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Emotion Regulation

Sure, You're Self-Aware, But Can You Regulate?

Self-regulation is an essential skill that people may lack.

Key points

  • Self-awareness includes awareness of feelings, thoughts, and behaviors.
  • Self-regulation is when we repair negative moods and thoughts so we cope better.
  • Being too self-aware with not enough self-regulation leads to rumination, anxiety, and depression.

Many people are really good at self-awareness. In fact, some might be a little too good. They’ve learned about their triggers, they know the symptoms of depression and anxiety, and they understand themselves well enough to know when they’re feeling bad and what specifically is making them feel worse. Social media and Google have helped many people figure out what’s going on internally and they’ve become experts at self-diagnosing. That’s wonderful! But it’s also not so wonderful at the same time.

When we have too much self-awareness and not enough self-regulation, we end up ruminating (engaging in negative thinking without end or completion, basically looping around and around in unproductive negative thoughts). Additionally, too much self-awareness without self-regulation leads to anxiety and depression. It makes sense if you think about it. If we’re aware of our negative thoughts but don’t know how to change them, we’re going to get stuck on them. And if we’re super aware of our feelings but don’t know how to de-escalate the intense ones, we’re going to feel anxious or depressed.

Many of the clients I work with know what they’re thinking and feeling much of the time and then wonder why they don’t feel better. Most people think that having awareness is the solution and once they’ve got it, they’ll feel better. This may not be true. If you’re overly focused on how you feel, think, and act but lack the ability to regulate, you’re not really helping yourself. In fact, you’re likely making yourself feel worse. You get stuck in a negative emotional state, replaying a situation in your head, and unable to move on to something more productive or helpful.

What Is Self-Regulation?

Self-regulation is our ability to repair negative mood states and minimize negative thoughts so that we can cope better with stressful events and adversities. It helps us manage our behaviors better so that we’re more in control. And we end up feeling better about ourselves because we didn’t blow up or act in a way that we’re embarrassed or ashamed of once the stressful situation has passed. Self-regulation even acts as a protective barrier to extremely hard negative life events like losing a loved one, breaking up with a partner, or moving to another country alone.

Can You Regulate?

How do you know if you’re lacking self-regulation? If you find that you frequently can’t get yourself out of negative thought loops and get stuck on negative thoughts about current or past events. Maybe you’re sitting in class and should be focusing on the presentation but all you can do is think about a minor argument you had earlier that day with a friend. You’re replaying it over and over in your head and can’t switch your attention to the speaker. Another sign of limited self-regulation is if you find that you easily end up in a state of anxiety or depression. Perhaps you’re working on your resume and start worrying about whether you’ll be able to find another job. Suddenly, you realize you’re convinced you’ll end up homeless and living out of a cardboard box. You went from 0 to 100 instantaneously.

Three Ways to Regulate

If you’re realizing you need help with self-regulation, I’ve got you. But before we dive into what to do, think of it as a skill you’re building. Just like how you’ve had to learn how to cook better so your meals are more enjoyable or improve your public speaking skills so you can get that promotion, this is an area you’ll build upon. It’s not something you just learn, do it once, and then you’ve got it. You’ll need to practice again and again, adjusting along the way, until you start to notice that it’s getting easier. Be patient with yourself and practice self-compassion as you do it imperfectly.

  • Start with doublet breathing. This is my absolute favorite breathing exercise and my go-to for stress management. Inhale through your nose until you can’t inhale anymore and then take one final sniff in. Exhale through your mouth, releasing long and slow. Go through this inhale-exhale cycle two more times. It’s an immediate nervous system reset.
  • Practice pausing. This can be a pause before responding or before committing to a thought. It can be a pause before identifying your feelings. It can be a pause between activities. Practice it in all its forms. Pause by taking a breath, getting a drink of water, going to the bathroom, telling yourself you’re pausing, or even taking a break from a situation. Practice it when it’s easy to do so you’re able to do it when it’s more challenging.
  • Engage in the present moment. Self-awareness often means getting lost in our heads, and focusing on what we’re thinking or feeling. Self-regulation is taking ourselves out of our heads and into what’s going on around us. To get out of our heads and into the world, we need to engage in the present moment fully. We can do this by using our senses and focusing on what we see, hear, feel, smell, and taste. Name five things you can see, four things you can hear, three things you can feel, two things you can smell, and one thing you can taste.

Remember that these things will take practice and you’re better off practicing when it’s easier. If you’re mildly stressed or not feeling super anxious yet, that’s the perfect time. The more you practice with the less intense situations, the easier it’ll be to do when things heat up. And if you’re used to getting stuck in negative thinking or feeling anxious or depressed easily, it’s going to take a bit more time. Cut yourself some slack and be patient. You’re learning something new and hard. But just like you’ve done with other new and hard things, you’ll get it eventually. You got this. And if you want the teen or young adult in your life to learn how to self-regulate, check out my new book, The Emotionally Intelligent Teen.

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