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Mastering self-regulation

When emotions are running high, they cannot be ignored, but they can be carefully managed

23 April 2018, at 7:54pm

The management of emotions is called self-regulation; it’s the quality of emotional intelligence that liberates us from living like hostages to our impulses. Last issue, we presented the concept of self-awareness, ie being in touch with our emotions and our conditioned responses to those emotions. By being self-regulatory, we can choose how we want to respond to emotions and take control of our responses, both external and internal. 

People with high levels of emotional intelligence are less likely to respond instantaneously and reactively to a difficult or challenging situation. Allowing your reflexes to determine your actions can lead to more ongoing distressing emotions and a rollercoaster of emotional turmoil. 

The response of a person with good self-regulation is that which the individual has consciously chosen to have. For example, when that work colleague chooses to rant at you again, you can allow the chain of pain, low self-esteem, bad mouthing and insomnia to take hold. Or, you can choose to (a) recognise the pain from the insult (b) place it firmly in the past and (c) stop the chain of unhelpful subsequent conditioned responses to it right there. If you keep doing this, it will gradually become the conditioned response to the inevitable ranting of the emotionally unintelligent colleague. 

People with high emotional intelligence are likely to have:

  • An inclination towards reflection and thoughtfulness 
  • An acceptance of uncertainty and change 
  • Integrity – specifically the ability to say “no” to impulsive urges 

Reflection and thoughtfulness 

This is our mindfulness practice, which we discussed several editions ago. If you spend only 10 minutes mindfully meditating every day, self-awareness and self-regulation become easier. If you spend an hour a day, they become an integral part of you. Practice your five-minute mini meditations with a guided meditation, like “Mindfulness Bell” on YouTube. But remember, there is no substitute for longer periods of un-guided meditation.

Acceptance of uncertainty and change

Our lives are ever-changing. What we accept as a “given” for half of our lives can be snatched from under us suddenly with devastating effects if we are not open to change. We are desperately clinging onto our status quo and yet our parents die. No two days are the same. 

Change can be unsettling, big changes can be distressing and bereavement can lead to relentless grief. We have to work at accepting it. The emotionally intelligent person finds self-regulation easier because they embrace the unexpected, no matter how good or bad it is. 

Integrity and the ability to say “no” to urges

If we are truly compassionate, self-aware and have good morals, we are less likely to give in to impulsive urges such as the urgent need to blame someone or something for each unpleasant event in our lives. Narcissistic people can justify blaming others for their own unhappiness very convincingly, usually convincing themselves at the same time.

The emotionally intelligent, self-regulating person doesn’t need to instantly blame to deal with distressing emotions. They don’t lose their temper; they don’t smash the keyboard when the laptop messes up or kick kennel doors when the Staffie howls for a day and a half.

The emotionally intelligent, self-regulating person doesn’t need to instantly blame to deal with distressing emotions

If you have consciously chosen to go to your room and punch the pillow and scream to get something out of your system in response to the emotions something or someone has given rise to, so long as you have taken ownership of that response and responding that way does not cause you or others more distress, then so be it. That still shows a degree of self-regulation – you made a conscious decision to respond in that way. 

Self-regulation is not about turning off or turning our back on our emotions. Contrary to that, if we are acutely self-aware and totally in tune with our feelings, both positive and distressing, only then can we be the master of our behaviour in response. It is very empowering to be able to choose our internal response as well as our external reaction in a given situation. This can only (and yet surprisingly easily) be achieved with conscious effort.

Laura Woodward has been the surgeon at Village Vet Hampstead for over 10 years. Laura is also a qualified therapeutic counsellor and is affiliated with the ACPNL and the ISPC. She runs Laurawoodward.co.uk – a counselling service for vets and nurses.

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