By Jeffrey M. Lance, Ph.D.
So many of our reactions, defenses, and interactions in life seem to be
related to our ability to regulate our feeling states within a lower and upper threshold of emotional tolerance. What I mean by this is that we overreact, become defensive, and use compulsive and addictive behavior to attempt to either calm ourselves out of feelings of anxiety/panic/terror, or deflation/depression/despair states. When something in our environment (persons, events, and experiences) threatens to trigger off these states, and we experience that we wonât be able to stop our own internal escalation of anxiety or deflation, then we go into defensive or addictive and compulsive behavioral modes of coping by either over or under reacting, to try and regulate the escalating states. We feel threatened with becoming out of control, and the anticipatory anxiety, or signal anxiety states we experience, triggers us into well-entrenched attempts at emotional regulation.
Unfortunately, these very protective attempts at emotional regulation and security are the very things that create distress in our interpersonal relations, and problems in living in our adult lives. Many of us don't even realize that we are reacting or regulating ourselves by these maneuvers. We do them automatically, or realize them in retrospect. Often
those closest to us (wife, children, etc.), are the ones who know about them,
and pay the price interpersonally (feeling their negative impact).
I am always amazed in my work with couples, at how well they our able to
pick these aspects out in each other, but how oblivious they are to their own
defenses, and over/under reactions. This is the case for most of us.
There are many ways we can attempt to regulate ourselves that are maladaptive
in the present context of our lives. Here is a list of some of the more common
I could go on, but you get the point. Any behaviors that are used to try and
alter our moods that have life damaging consequences. I am sure many people
will retort that we need some of these to cope with our lives and manage our emotions. This , I feel, is a common view. However, if we want to continue to grow and become freer of these compulsive overreactions, we must find healthier ways of regulating ourselves and more adaptive ways of trying to feel safe and secure. What might some healthier ways be? Here are some that come to mind:
- Being controlling
- Compulsive eating
- Compulsive over working
- Substance abuse
- Alcohol abuse
- Compulsive cleaning
- Constant activity
- Distracting ourselves
- Avoidance behavior
- Not listening
- Not expressing
- Denial of reality
- Trying to be special
- Compulsive achievement
- Compulsive performance
- Always needing to succeed
- Fear of failure
- Fear of success
Here is my list of some more adaptive ways of regulating affect:
I could go on, but this should suffice for this article. The point is to
develop soothing, calming and revitalizing (emotional regulating)
experiences that don't have negative consequences for you or others. You
might want to add to both of these lists based on your own experience with
emotional regulation, or dysregulation. Remember, this is an ongoing process
for all of us. The point is progress, not perfection. Donât turn it into
- Self soothing and self comforting behaviors:
-letting ourselves cry and just feel our feelings,
-silent prayer/meditation, or to music/sounds,
-sharing our feelings in a non defensive way,
-relaxation techniques, with or without music,
-listening to calming music,
-getting enough sleep and exercise,
-reaching out for support to spouse/close friends etc.,
-getting into a supportive therapeutic relationship with a therapist good at
empathy and connecting with you.
- Walking in nature
- Making your life simpler
- Lowering your standard of living; smaller house, fewer cars, work closer to
home if possible, but have more quality time with spouse/children etc.
- Reframe what success in life means; letting go of unhealthy societal
expectations for success, achievement, performance.
- Get use to and accept making mistakes, and see them as a natural part of
growth in life.
- Let go of harsh self-talk, and masochistic/sadistic ways of relating to
- Have Faith, and learn to let things go, without denying their reality.
Dr. Lance is a psychotherapist in practice in Glendale. He is a member of the Independent Psychotherapy Network.
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