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Emotion Regulation

How Shaun Morgan Empties His Jar

Seether’s frontman explores the importance of emotion regulation.

Key points

  • Emotion regulation is our ability to understand, process, cope with and express our emotions.
  • To preserve a given relationship, we may engage in unhealthy emotion regulation strategies, such as emotional suppression or avoidance.
  • Shaun Morgan shares how the patterns of relating to others he learned from in his early family life affected his adult relationships.
Jordan Kirby, used with permission
Jordan Kirby, used with permission

Emotion regulation–our ability to understand, process, cope with and express our emotions–is one of the most important skills that we can have to achieve optimal mental health. In an ideal world, we would understand how we feel and why and be able to express and cope with our feelings effectively. Further, we would be surrounded by people who support and encourage us to choose healthy emotional regulation strategies.

Unfortunately, some people in our life may prefer that we ignore and not express our feelings, especially if it involves negative feelings towards them. Thus, to preserve a given relationship, we may engage in unhealthy emotion regulation strategies, such as emotional suppression or avoidance. And such strategies may temporarily allow us to "keep calm and carry on," thus not creating discomfort for those around us. But eventually, ignoring, suppressing, or avoiding our feelings backfires, resulting in our emotions festering and growing until they become overwhelming and unmanageable.

To better understand the complexity of emotion regulation in an interpersonal context, I spoke with Shaun Morgan–singer, songwriter, musician, and founding member of the multi-platinum hard rock band Seether. Seether is celebrating the 20th anniversary of its gold-selling debut, Disclaimer, with an expanded reissue on vinyl, CD, and digital.

Morgan has long been an outspoken mental health advocate, sharing his experiences with abuse, neglect, depression, and addiction. And in our conversation, Morgan discussed how he felt that the abuse and neglect he faced growing up from his mother left him feeling that his emotions didn't matter. As a result, his achieving healthy emotion regulation was not seen as a priority or possibility. Partially due to this experience, Morgan frequently avoided and suppressed his feelings, which he felt exacerbated his struggles with depression and addiction.

We discussed how Morgan eventually began a path towards healthy emotion regulation with an approach he referred to as his ability to “empty his jar.” Morgan detailed a long history of abuse and neglect that he and his brother Eugene faced as children–particularly from his mother and his mother's boyfriends. According to Morgan, the result was that he did not feel empowered or capable of feeling emotionally vulnerable.

"She was a woman who was having affairs with married men, leaving us in cars at nighttime. We’d sit in an abandoned shopping mall parking lot at two in the morning. I spent my childhood having to fight for my brother fight for myself, against grown men. And take the physical abuse instead of him," Morgan told me. "And never allow yourself a moment of vulnerability. I had to be the rock. I had to be the stalwart person in the room. So maybe vulnerability is something that I've always been running away from."

When Morgan tried to be emotionally vulnerable and express himself, he felt that his mother ignored his feelings and blamed him for any problems. This resulted in Morgan experiencing a deep sense of shame. “Growing up, I was told everything was my fault, no matter what it was,” Morgan recalled:

Every time I allowed myself to be vulnerable, I was let down again. And then it became a shame. I felt ashamed that I had allowed myself to be fooled again and again and again … I feel ashamed because they are disappointed in me, and I'm not living up to their expectations.

Further, in trying to be “strong” and take responsibility for difficult interpersonal situations, Morgan often ignored his feelings and was hypervigilant of others' negative emotions. Specifically, Morgan would observe when others were angry or sad and blame himself. “Shame is something that I carry around all the time," "he described:

I'm the guy that when you walk into a classroom and said ‘Who stole this off my desk,’ I act guilty even though I would never do that. My physiological responses are the guy that's trying to hide a secret, sweats, and [gets nervous] when I know for a fact it wasn't me.

As time passed, Morgan often felt he could not express himself in his relationships. As a result, even if he was with people, he felt lonely and disconnected. For example, he explained how touring was often difficult for him. “My description of touring is you're always lonely, but you're never alone,” Morgan said, "Lonely because you don't really talk to your boys about your feelings. You don't talk to them about your day. I'm not going to come out and lay my personal problems at their feet. Because I'm sure they have their own."

Throughout his life, Morgan continued to have difficult experiences that he didn’t fully process emotionally. He felt that he was in a cycle of depression and addiction. In 2002 Morgan was divorced. In 2007 his brother committed suicide. And in 2017, Morgan’s father died in a motorcycle accident. Eventually, he came into contact with a therapist who encouraged him to express his feelings using the metaphor of how he should “empty the jar": "I just kept running from stuff. As long as I kept running, kept playing, kept being on a bus or plane, kept putting drugs and booze in me. As long as I kept doing all those things. The problems would never catch up.

"I wouldn't work through them. I wouldn't digest them or even properly mourn. So about two weeks after my brother's suicide, I was back shooting a music video. And we were back out on the tour on the road. And none of us had been to any kind of counseling. We had one session where a guy came out and sat with all of us band and crew and said, ‘Hey, you know, grief is important to deal with.’ His analogy was that you imagine all your emotions are like a jar inside you. And every emotion is a marble. And if you don't empty the jar every once in a while, eventually it's going to overflow."

Morgan took this advice to heart and began exploring and expressing his feelings and examining his patterns of emotion regulation. One of the first steps was to examine how devaluing his feelings resulted in shame and defensiveness rather than helping him connect to himself and others. "When somebody criticizes me, I immediately take it as a negative about myself, and then get defensive. I get angry," Morgan explained. "I have this really terrible response to not even criticism, just somebody honestly expressing how they feel."

The next step for Morgan was recognizing that the patterns of relating to others he learned from in his early family life–where people were attacking or blaming him–did not mean that others would react similarly. He discussed how his relationship with his current wife helped him see that people could be kind and well-intentioned when they shared their feelings and that he should share his: "Like, oftentimes, my wife would just say, she's feeling something, and I'll immediately assume it's my fault. And then I’d get defensive. My wife, she's just not that kind of a person. She's not malicious and mean."

He continued, "I've gotten to a point now where I'll just say, ‘Hey, I need to walk away, or I need a couple minutes, or, I just need to go take a couple breaths. And that's already a massive improvement over, immediately taking offense and getting defensive."

Morgan has committed himself to not continuing this maladaptive cycle and trying to make his home an emotionally safe place for his family. Ultimately, while he respects the challenges in emotion regulation that lie ahead, he is optimistic that he can foster a healthy emotional environment: "It's not easy. But if I am more aware of it, in the moments that it's needed, to say, Hey, this is the thing I don't want to be. This is that person I don't want to be. This is that response I don't want to give. This is not how I want my wife to feel.

"I'll make her feel safe.”

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