Emotional Regulation is HARD – and there are different points of view on this. But one point is for sure, you can practice this to get better, as with everything. Let it take time – that’s fine, we’re only human – but be aware that you genuinely do have some control over this. You’re not a victim of your emotions.
Between stimulus and response there is a space.
In that space is our power to choose our response.
In our response lies our growth and our freedom.
– Viktor E Frankl, psychologist and concentration camp survivor.
Emotions are possible to regulate.
Psychology today defines Emotion regulation as “the ability to exert control over one’s own emotional state. It may involve behaviors such as rethinking a challenging situation to reduce anger or anxiety, hiding visible signs of sadness or fear, or focusing on reasons to feel happy or calm.”
Some reason that they’re practically instant. Some, like Viktor, disagree. Regardless of if it’s one way or the other, one settlement could be that the first and spontaneous reaction is instant, and then it’s up to you. Let’s say you react instantly if you trip, stub a toe, or get tickled. Fine. But “instant” covers a really short duration of time. Then you watch what happens using the skills you’ve built with your mindfulness practice. You try to be “as objective as possible” and use those higher-thinking parts of your brain to regulate your emotions – by being more rational. How do you want to feel? How do you want to (re)act? Feelings might be hard to control directly, but your behavior is another thing. Do you have to scream and swear if you stub that toe?
The other option – with a space between stimulus and response – allows you to think between stubbing the toe and screaming. If that’s too hard, so be it.
I think Viktor’s quote tells us a lot about the point of emotional regulation. Being spontaneous and reacting instantly to stimuli will keep you reactive and volatile. But using the space between a) something happening and b) your reaction gives you the freedom to change. That’s where you choose who you want to be. It allows you to alter your spontaneous you into your thought-through you – the one you want to be.
Mindfulness can increase the time between stimulus and response, which makes this easier. If you instantly blow up and become enraged when something happens, you’re less likely to want to regulate that emotion. Once angry, the Hulk prefers to smash. When you break down in tears, the waterworks are already going, and they’ll continue to do so. But if you’ve got that small window of reasoning and a couple of seconds of reflection, you might be able to solve the situation before you’re in the middle of it.
You get your stimuli. Someone said something, or you felt or saw something.
You can either go straight to feeling… or, to some degree, you can try to reflect here – what do you want to feel? What do you want to do? What do you want to react with – how do you want to act? Do your best to be crass, objective, and rational. It may not be necessary or possible at all times. But if you’ve got plenty of unreasonable, dysfunctional feelings, it’s a useful tool to keep in mind that you can try to use.
Do your best to examine your emotions, thoughts, and the stimuli you’re getting. Is this emotional response rational? Feelings are rarely “rational”, but they might be logical and functional. In some cases, they’re completely unwanted. Sometimes you’ll have to endure the emotion – but in some cases, you might regulate it by changing how you respond.
The stimuli might give you an emotion instantly. If so, reflect once there and once you’ve got the emotion. How do you want to react to that feeling? Now what? What are you supposed to do from here? If the emotion is instant, you’ll still be able to alter your behavior which might be what’s important for the consequences the emotion gets. If you act emotionally, you might get one result, and if you’ve got the feeling – but don’t act according to it – you might get an entirely different consequence.
The Vietnamese monk’s demonstration of master-level mindfulness who burned himself in protest in -63 might not demonstrate “mindfulness” at all. It might instead be a demonstration of emotional regulation. Sitting still, in peace, silent – burning to death- isn’t our end goal. But it is an incredible demonstration of the skill we are talking about.
David Halberstam wrote this about the event:
“I was to see that sight again, but once was enough. Flames were coming from a human being; his body was slowly withering and shriveling up, his head blackening and charring. In the air was the smell of burning human flesh; human beings burn surprisingly quickly. Behind me I could hear the sobbing of the Vietnamese who were now gathering. I was too shocked to cry, too confused to take notes or ask questions, too bewildered to even think … As he burned he never moved a muscle, never uttered a sound, his outward composure in sharp contrast to the wailing people around him.“
… And you lose yourself to emotions over what?
When we’re talking about emotional regulation, your hippocampus seems quite involved. It’s there to remember things and put the current situation in perspective. “Is this a crisis or just the same as always…?” Your hippocampus gets atrophied and works worse by long-term stress, but it loves to exercise.
This is HARD. Practice being reasonable and rational, and you will improve, as with everything. Let it take time, but be aware that you do have some control over this. You’re not a victim of your emotions.
Should we regulate all of them and become robots?
Stoics are known for being calm even when the shit hits the fan. They focus on what they can control and manage those parts. They do their best to be rational and reasonable even in the face of catastrophe and adversity.
Marcus Aurelius, one of the great faces of Stoicism, cried when he was told that his favorite tutor had passed away. But that’s not the only occasion.
We can imagine that he cried more than once. At one point, he was betrayed by one of his most trusted generals. After a long marriage, he lost his wife of 35 years. Throughout his life, he lost eight children.
He didn’t necessarily weep because he was weak or a horrible Stoic. He did so because he was human. The painful experiences made him sad.
Marcus’s stepfather understood how hard Marcus worked to master his temper. He saw his ambitions. So when Marcus sobbed uncontrollably from the death of his tutor, the stepfather understood the situation. He didn’t allow anyone to calm him down or remind him of the need for a prince to maintain his composure.
“Neither philosophy nor empire takes away natural feeling.”
The same goes for you. Regardless of how much philosophy you’ve read, how much you try, or how many articles you read. Despite getting older, what you think is appropriate, or if you have some role you’ve got to play for the masses – you’re human. It’s OK to cry. We do our best. We try. But we can’t do everything.
We cannot endure everything without natural reactions as long as we have a normal, normal-functioning brain.
But we can improve and practice becoming who we want to be.