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Emotional Regulation Is Nonsense

Every time I hear the term “emotional regulation” (or “emotion regulation”) I throw a tiny fit inside my head. And since it crops up often in my field, I’m throwing little fits all the time.

(If you ask me what time it is, and I stare blankly at you, it’s because I’m having one of these fits. Give me a moment and then try again.)

I don’t mind telling you I hate that phrase. I spit on it. Ptooey!

Dictionary.com offers the following definition of the word “regulate”:


[reg-yuh-leyt] verb (used with object), reg·u·lat·ed, reg·u·lat·ing.
1. to control or direct by a rule, principle, method, etc.: to regulate household expenses.
2. to adjust to some standard or requirement, as amount, degree, etc.: to regulate the temperature.
3. to adjust so as to ensure accuracy of operation: to regulate a watch.
4. to put in good order: to regulate the digestion.

I bolded some of those words for emphasis. Since when can you, or I, or anyone we know control, adjust, or put in good order our very emotions?

The Myth of Emotional Regulation

Instead of emotion regulation, we should talk about behavior regulation. That’s a term I can get behind, even if it’s a bit stuffy. At least it doesn’t give me hives.

We can control our behavior. We can adjust it, direct it and put it in good order, at least in theory and very often in practice.

Think about it; you’ve been ticked off in traffic and managed not to ram someone with your car, even though you were fantasizing about it. (Or was that just me?)

The word “accuracy” might have caught your attention in that definition of regulation. We want our emotions to be accurate, meaning we want them to fit the situation. That’s why we ruminate about troubling events after they happen.

But who determines what fits the situation? How do you define “accurate” or even “appropriate” in the myriad situations that occur in our lives?

If I poke you in the eye and you get mad at me, is your anger accurate? What if I just did it in fun, and didn’t mean to hurt you?

What if I empty our joint bank account? Run off to Las Vegas with your husband? Run over your foot in my Vespa?

What if I did all these things … without meaning to? I used the wrong checkbook; I didn’t know he was married; I didn’t realize your foot was there.

Can you still be accurately angry?

The question is ridiculous. Anger can’t be accurate any more than a pimple can be accurate.

A pimple is a pimple. It’s caused by a clogged pore. You can judge it on other measures, such as painfulness, attractiveness, or, I don’t know, height… But accuracy? The concept doesn’t apply to pimples.

It’s the same with emotions.

They happen when they’re triggered. They rise up inside us on cue.

The question is, what then?

When we act out our emotions, instead of just experiencing them, our behavior — not our emotions — can easily get us in trouble.

Here are some hurtful behaviors that get confused with the emotions that cause them:

  • Drinking too much
  • Driving recklessly
  • Yelling at someone
  • Saying nasty things
  • Throwing objects
  • Punching walls or people

We worry the minute we feel something, because what if we act out? We worry about others’ emotions, too. What if they act them out?

We should be concerned with regulating our behavior. And the most important tidbit about that is this:

The more we suppress our emotions, the harder it becomes to regulate our behavior.

Emotions will out. I’ve seen a pressure cooker explode; it wasn’t pretty. (Don’t worry — it was on TV and no one was hurt.)

Emotions that build up will come out in ugly, uncontrollable ways, just as too much steam will blow the lid right off a pot.

Don’t try to regulate your emotions. Just let them be. Let them run around inside you so they don’t build up.

That’s what constructive wallowing is for. Check out my posts in that category, or read my book. It’s available at the links below, or from your local library or favorite independent bookseller.

