3 Steps to Healthy Emotional Regulation

Woman walking on beach at sunrise surrounded by flying birds.Emotional regulation is the foundation of who we are, how we think, and how we relate to the world around us. For some people, emotions can feel so strong that they overpower their ability to effectively deal with everyday life. For others, knowledge of what they are feeling can be elusive.

The road to healthy emotional regulation requires us first to be able to identify what we are feeling at any moment in time. Often, the help of a therapist will support you on your journey to healthy emotional regulation.

How We Perceive Our Emotions: A Background to Emotional Regulation

First, it may be worth examining how many, if not most, people think about emotional content. The messages received during our formative years give rise to many current beliefs. The essayist and novelist, George Santayana, said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” In light of this apparent truth, what can be said about messages absorbed in earlier years that fly in the face of the facts?

It often appears that perceptions of truth define reality in the sense that our learned beliefs about self and others become so ingrained that they often go unchallenged and take on a life of their own. Such may be the case with our emotions—they may be categorized as good or bad, negative or positive. By categorizing emotions in this way, we may consciously or subconsciously attach more value to some emotions while negating, minimizing, or avoiding others.

This selective approach to categorizing emotions has far-reaching effects on how we deal with a wide range of emotional content, including our ability or willingness to accept what feels uncomfortable. By seeking out so-called “good emotions,” we may neglect uncomfortable or painful emotions including worry, fear, frustration, anger, rage, bitterness, resentment, sadness, hopelessness, and helplessness, to name a few.  It can be argued that establishing a dichotomy or differentiation of good vs. bad emotions inhibits emotional and mental health.

Much is known about the deleterious effects of stuffing one’s emotions, and the same can be said about the harmful effects of burying uncomfortable or painful emotions. In order to establish good emotional health, all emotions must be given a voice. Keeping in mind this framework of viewing the entire range of emotions with equal value or validity, we can now explore three steps to emotional regulation.

In order to establish good emotional health, all emotions must be given a voice.

Step 1:  What Am I Feeling in This Moment?

The task of identifying what you are feeling is not always simple. It requires the ability to be present in, versus running from, the moment. In today’s society, many people are “human doings” rather than “human beings.” The former refers to humans constantly in motion, doing this and doing that, while the latter involves sitting in the present and allowing oneself to feel what one feels, regardless of whether it’s comfortable or uncomfortable.

There are many different ways of becoming mindful of one’s emotions. One way is by referring to a feelings chart, which can be downloaded and printed online.  Another way is through a feelings journal, which is a written record of emotions experienced during the course of a day along with, perhaps, information on possible trigger events or situations.

Once you’ve identified your emotions at a particular moment, you can give yourself permission to feel what you’re feeling. Even for people who can identify how they feel at any given moment, this latter part can be perplexing.  After all, if I allow myself to feel what I am feeling, isn’t there the risk of getting stuck in that emotion? If I identify that I’m feeling “depressed,” isn’t it dangerous to allow myself to sit in that feeling? And if I get out of my head by doing something counter to my current thinking, isn’t that better than allowing myself to be sucked into that emotion?

While getting out of your head through contrary action seems practical on the surface, many people take an immediate leap towards action without fully acknowledging what they are feeling. Identifying what you are feeling isn’t the same as accepting or giving yourself permission to feel uncomfortable or painful feelings. Much of human behavior is directed towards avoiding pain and discomfort, and this can become our frame of reference when approaching challenges in our lives.

What would happen if we were fully present and open to the idea of not only identifying each and every felt emotion, but treating each emotional experience as “information” rather than something to be avoided? In taking this alternative approach, we can better understand our relationship with our emotions as they relate to ingrained messages from our past that have gone largely unchallenged in the present.

What would happen if we were fully present and open to the idea of not only identifying each and every felt emotion, but treating each emotional experience as “information” rather than something to be avoided?

Step 2:  Why Do I Feel Like This?

Now that you’ve identified what you’re feeling at any particular moment in time and have given yourself permission to feel what you’re feeling rather than avoiding or running away from it because it’s painful or unpleasant, the second step asks, “Why do I think that I’m feeling the way I feel?” In other words, are there any situations or triggers you can think of that may cause your particular feelings to occur?

Triggers can include, but are not limited to, phone calls, letters, conversations or arguments, thoughts, images, things you may have observed, or something you were exposed to. These triggers may be guided by messages absorbed from your past. This information can help you better understand your relationship with your emotions because they offer insight into why particularly painful or uncomfortable emotions carry so much weight in your life.

Now that you have some tangible explanation as to why certain emotions may be so overpowering, you can practice the third step to emotional health.

Step 3:  Do Something Opposite To That Emotion

This final step to healthy emotional regulation builds upon the first two steps. It assumes you have diligently identified what you are feeling at any given moment and given yourself permission to sit for a while in that emotion rather than running away from it. It also assumes you have given some serious thought to answering the question, “Why do I think that I’m feeling the way I feel?

In step three, the dialogue goes like this: Once I’ve identified what I’m feeling at any given moment and given myself permission to feel that feeling, no matter how painful or uncomfortable it may feel, I can now engage in a behavior, or action, opposite to that emotion. As a practical example, say you identify with feeling depressed at any given moment. Using the three-step process to healthy emotional regulation, you will give yourself permission to sit in that emotion for a while. You can now examine your relationship with depression by understanding its connection to messages from your past–many of which you may blindly accept without challenge–as well as current triggers that keep you stuck in your depression.

The last step to this process is to engage in a behavior that will evoke a different, more supportive emotion. For example, when dealing with the feeling of depression, you may take a joy ride, go for a walk or swim, see a movie, connect with an old friend, or engage in some other activity that will evoke pleasant and potentially empowering emotions.

Healthy emotional regulation and positive change become possible by lifting the veils of secrecy, shame, and fear that are attached to your emotions. With the assistance of a licensed and compassionate therapist or counselor, you can take an introspective look into your history of (and relationship with) uncomfortable or painful emotions. This may allow you to engage in new behaviors that move you from feeling like a slave to emotions to a state of increased peace, joy, and purpose.

© Copyright 2018 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Irving Schattner, LCSW

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • Leave a Comment
  • Lisa

    October 25th, 2018 at 9:43 AM

    Great information!!!

  • Diane T.

    November 8th, 2018 at 10:28 AM

    My sister can’t seem to break up with a boyfriend after 7 years of dating. They have broke up several times a year, but still together. He always says sorry , but no change. Over and over she says she wants to break up for good but always takes him back.

  • radaintholistics

    November 18th, 2018 at 8:41 PM

    Very interesting blog. Really helpful and reliable. Thanks for sharing this and keep up the good work. Very much appreciated

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