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The Science Behind Emotional Self-Regulation + Why It's So Important

Elizabeth Ricker
mbg Contributor
By Elizabeth Ricker
mbg Contributor
Elizabeth Ricker is the author of "Smarter Tomorrow." She has given talks on cognitive enhancement and neurohacking across the US and overseas. Her clients have included Silicon Valley venture capital firms, technology startups, schools, and the Fortune 500. Ricker received her undergraduate degree in Brain and Cognitive Sciences from MIT and her graduate degree in Mind, Brain, and Education from Harvard.
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August 17, 2021

Researchers and clinicians define emotional self-regulation as the ability to monitor, assess, and modify your own emotions. Your ability to modify your own emotions—how intensely you feel something, the variety of feelings you experience, how long you feel particular emotions—is partly conscious, partly subconscious.

Self-control and willpower are related concepts, too. When you meet a person with strong emotional self-regulation, they may be full of contradictions. They may experience a broad range of emotions but also demonstrate incredible mastery and flexibility in how and when they express them. Emotional self-regulation doesn't mean being stone-cold.

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The emotionally self-regulated person possesses two defining characteristics:

  1. The ability to delay the expression of emotions: If, for some reason, they are suddenly struck with the urge to laugh during a funeral, they control themselves. When the situation allows it, however, they are spontaneous with laughter, tears, or other emotions.
  2. The ability to influence one's own feelings, thoughts, and physiology: If you notice that your heart is racing before giving an important presentation and you interpret it as a sign of your impending death, causing your anxiety to spike even further, that would be an example of struggling with emotional self-regulation. Effective emotional self-regulation would be, instead, noticing your pre-presentation jitters and telling yourself, "That means I'm extra sharp and alert now—perfect!" That reframing would provide a calming and steadying influence to improve your performance.

The benefits of emotional self-regulation.

High emotional self-regulation is tied to success in work, school, and relationships.

For instance, if you were in the final push preparing for a meeting with a client but you noticed that you were feeling stressed and couldn't concentrate, you might realize that, paradoxically, slogging on might waste more time than taking a break. You might get up, take a quick walk around the block, and then come back with renewed focus.

Interestingly, a little anxiety seems to help us learn something well in the first place, but to remember it effectively, anxiety must be lower.

In the relationship category, emotional self-regulation reaps huge rewards. Being able to manage your own emotions provides a major benefit because you don't, for example, accidentally start fights by snapping at your partner when they ask an innocent question unrelated to the source of your stress.

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How to develop it.

Emotional self-regulation seems to take practice and time. In study after study, older adults outperform younger adults and children at emotional self-regulation. Relatedly, they also report higher amounts of positive moods and lower amounts of negative moods. So what skills have they developed?

There are four main steps involved in effectively managing an emotionally charged situation. Successful emotional regulation involves recognizing each step as it happens and making mindful choices at each point:

  • Step 1 is Awareness: realizing you are in an emotionally charged situation. This includes noticing your own physiology (e.g., realizing you are nervous because your hands feel clammy).
  • Step 2 is Selection: choosing what you pay attention to within the situation.
  • Step 3 is Interpretation: choosing how you interpret the situation.
  • Step 4 is Response: choosing your response to the situation.
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People with high emotional self-regulation are able to navigate situations more successfully than those who don't recognize or handle each step as carefully.

In the "Response" step, people high in emotional regulation seem to operate in a handful of ways. Here are a few examples:

  • They decide whether to stay in or leave emotionally charged situations.
  • They find ways to lighten or ease the situation (for example, by winning over others through a self-deprecating joke).
  • They may also redirect the focus of the situation, or change everyone's perception of the situation by telling a story.
  • They may try to take on a different viewpoint to gain perspective on events.
  • They may try to see themselves or their situation from another perspective. This could include taking on the perspective of the person they're in conflict with to build empathy, or building self-compassion by looking at themselves as they would a good friend.
  • If the emotional stressor is long term, they may cultivate new habits: scheduling a meditation class for the hour right before a demanding meeting or planning to take a refreshing nap after that presentation ends.

Adapted from an excerpt from SMARTER TOMORROW. Copyright © 2021 by Elizabeth R. Ricker. Used with permission of Little, Brown Spark, an imprint of Little, Brown and Company. New York, NY. All rights reserved.

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Elizabeth Ricker
Elizabeth Ricker
mbg Contributor

Elizabeth Ricker is the author of Smarter Tomorrow: How 15 Minutes of Neurohacking a Day Can Help You Work Better, Think Faster, and Get More Done. She has given talks on cognitive enhancement and neurohacking across the US and overseas. Her clients have included Silicon Valley venture capital firms, technology startups, schools, and the Fortune 500. Ricker’s work has been featured on public broadcast TV in Europe and in the March for Science’s book Science Not Silence.

Ricker received her undergraduate degree in Brain and Cognitive Sciences from MIT and her graduate degree in Mind, Brain, and Education from Harvard. In college, she worked in the neuroscience lab of Nobel Prize winner Dr. Susumu Tonegawa. Ricker was also a varsity college athlete and class president—a role occasionally involving such serious duties as dressing up in a giant rodent costume to play Tim the Beaver, the MIT mascot.