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Regulating Emotions & Impulses
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- Feeling Good Now – And Later
- What ‘Regulate’ Means
- Skills Everyone Can Learn
- Childhood Sources
- Challenging But Possible
- Additional Resources
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Central to feeling good – and good about yourself. Skills anyone can learn and master.
Feeling Good Now, And Later
There’s a big difference between doing what feels good in the moment and doing what enables you to feel good about yourself once that moment has passed.
It may feel good to get really drunk or high, but if it’s an addiction, you’re not doing yourself any favors.
It may feel like a relief to scream at someone who’s annoying you, but it’s not going to help your relationship with that person or how you feel about yourself.
And it may feel nice to get lost in porn, gambling, or hours of video game play, but if that’s already taken over a big chunk of your life and afterward you feel empty and ashamed…
Feeling good about yourself requires making choices that are good for you.
And making those choices requires having some skills. Like being able to respond to your emotions and urges in self-aware, ‘I’m in the driver’s seat’ kinds of ways.
That’s what I mean by regulating your emotions and impulses or urges.
What ‘Regulate’ Means
Most basically, it’s about (1) intentionally decreasing or increasing the intensity of an emotion, and (2) deciding whether or not to act on an impulse or desire.
This involves skills like:
- Deciding and controlling where you focus your attention.
- As something’s ‘going down,’ deciding and controlling when and how much attention you focus on different aspects of the situation, including your own thoughts, feelings, and impulses.
- Choosing how you think about your emotional reactions to things.
- Stopping yourself from acting on a sudden impulse.
- Stopping yourself from acting on a desire or craving.
- Thinking, imagining, and doing things that are calming when you’re angry, anxious, afraid, craving something you’re addicted to, etc.
Skills Everyone Can Learn
That may sound like a lot, even too much to think about, let alone learn. But they’re skills we all can learn – when we’re ready, in our own ways, at our own paces.
A key skill: Being able to step back – in the midst of situations – and reflect on what you’re thinking, feeling, and wanting to do.
That includes remembering your values and goals, and what’s truly important in the situation and/or the relationship.
If you can observe the reactions you’re having, and think about them as they are happening, then you’ve gained more control over your feelings, thoughts, and behaviors. You’ve opened the door to making choices, not just having reactions.
Emotional awareness is another key.
It’s critical to know what you’re feeling, especially when you’re having mixed feelings (e.g., sadness and anger, shame and resentment). Without that awareness, you’re just on ‘autopilot,’ driven by old habits.
Basic life skills we (should) learn as kids.
But if you have emotional awareness, you can realize what’s happening before it’s too late. You can have real control over your responses. You can make good choices that you’ll feel good about later.
What requires regulation in these ways? Impulses that pop up suddenly and could get acted out automatically. Familiar but painful emotions like sadness, fear, and shame that can last for minutes, hours or days. And desires or cravings that build over time and feel increasingly hard to resist, if only to escape the stress and craving.
Surely you can come up with examples in your own life – and see where your self-regulation skill are strongest and weakest.
Abilities to regulate emotions and impulses first develop in childhood, starting when we’re babies. We learn (or don’t learn) them in relationships, especially with parents and other caregivers.
First of all, these adults provide examples of people who are (or aren’t) able to be aware of their emotions. People who can (or can’t) put feelings into words that are helpful not hurtful. People who can (or can’t) tolerate bad feelings without impulsively acting them out or escaping with alcohol, drugs or other addictions.
Second, parents and caregivers with good self-regulation capacities of their own provide the kinds of safe and comforting relationships that allow children gradually to develop emotional awareness, tolerance of unwanted feelings, and control over harmful impulses.
Ideally, caring adults give children the support and acceptance they need to learn the skills for regulating emotions and impulses.
When children experience neglect, exploitation or abuse by their caregivers, they experience extremes of emotions like fear, shame and anger– and they don’t have the adult support they need to deal with those emotions and the destructive impulses that go with them.
Parents and caregivers have various limitations in this regard. There are lots of different scenarios, including parents who neglect their children, or emotionally, physically and/or sexually abuse them; parents who are caring but overwhelmed by stress and addictions (thanks to their own poor self-regulation capacities); and caregivers who are generally great but somehow unable to recognize or deal with the problems of a child who’s been through traumatic experiences.
Challenging But Possible
In general, people who’ve had significant unwanted or abusive childhood experiences have trouble regulating their emotions and impulses.
And healing from the effects of what happened, especially at the beginning, usually means lots of work on developing skills for regulating emotions and impulses.
It’s mostly about motivation, focus, discipline, and practice.
Also, because guys are taught to be aware of some emotions and not others, and to act on some impulses but not others, they seldom escape the typically male difficulties with regulating their emotions and impulses. (See How Being Male Can Make It Hard to Heal.)
Learning and strengthening self-regulation skills isn’t rocket science. It’s mostly about being motivated, focused, and disciplined (enough) to practice, practice, and practice some more.
We all have our ‘weak spots’ where we have trouble regulating our emotions and impulses. So it takes time, effort, and lots practice to re-train ourselves (our brains, actually) to have healthy responses to challenging situations and feelings. It also requires not expecting too much of ourselves, and forgiving the inevitable backsliding that we all do sometimes.
Below are great self-help books with lots of tools for improving your self-regulation capacities and overcoming addictions.
- Growing Beyond Survival, by Elizabeth Vermilyea
- The PTSD Workbook, by Mary Beth Williams and Soili Poijula
- The Posttraumatic Stress Disorder Sourcebook, by Glen Schiraldi
- Addiction and Recovery for Dummies, by Brian Shaw, Paul Ritvo, and Jane Irvine
- Willpower’s Not Enough: Recovering from Addictions of Every Kind, by Arnold Washton
- Beyond Addiction: How Science and Kindness Help People Change, A Guide for Families, by Jeffrey Foote, Carrie Wilkens and Nicole Kosanke, with Stephanie Higgs