Regulating Emotions & Impulses

Central to feeling good – and good about yourself.
Skills anyone can learn and master.

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Feeling Good Now – And Later

There’s a big difference between doing what feels good in the moment and doing what will let you feel good about yourself once that moment has passed.

It may feel good to get really drunk or high, but if it’s an addiction, you’re not doing yourself any favors.

It may feel like a relief to scream at someone who’s annoying you, but it’s not going to help your relationship with that person or how you feel about yourself.

And it may feel nice to get lost in porn, gambling, or hours of video game play, but if that’s already taken over a chunk of your life and afterward you feel empty and ashamed…

Feeling good about yourself means making choices that are good for you.

And making those choices requires having some skills. Like being able to respond to your emotions and urges in self-aware, ‘I’m in the driver’s seat’ kinds of ways.

What ‘Regulate’ Means

That’s what we mean by regulating your emotions and impulses or urges.

Most basically, it’s about (1) intentionally decreasing or increasing the intensity of an emotion, and (2) deciding whether or not to act on an impulse or desire.

This involves skills like:

  • Deciding and controlling where you focus your attention.
  • As something’s ‘going down,’ deciding and controlling when and how much attention you focus on different aspects of the situation, including your own thoughts, feelings, and impulses.
  • Choosing how you think about your emotional reactions to things.
  • Stopping yourself from acting on a sudden impulse.
  • Stopping yourself from acting on a desire or craving.
  • Thinking, imagining, and doing things that are calming when you’re angry, anxious, afraid, addictively craving, etc.

Skills Everyone Can Learn

That may sound like a lot, even too much to think about, let alone learn. But they’re skills we all can learn – when we’re ready, in our own ways, at our own paces.

A key skill: Being able to step back – in the midst of situations – and reflect on what you’re thinking, feeling, and wanting to do.

That includes remembering your values and goals, and what’s truly important in the situation and/or the relationship.

If you can observe the reactions you’re having, and think about them as they are happening, then you’ve gained more control over your feelings, thoughts, and behaviors. You’ve opened the door to making choices, not just having reactions.

Emotional awareness is another key.

It’s critical to know what you’re feeling, especially when you’re having mixed feelings (e.g., sadness and anger, shame and resentment). Without that awareness, you’re on ‘autopilot,’ driven by old habits.

Basic life skills we (should) learn as kids.

But if you have emotional awareness, you can realize what’s happening before it’s too late. You can have real control over your responses. You can make good choices that you’ll feel good about later.

What requires regulation in these ways? Impulses that pop up suddenly and could get acted out automatically. Familiar but painful emotions like sadness, fear, and shame that can last for minutes, hours or days. And desires or cravings that build over time and feel increasingly hard to resist, if only to escape the stress and craving.

Surely you can come up with examples in your own life – and see where your self-regulation skill are strongest and weakest.

Childhood Sources

Abilities to regulate emotions and impulses first develop in childhood, starting when we’re babies. We learn (or don’t learn) them in relationships, especially with parents and other caregivers.

First of all, these adults provide examples of people who are (or aren’t) able to be aware of their emotions. People who can (or can’t) put feelings them into words that are helpful not hurtful. People who can (or can’t) tolerate bad feelings without impulsively acting them out or escaping with alcohol, drugs or other addictions.

Second, parents and caregivers with good self-regulation capacities of their own provide the kinds of safe and comforting relationships that allow children gradually to develop emotional awareness, tolerance of unwanted feelings, and control over harmful impulses.

Ideally, caring adults give children the support and acceptance they need to learn the skills for regulating emotions and impulses.

When children experience neglect, exploitation or abuse by their caregivers, they experience extremes of emotions like fear, shame and anger– and they don’t have the adult support they need to deal with those emotions and the destructive impulses that go with them.

Parents and caregivers have various limitations in this regard. There are lots of different scenarios, including parents who neglect, emotionally, physically or sexually abuse their children; parents who are caring but overwhelmed by stress and addictions (thanks to their own poor self-regulation capacities); and caregivers who are generally great but somehow unable to recognize or deal with the problems of a child who’s had unwanted or abusive sexual experiences.

Challenging But Possible

It’s mostly about motivation, focus, discipline, and practice.

In general, men who’ve had unwanted or abusive boyhood sexual experiences have trouble regulating their emotions and impulses.

And healing from the effects of what happened, especially at the beginning, usually means lots of work on developing skills for regulating emotions and impulses.

Also, because guys are taught to be aware of some emotions and not others, and to act on some impulses but not others, they seldom escape typically male difficulties with regulating their emotions and impulses. (See How Being Male Can Make It Hard to Heal.)

Learning and strengthening self-regulation skills isn’t rocket science. It’s mostly about being motivated, focused, and disciplined (enough) to practice, practice, and practice some more.

We all have our ‘weak spots’ where we have trouble regulating our emotions and impulses. So it takes time, effort, and lots practice to re-train ourselves to have healthy responses to challenging situations and feelings. It also requires not expecting too much of yourself, and forgiving the inevitable backsliding that we all do sometimes (see Stages of Change).

Finally, as with many other challenges of healing or recovery, many men find that professional help greatly increases their success at learning to more effectively regulate their emotions and impulses.

Expert Views

Glen Schiraldi

We are referring here to being aware of our feelings, distinguising between appropriate and inappropriate behaviors, and knowing how to constructively channel and express our feelings. Feelings make us human. Wisely schooled, they elevate us to a higher level of humanity. I think, for example, of combat veterans shedding tears at their fallen comrade’s funeral. The tears signaled their love for their friend and validated their sadness. It showed that it was okay to feel sadness at the loss. The commander’s tears revealed a heart. Respect for him increased (The Posttraumatic Stress Disorder Sourcebook, Chapter 9, Affect Management, p.88).

Elizabeth Vermilyea

Self-regulation is about managing the intensity of feelings so that they don’t take over.… If you struggle to know what you are feeling most of the time, or have trouble managing strong feelings, your self-regulation skills can help you feel more in control of emotions without your having to shut them out completely. Having greater control of your emotions will also allow you to be more aware of pleasant feelings. After all, if you shut out uncomfortable feelings, the pleasant feelings can get shut out too (Growing Beyond Survival, p.23)

Mary Beth Williams & Soili Pujula

If your goal is to develop a self that has some personal power, it is important that you are able to experience both pleasant and unpleasant emotions without over– or under-reacting and, if things really get rough, that you are able to [calm down]. The goal is for you to be able to look at possible ways to express your emotions and then make choices (The PTSD Workbook, Chapter 8, Difficulty Regulating Emotions, p.128)

Bessel van der Kolk

Therapists’ attitudes toward symptoms – whether they are viewed as bizarre behaviors that need to be abolished, or as misguided attempts at self-regulation — will critically determine approaches to treatment.

Additional Resources

Below are great self-help books with lots of tools for improving your self-regulation capacities and overcoming addictions.

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