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·u·late[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