I noticed not too long ago that I had a difficult time regulating intense emotions. When I started to feel blue, I would get caught up in a downward spiral that was horribly difficult to escape from. Then I would often fall into a depression. The “toolbox” of handy coping skills felt useless when I was already slipping into the depths. I might halfheartedly text a friend to share my feelings, but pulling myself into a better mood seemed near impossible.
Recently, though, I have been working on improving my emotional regulation. When I get upset about something, I immediately tackle whatever is in my control.
For example, if I get upset with my partner (still working hard on this, but ideally), I will communicate with them that I am upset and need some space. Alone time helps me understand my fears, reactions, and emotions better. They take shape out of the amorphous fog of upset-ness. Once alone, I eventually calm down. I might walk, read a book, listen to music, journal, cry a little bit, write them a letter… these things help settle the whirlwind inside me and allow me to pay attention to what’s truly important. Most often I feel an urgency to apologize to my partner and explain my thoughts. If we can have a discussion on the subject, it helps me to see that my partner cares for me and supports me. Not only does this strengthen our bond, but it helps me to feel more secure with my abilities to regulate my emotions and handle them with maturity and calm consideration.
If something is not in my control, I repeat to myself: “I’ve done what I can. I will just have to wait and see how this turns out. It won’t the end of the world if this doesn’t work out. I am a capable person and I have plenty of opportunities.” And so on. I look back in my life and emphasize times when these beliefs were confirmed. I really try to believe what I tell myself.
The key is to catch an upset feeling before it gets big. If something feels wrong, but I ignore it, that emotion will only grow and fester inside me. The solution could be as simple as voicing it out loud, but I often find that writing about what I’m feeling and why is the most helpful. Everything gets out of my head and onto the paper, and I can let go of it.
Sometimes I think of a very unpleasant emotion like a tangled ball of yarn. Sitting down and taking the time to write about it is like finding the ends of the yarn and carefully unraveling the knots and twists until the yarn is more or less straightened out. It’s a painstaking process that requires patience and determination.
This brings me to another struggle I’ve been having lately, which is how to tolerate emotional dysregulation in people close to me. I have a bad habit of rushing to the aid of someone who is very distressed. Part of it is because it feels good to feel needed, and to feel helpful and useful and heroic. But another part is because I know intimately how difficult it can be to manage intense emotions like depression. I want to be able to stop their pain as quickly and as effectively as I can, and sometimes the best thing is a strong shoulder to cry on and a supportive person to talk to.
As caring as this may be, that kind of action can actually be detrimental when repeatedly requested or repeatedly offered. First of all, because then the person in distress doesn’t learn how to deal with overwhelming emotions on their own. They end up relying on someone else to mitigate discomfort. And secondly, this traps the other person in the helper role, where they are expected to drop everything in order to soothe their friend.
I have been in both these roles, and they both end up feeling awful. I am slowly learning how to manage my own intense emotions, and now I must work on allowing others to do the same. Everyone is responsible for his or her own reactions and responses, including to their own feelings. I need to let go of the responsibility of managing the emotions of others, thus trusting their capabilities and focusing on my own emotional regulation.