Being able to control your emotions to minimize unnecessary suffering, and to maximize positive feelings is important to your flourishing. In this episode, Craig discusses emotional regulation and provides some strategies for taking control of your emotions and emotional responses. There's also a goat story!
Five Families of Emotional Regulation Strategies
Strategy family Example strategies
Situation selection Avoidance
Situation modification Direct request (to change the situation)
Attentional deployment Distraction
Rumination (directing attention towards causes & consequences)
Cognitive change Cognitive reappraisal
Acceptance (of the emotion)
Response modulation Expressive suppression (preventing outward expressions of emotion)
Physiological intervention (e.g. breathing deeply and slowly)
Note: Adapted from McCrae & Gross (2020) Available at: https://psycnet.apa.org/fulltext/2020-03346-001.html
Article on Stoicism and Emotion Regulation
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The theme music for Live Well and Flourish was written by Hazel Crossler, firstname.lastname@example.org.
Production assistant - Paul Robert
The theme music for Live Well and Flourish was written by Hazel Crossler, email@example.com
In this episode of Live Well and Flourish, I discuss the concept of emotional regulation and describe several strategies for taking control of your emotions and emotional reactions.
Welcome to Live Well and Flourish, where I help you understand what it means to live a flourishing life. I'm your host, Craig Van Slyke, if you're ready to think beyond material and external success, if you're ready to take control of who you are and the kind of life you live, if you're ready to flourish, this is the podcast for you.
As long-time listeners may know, we have a couple of goats. The boys are an almost constant source of amusement. Almost. They sometimes slip through a gate when I’m trying to move hay into the barn, or when trying to get into a pasture to mow. On these occasions, I am not amused. Generally, I get frustrated and angry pretty quickly. Don’t judge me! Have you ever tried to corral a goat? It’s not an easy task. So, it’s usually a comical scene with me running around, trying to herd two goats back to where they belong, yelling like a lunatic. It’s a bit of a Three Stooges scenario, except there’s only one stooge, me. Tracy, on the other hand, usually deals with the wayward goats by opening the gate and calmly calling them to get back in the pasture. Guess which method is more effective?
In these situations, Tracy exhibits admirable control of her emotions. Me, not so much. The good news is that I’ve been trying her method by reacting with an amused eye roll rather than anger and frustration. As they say, it’s a process.
There are two relevant messages in the tale of the wayward goats. Emotions can be controlled, and learning to control your emotions can pay dividends. Psychologists call the practice of controlling your emotions, emotional regulation. (Some call it emotion regulation, but it's basically the same idea.)
You probably have some stories about your emotional regulation or lack thereof. You might want to keep them in mind as I talk through the details of emotional regulation. Before getting into those details, though, remember that nobody is perfect when it comes to controlling emotions. Also, if you are feeling excessive sadness, anxiety or some other negative emotions, you should talk with a mental health professional, which I am not.
So what is emotional regulation? It’s simply a person’s ability to control their emotional state. Usually, emotional regulation is directed at reducing the presence or intensity of negative emotions, but it can also help increase positive emotions.
The Stoics, who were masters of emotional regulation, used the Greek term apatheia (and I have no idea if I'm pronouncing that correctly) to refer to a state of mind that is undisturbed by passions. You might think apatheia sounds a lot like apathy, which it does. But the Stoic idea of apatheia is better understood as trying to be without suffering, to be free from emotional disturbance. In Greek, a can be interpreted as “without” and pathos means suffering. Putting those together in apatheia, we get “without suffering.”
Emotional regulation is a process that is triggered by a mismatch between the emotional state you want, and your actual or predicted emotional state. When you recognize this mismatch, you have an opportunity for emotional regulation. You choose an emotional regulation strategy (we’ll discuss some of those in a couple of minutes), then implement and monitor the strategy. The monitoring is important and it can result in continuing the strategy, stopping the regulation attempt, or switching to a different strategy.
