A reader asks:
I feel like I’m all over the place emotionally… When I get anxious, I get REALLY anxious. When I’m angry, I get REALLY angry. I need to get better at regulating my emotions. Help!
Here’s the thing…
Emotions can’t be regulated because you don’t have direct control over them.
If you’re a normal human being like the rest of us, you don’t have an Anxiety Dial you can adjust up or down, or an Anger Switch you can flip on or off, or a Happiness Slider you can adjust up and down.
Trying to control your emotions is like trying to control the weather—understandable, but ultimately misguided.
Unfortunately, a lot of advice we hear out there basically recommends this very thing, which is problematic for at least two reasons:
- Because it’s not actually possible, it sets up an unreachable expectation that you will constantly fail to achieve, and as a result, constantly feel frustrated, disappointed, or even ashamed about. Many people’s chronically low self-esteem is, at core, the result of thinking they should be able to control their emotions.
- When you’re constantly trying to regulate your emotions, you’re signaling to your brain that you think your emotions are bad (when your brain sees you immediately running away from or trying to get rid of something—including your emotions—it unsurprisingly assumes that thing is dangerous). The result is that you become increasingly fearful of and reactive to any difficult emotion. This makes you less and less resilient and confident in the face of emotion and increasingly fearful, insecure, and prone to making unwise self-sabotaging decisions.
Well, what am I supposed to do with all these emotions then?!
Just because you don’t have direct control over your emotions doesn’t mean you can’t influence your emotions indirectly. Take anxiety, for example… You can’t just decide to feel less anxious. But you can decide to stop worrying or to stop using reassurance-seeking as a way to cope with your anxiety. And if you consistently do these things—make changes to your attention and your behavior—it’s likely that, over time, you will experience less anxiety and be better able to respond to it when it does show up.
The problem is that if you focus all your energy and attention on regulating your emotions (which you can’t) that’s all energy and attention that’s not going toward regulating things you can actually control that might indirectly influence your anxiety—namely, your attention and your behavior. This is what I call emotional opportunity cost: Pour all your psychological resources into something you can’t control (emotions) and you have little left over to control the things you can (attention and behavior).
So again, I wouldn’t recommend doing anything about your emotions themselves. Remember: Like the weather, emotions come and go. Some you may enjoy, some you may not. But shaking your fist at the rain doesn’t do anything to make you less wet.
If you want to experience fewer and less intense emotions overall, I would recommend working on regulating something you actually have control over. And the two biggest things (maybe the only things) are your attention and your behavior.
For example: If you find yourself frequently getting very angry, that’s because—whether you’re aware of it or not—you’re ruminating. Rumination is a mental behavior that you can control. Which means you can indirectly influence how much anger you feel by getting better at noticing your rumination habit early and refocusing your mental energy onto something else instead. Mindfulness training is very helpful with this.
Be aware of your emotions, validate them if you like, but stop trying to regulate them.