Constructive Wallowing on Amazon.com

Constructive Wallowing from Powells.com

About Tina Gilbertson

Tina Gilbertson is a psychotherapist, speaker and author based in Denver, Colorado. She specializes in supporting parents of estranged adult children through therapy, consulting, and ReconnectionClub.com, an online support and information hub for parents. The author of "Constructive Wallowing: How to Beat Bad Feelings by Letting Yourself Have Them" and the "Guide for Parents of Estranged Adult Children," Tina is often featured in the media as an expert on communication and relationships. Her blog on PsychologyToday.com is called "Constructive Wallowing."
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0 Responses to "Emotional Regulation Is Nonsense"

  • Miss Maura 9999 Charlotte, NC
    November 2, 2013 - 9:37 am Reply

    Hi Tina, you so wisely wrote: “When we act out our emotions, instead of just experiencing them, our behavior — not our emotions — can easily get us in trouble.” I call that volcanoes.

    • Tina Gilbertson
      November 2, 2013 - 11:21 am Reply

      Volcanoes are a good metaphor, Miss Maura. Thanks for your comment!

  • Chery
    November 3, 2013 - 2:14 pm Reply

    Hi Tina, awesome article and looking forward to your book release! Congrats! My husband says I worry too much. My question is, is worry an emotion or a behaviour? My immediate thought is that it’s a behaviour because it comes from our thoughts. But then, feelings come from our thoughts too. Puzzled! Thank you!

    • Tina Gilbertson
      November 3, 2013 - 2:42 pm Reply

      I believe your instincts are right, Cheryl. Worry is not a feeling, it’s a way we try to gain control over a situation that feels threatening in some way. Also a way to avoid the full experience of our own fear about it.

      I worry too much, too. And whenever I can remember to do so, I stop and ask myself, “What am I feeling?” Answering that question, all by itself, calms me down and breaks the chain. I wrote about this process in another post, How to Stop Ruminating.

      Many thanks for your kind wishes, your readership and your thoughtful comments.

      • Chery
        November 4, 2013 - 11:59 am Reply

        What a powerful question. Amazes me how it works in so many ways, in so many situations. For me I guess the feeling while I’m worrying is fear. And/or dread. Maybe that’s the same thing. Thanks you again for helping us all get to know ourselves better!

        • Tina Gilbertson
          November 4, 2013 - 3:02 pm Reply

          Ooh, I love that word, “dread.” It’s useful because it applies so often! Thanks for coming up with that and sharing it.

  • Linda Middlekauff
    November 3, 2013 - 3:48 pm Reply

    Thought this was very good. I remember Shannon saying, “Feelings aren’t right or wrong, they just are.” This article validates that.

    • Tina Gilbertson
      November 3, 2013 - 5:48 pm Reply

      Hi Linda. Glad you liked the post. Which Shannon are you referring to?

  • Isabel A. Spradlin
    November 5, 2013 - 8:03 am Reply

    I just bought your book on preorder at Powell’s!! Thanks so much for letting us know it was available. All of your writing on this emotional stuff is so helpful. I think your book will be indispensable – I will carry it around in my back pocket.

    And your response to Chery’s question about worry . . . so helpful. If I can just stop myself and ask “What am I feeling?” Such a powerful tool to have. Thanks so much Tina!

    • Tina Gilbertson
      November 5, 2013 - 12:03 pm Reply

      Isabel, thank you so much for your interest and enthusiasm! I’m glad you found the information helpful and I think from what you said, you’ll definitely like the book — especially if it fits in your back pocket. I *so* appreciate your feedback and support.

  • Cheryl
    November 6, 2013 - 7:10 pm Reply

    So interesting. Since reading your post, I’ve tried changing how I word things. Instead of saying ‘I’m worried about…’, I’m trying to say ‘I’m fearful of…’ And seeing what happens. What I’ve found so far is that when I see I’m afraid of something, I realize I can DO something about it. Whereas knowing I’m worrying about something seems so much more… Unending … Somehow. Fear seems more manageable, temporary. Does that even make sense!? Just thought I’d share in case anyone else could relate. Thanks again. Cheryl.

  • Johne807
    July 25, 2014 - 5:33 am Reply

    Excellent post. I was checking continuously this blog and I’m impressed! Very useful info particularly the last part.

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