Why would we want to regulate our emotions? Well, there are two reasons, to reduce negative emotions, and to increase positive emotions. To increase your well-being and flourishing, make it a goal to reduce how frequently you feel negative emotions, and to reduce the duration and intensity of negative emotions and their effects when they do occur. You want to do the opposite with positive emotions, you want to feel positive emotions more frequently, and in longer duration and greater intensity.
To better understand emotional regulation strategies, we need to take a step back and talk about the process of regulating one’s emotions. I’m going to use a view of emotional regulation developed by Dr. James Gross of Stanford and his colleagues. The emotional regulation process starts when you are in a situation that may bring about an emotional response. Then, you pay attention to relevant aspects of the situation. Next, you appraise the situation relative to active goals, such as the desire to be happy or not be angry. Finally, you have experiential, psychological and/or behavioral responses.
That all might make more sense if we consider an example. You’re at a restaurant with a friend, and the service is excruciatingly slow. Unfortunately, you’re hungry, no, you’re famished. This is a situation that is likely to bring about an emotional response. You start paying attention to the servers, who seem to be moving at a snail’s pace, as your stomach grows and your hunger becomes more acute. You see this situation as impeding your active goal of satisfying your hunger. You respond by becoming angry and muttering your displeasure to your dining companion. So, we have a situation, you being hungry in a restaurant. You attended to relevant aspects of the situation - your hunger and the seemingly lax service. You appraise the situation as being counter to your goal of satisfying your hunger, and you react both psychologically and behaviorally.
If you noticed that there’s not much of an attempt at regulation in this example, you’re right. But we can use this illustration to better understand what opportunities for regulation exist. The first two opportunities come from the situation itself. Maybe you could have gone to a fast-food restaurant in order to satisfy your hunger more quickly. This is called situation selection -- avoiding or seeking situations based on predicted emotional triggers. Suggesting moving to the bar to get faster service is an example of situation modification -- you take action to influence the situation once you’re engaged in it. The next opportunity comes from something called attentional deployment. You could decide to engage your companion in conversation rather than tracking the servers’ actions. This would direct attention away from an aspect of the situation that was causing negative emotions. Another approach is to reinterpret the situation or your goals in a way that removes the emotional responses. For example, you might think to yourself that the servers are doing the best they can, or that they’re probably tired and not intentionally ignoring you. Your response to the situation also provides an opportunity for emotional regulation. You could suppress the outward display of your displeasure by not frowning or muttering. You can also try to lessen physiological responses, perhaps by breathing slowly and deeply.
Let me recap all of this. There are five families of emotional regulation strategies: Situation selection, situation modification, attentional deployment, cognitive change, and response modulation. These correspond to the situation, attention, appraisal, and response stages of the emotion process. Within each family, there are specific strategies, such as avoidance, distraction, cognitive reappraisal, and expressive suppression - that's when you consciously avoid frowning or something like that. If you didn’t get all of this and I know it's a lot, I'll include the details in the show notes, which are available at livewellandflourish.com.
I feel like we’ve covered a lot of ground so far. So, let’s take a break from emotional regulation so I can thank you for listening, and to ask if you would do me the favor of sharing this episode with a friend. You may know a friend that could improve their emotional regulation skills. Share the podcast with them. Of course, you don’t have to refer to this episode specifically, but if it just happens to be the most recent episode and at the top of the list, well … that’s just the way it worked out. The easiest way to share is to send your friend to livewellandflourish.com.
OK, back to emotional regulation. I want to make a critical point here. Emotional regulation requires emotional awareness. You need to be aware of, and pay attention to your emotions, and to things that might trigger certain emotional responses. Without awareness, the process of emotional regulation never really gets started.
