One of the most important lessons we learn in life is how to regulate, or manage, our emotional responses. Learning to understand your emotions and to keep them in check is an essential part of your psychosocial development — it provides you with the sense of mastery and self-confidence that you need to survive in the world. Many of our problems in life, from depression and anxiety to relationship issues to substance abuse, stem in large part from being unable to deal with our emotional responses to people and situations. In some people, this inability is a sign of a serious psychological disturbance, such as Bipolar or Borderline Personality Disorder. But for most of us it is simply a sign that we never learned the skills that we need to manage our feelings well. Fortunately, however, it is never too late to start.
Learning emotional regulation is not terribly complicated, but it does take patience, perseverance and a willingness to change. In the last two exercises you began familiarizing yourself with your emotions, which is the first step in the process—recognizing what you feel. In the following exercise we introduce you to the next step–examining which emotions you handle effectively and which ones you do not.
There are a number of specific skills involved in emotional regulation, including the ability to tolerate anxiety and awkwardness, the ability to stand your ground, the ability to communicate your feelings effectively, and the ability to comfort yourself when things go wrong. These basic skill sets translate into a host of behaviors that allow us to deal with our feelings appropriately when we become emotionally aroused.
For this exercise, divide a piece of paper in your journal into four sections, and label each section with one of the above mentioned skills. Next, list in each box the specific ways that you use these abilities in your day-to-day life, or, conversely, the ways that you do not. For example:
- Are you able to handle anxiety? Can you move forward with your goals even when you feel worried, frightened or unsure?
- Can you make yourself feel better when you are sad, angry or afraid?
- Can you conquer feelings of awkwardness or embarrassment, like telling a would-be suitor that you do not want to go out with him on a date?
- Can you stand up to pressure to conform from those whose opinion is important to you? Or are you likely to agree to their requests to avoid feeling the way saying “No” makes you feel?
- How do you express positive feelings like gratitude, forgiveness and love?
For each section, try to honestly assess your abilities, listing very specific ways that you do or do not express them in your life. Then spend some time journaling about any learning needs that you identified. In the next section we will discuss ways that you can explore these needs and set new, meaningful goals.