5 Steps of Emotional Regulation
“Feelings are made to be felt, not to be acted upon.” -Dr. Dennis Murray, Mansfield University.
Emotions = Energy in Motion. Unfortunately, we live in a society that demonizes emotions. Big boys/girls don’t cry, never let ‘em see you sweat, keep a stiff upper lip and other unhealthy messages are absorbed by our thirsty little minds before we have the mental or emotional framework to understand the consequences of obedience. Many of us were taught to ignore, suppress or distract ourselves from our own feelings, but feelings provide the energy we need in order to get where we want to go in life, and they are clues about what is going on in our subconscious minds. Human beings connect to one another on an emotional level, and until we recognize the impact our feelings have on our behaviors, our emotions will continue to interfere with healthy relationships. Our subconscious (habitual, conditioned) emotions influence our decisions. That is one reason mindfulness is so helpful – it brings subconscious thoughts, beliefs and emotions into conscious awareness where we can harness them and make them more useful.
These are the 5 steps of emotional regulation. It takes practice, but once you get the hang of it, you get better at it. Your brain automatically knows what to do with your feelings, but as I mentioned already, we were taught not to express our feelings, and some of us were forced to suppress or ignore our feelings, so we have lived lives of quiet desperation (or maybe not so quiet) so it takes conscious effort to get back in touch with our feelings. The next time you experience an emotional reaction to something or someone, try these 5 steps:
- Identify your feelings accurately and completely. Fear often hides behind anger. We act angry because what we fear, we hate. Whenever you feel angry, look for hidden fear, guilt, shame, or any other emotions. Bring all your thoughts, beliefs and emotions into conscious awareness where you have control over them. There are many websites online that offer lists of feelings. Find one and print it out, then read it over at least once a day and identify anything you felt that day. Because we were taught not to accept our own emotions, we will need to practice paying attention and recognizing our own feelings. Some will find this easier to do than others, but it is well worth the effort, since our emotions are what make us feel alive and help us connect with others in healthy ways.
- Validate your feelings. No one should ever tell you that you don’t feel what you feel. And no one should tell you that other people have it much worse than you. So what? Other people’s pain does not invalidate your pain. Your pain is important. YOU are important, and everything you feel and have ever felt is valid. However, recognize that your emotions are memories being triggered, so while feelings are facts that cannot be denied, they are not your truth. Just because you feel like a failure does not mean you are a failure. Just because you feel stupid does not mean you are stupid. Your negative feelings were the result of messages you absorbed as a child when you had no coping skills and no understanding of how the world works and how adults are supposed to behave. Allow yourself to feel your feelings, but do not believe the message they send to your mind. Never make decisions based on how you feel. And NEVER mistake the strength of your emotions for the strength of your argument.
- Process your feelings. By that I mean just let yourself feel the feelings. (“So this is what anxiety/anger/grief feels like”). Don’t be afraid; emotions can’t hurt you. It is only when we act on our emotions that we harm ourselves and others. Pretend the emotion belongs to someone else, and get curious about it. I know you feel the energy of your emotions, particularly anger, but by processing instead of suppressing or avoiding them, you can harness that energy and use to drive your life in the direction you want it to go. Acting on your feelings can hurt you, and destroy relationships, but just feeling them is healthy. Feelings are made to be felt, not to be acted upon. The purpose of addictions is to put a buffer between yourself and your awareness of your feelings. Learn to process your feelings, and your addictions will disappear.
- Express your feelings. Tell someone, or write it down (long hand, not typed, because typing is about muscle memory, and you want to write mindfully and consciously). Don’t tell someone who is going to want to fix you. Your feelings are not broken, they don’t need to be fixed. YOU are not broken, you are only wounded. Don’t tell someone who will make fun of them or disregard them in any way. Find someone who will cry with you, laugh with you, encourage you, and who will allow you to express ALL your feelings, both positive and negative, as they arise, and please do the same for others.
- Let them go. This can be done ceremoniously, by writing ANGER in big words on a piece of paper and burning it, or it can be done imaginatively, by visualizing the emotions flowing out of your body in some way.
We fear emotions because most of us have seen emotions used to hurt people or ourselves. Understand that other people’s feelings are not your responsibility, and your feelings are. If someone is angry, even if they are angry at you, it is their memories that have been triggered, and there is nothing you can do about that. You only control you. Do not let others control your emotions, and do not attempt to control other people’s emotions.
At first this seems cumbersome, but your brain will quickly learn how to complete the process, and you will enjoy renewed energy.