situation. We can chose to "regulate" our emotions, rather than "dysregulate" them. This is something we have a tendency to forget. So you get some bad news, it makes sense to feel sad. But that doesn't mean that our only option is to sit around and cry about it. In fact, doing so is likely to make us feel sadder for longer. On the other hand, acknowledging that we feel sad and at the same time forcing ourselves to do something productive or think about the situation in a different way will help us feel better sooner. The way that we respond to the emotion will influence the "life-span" of that emotion.

This is where self-sabotage comes in. Responding to upsetting emotions with unproductive behaviors can aggravate our emotional state and make us more likely to engage in self-sabotage. So when trying to overcome self-sabotage, it is important to pay attention to how you respond to upsetting emotions. There are two key areas to look out for with emotion dysregulation: problematic thoughts and problematic behaviors.

First, I'll start with problematic ways of thinking. One thing we can do when upset is to pay attention to what is on our mind. If it is making us more upset, then we can force ourselves to think in a different way. People often talk about the power of positive thought. Although positive thoughts can't solve everything, all situations usually have some sort of silver-lining. Rather than focusing on the upsetting aspects of the situation, what was lost or what problems we now have to deal with, we can chose to try to look for any potential opportunities present in the situation. Sometimes it may be hard to see, but focusing on those positive opportunities that are there can really help decrease negative emotion.

Another common thought pattern that can aggravate negative emotion, and thus self-sabotage, is the belief that you can't handle the situation. For many, when they become upset they tell themselves "I can't handle this," or this is "the worst thing ever!" Engaging in this kind of thinking makes you more likely to get even more upset and self-sabotage. Instead, if you find yourself thinking this way, try this instead, "this sucks, but I can handle it." This may seem simplistic, but think of all those "end of the world" situations you've had in the past. Everything worked itself out more or less in the end, right? Things are more likely to work out better if you think in a productive manner because changing our thoughts can change how we feel and respond to a situation.

The second component I mentioned was behavior. When we're upset certain behaviors can make us feel worse. For example, writing that "angry email" usually doesn't make you feel better, and if you actually send the email you may be self-sabotaging. Similarly, when you're worried about something, constantly checking your phone and email doesn't make you feel better. The behaviors that make you feel better, ironically, usually have nothing to do with the upsetting situation. Doing something that "distracts" you from the situation, such as reading, exercising, playing a game, playing with a pet, etc., is what will help you calm down and feel better. Once you're calm, then you're more likely to make better decisions in your situation and less likely to self-sabotage!

So, remember that when you're upset you do have some control over how you feel. You can take charge of the situation and do what you can to make yourself feel better! Or, you can think or act in ways that will ultimately lead to self-sabotage. You are the master of your emotions; you can keep them under control!

More from Edward A. Selby Ph.D.
More from Psychology Today