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Understanding Emotional Regulation

Nov 13, 2018

Understanding Emotional Regulation


No one ever went to see a therapist because they had a problem. That is a bold statement but it is true. People go to therapy because a problem they have causes them to be emotionally dysregulated. If you can emotionally regulate then you can deal with any problem no matter how large. If you can’t emotionally regulate then it does not matter how small your problem is, you need help.

Emotional regulation is the foundation for health and happiness. Yet most of us don’t even know what it is or how to develop it. The capacity to regulate one's emotions (some therapists may call this self-soothing) is not an innate process even though emotions themselves are. Said another way, you are born with emotions but not with the ability to regulate them. The ability to regulate emotion is a learned process.

During infancy, we all look to those who care for us for clues about how to interpret the world. We develop our sense of basic trust, security, attachment and emotional regulation from these observations. There is actually a significant amount of learning that goes on during this period before we even know how to talk. This process of learning emotional regulation occurs by observing how the primary caregiver interprets and reacts to information and events. In social psychology, this process is called social referencing. When the example of the caregiver is good, healthy and effective then the infant learns how to regulate their own emotions effectively, develops a basic sense of trust, feels secure and attaches healthfully. If the example is bad, dysfunctional and ineffective then the child struggles. The process of internalizing the information modeled by the caregiver in psychodynamic theory is called forming twinship or introject. When the child internalizes dysfunctional or ineffective examples of regulation then they themselves are going to have difficulty regulating.

If you have ever known someone who just does not seem to be reacting to emotional information appropriately, or always seems to overreact to even the smallest thing, this is the process I am illustrating in action. These individuals don’t know how to respond appropriately not because they are bad or jerks, but because the model of regulation they had as infants was ineffective. As I write that last line I can hear people say but I was a good parent, or children defending their caregivers. The hard truth is that it does not actually matter how “good” the caregivers' example is but how the child perceived it. While it is unlikely, not impossible but unlikely, that any child would perceive a bad example as good; it does happen that children misperceive good examples. For instance,e a child that has colic and is often cranky and uncomfortable may have difficulty perceiving the best model of emotional regulation accurately. Besides the child’s physiological condition the emotional availability of the primary caregiver is significantly important. Many more women may suffer from some form of post-partem depression than is acknowledged or treated. Often this goes unaddressed because while the condition may last for up to a year or more, many families and doctors simply accept it as a part of the process. After a year mom may start to feel better and because the baby is preverbal not much thought was given to how this period could have affect the child. In truth however, if the child experienced mom as emotionally unavailable, cold and uncaring then the damage may be done even before the child has the ability to express it or even understand it. Afterward,s it may not matter how great of an emotional regulation model the caregiver becomes because the child has already interpreted the emotional bond as unsafe.

For most of us though we grew up in homes where not much thought was given to how we were developing emotionally. Most of our parents were doing the best they knew how and were just repeating the style of parenting that they were raised in even if this process happened unconsciously. We grew up and if we gave this process any mind whatsoever it was when we were adults and we were left wondering how we could improve what we saw as ineffective regulation on our part. The cold truth is that once these scripts are written they cannot be unwritten. That said it does not mean that there is no hope. Individuals can and do learn much more effective and appropriate regulation strategies. This process is most effective when the individual can identify someone in their lives that they see as a better example of emotional regulation than themselves. When a bond is formed with this person and their regulation strategies are observed and internalized the individual begins to rewrite/update their own strategies. This process is called re-parenting and is commonly employed in psychotherapy. While this process can be very effective it does take a significant amount of time for the new strategies to be habituated. Even when this process is best effective the individual learns new compensatory strategies that work about 95% of the time. The reason for this is that humans will always apply mature emotional regulation strategies inversely proportional to the emotional intensity perceived. Said another way humans regress to our most infantile emotional regulation strategies whenever the situation is the most emotionally intense. So if in therapy I learn more effective emotional regulation then that will serve me well on the job and interacting with friends, but may not be as effective when I get in a fight with my spouse. In those more emotionally intense situations, we may still regress to the strategies learned long ago.

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