Here’s another critical point. Experiences are subjective. You and I can be in the exact same situation, but we experience it differently. Let’s say you visit us on our little ranch. We walk together to a fence line. Hank, one of our horses, walks up and puts his snoot over the fence towards us. If you’ve never been around horses, you might see this as a dangerous situation and jump back in fear. I, knowing that Hank is just looking for some petting or maybe a carrot, smile and scratch his horsey face. Same situation, different appraisals, and different emotions. Now, there’s no judgment here. If I didn’t know Hank and had never been around horses, I probably would have reacted as you did in this little scenario. All of the objective facts around the situation are the same for both of us, but we experience it differently. That' the important point here. As Shakespeare put it in Hamlet “... for there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.”
Our emotions, then, depend on our appraisal of a situation. According to cognitive appraisal theory, thinking occurs before experiencing an emotion (even if the thinking is more-or-less automatic). I should note that there’s not universal agreement here. Some psychologists think that we experience an initial emotion, then appraise the situation more fully, which can lead to a revised emotional response. Regardless of which view is correct, it seems to me that appraisal is important, and a key to emotional regulation. Even if we can’t control the immediate emotion, we can make a judgment about whether the initial emotion is warranted and helpful, and if not, we can change it.
I realize this is all pretty complicated, so here’s how I think about it. I break down emotional regulation approaches into two categories: anticipatory emotional regulation, and reactive emotional regulation. Anticipatory emotional regulation involves avoiding situations that are likely to bring about negative emotions, and taking proactive steps to dampen negative emotions when a situation can’t be avoided (I'll give you more on dealing with unavoidable situations in a minute). Avoiding is pretty straightforward, although it does take some practice and a fair amount of self-awareness. If you’ve just lost a pet, don’t read Marley and Me or Ol’ Yeller. But, some situations can’t be avoided. You can proactively prepare for such situations by using reason, which is also important to reactive emotional regulation.
The keys to reactive emotional regulation are to combine awareness and reason. I’m going to turn to the Stoics here, which may not be much of a surprise. One of the core beliefs of Stoicism is that some things are under your control, and some things are not. Let me quote the Stoic philosopher Epictetus - “The chief task in life is simply this: to identify and separate matters so that I can say clearly to myself which are externals not under my control, and which have to do with the choices I actually control.” Remember, your opinion of a situation (your appraisal) is within your control, even though the external aspects of the situation are not. Master your opinions, and you master life. Of course, this is easier said than done.
Here are some thoughts I find useful when dealing with emotionally-challenging situations. First, ask yourself if whatever is upsetting you is really worth getting upset over. So, one of you kids broke a glass. So what? Are they okay? That's what's really important. And c'mon, what’s more important, the glass or your child’s well-being? Sure, you can warn the kid to stay away from the broken glass, and correct their behavior (if they were acting badly). But screaming and getting really angry … not worth it.
You can also ask yourself whether there are benefits to being upset? Listen to what your emotions are telling you and evaluate whether that feeling is useful. If you sense danger and become frightened, there may be good reason to be afraid. However, if you become upset because one of your children spilled their milk, the annoyance or anger serves no useful purpose. In fact, it is probably counter-productive. It’s also helpful to remember that you can’t change the past, you can only move forward. So, it seems pretty pointless to get upset over past events.
Since I seem to be running long, I’m going to skip the three things to practice this week. Instead, I want to mention the concept of memento mori, or remember that you have to die. Your life is short, and someday it will end. Do you really want to waste part of it being upset unnecessarily? I don’t. Practice and make a habit of emotional regulation, and you’ll move closer to flourishing in the life that you have left. You’ll also improve the lives of those you love.
I want to close by reminding you to not be hard on yourself when you fail to regulate your emotions. It’s going to happen, be reflective, but don't double-down by getting unduly upset with yourself. Remember to be a friend to yourself, or as Seneca put it “What progress, you ask, have I made? I have begun to be a friend to myself.”
Until next time, be well my friends.
I produce Live Well And Flourish because of my dedication to helping others live excellent lives. I don't accept sponsorships and I don't want your money. The only thing I want is to help you and others flourish. If you've received some value from this episode, please share it with someone that might also benefit from listening. The best way to do that is to direct them to livewellandflousih.com. Until next time.