What Is Emotional Regulation? (and how to practice it)

Marlena Eva
5 min readMay 4, 2024

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Emotional regulation is a skill that will help you develop a healthy relationship with yourself

Photo by SHVETS production on Pexels.com

I cried so much a couple of days ago because a beloved character in my favourite TV show suffered a brutal death. She was only 17 and had a positive impact on the other characters in the show. I loved how kind and empathetic she was, often trying to help others without asking for anything in return.

I didn’t know that, while grieving this character’s loss I was doing ‘emotional regulation’.

Emotional regulation is the ability to respond and regulate emotions as we experience them. Kati Morton, an LA-based family and marriage therapist thinks that, more often than not, people react to their emotions instead of regulating them.

Kati describes the opposite of emotional regulation which is emotional dysregulation; when you are unable to process your emotions you are:

  • under regulating

Under regulation is when you are overwhelmed by your emotions and have a hard time controlling yourself. For example, you yell at a grocery store clerk for not helping you find an item.

  • over regulating

This is when you repress your emotions and you refuse to deal with them.

  • a combination of the above two.

What happens if you don’t regulate your emotions?

There are negative consequences to not engaging in emotional regulation and all of them affect you and your relationships to a certain degree.

  • You won’t know how you feel because you don’t know how to identify and label an emotion. You will feel confused and life will be ‘difficult’ to bear for you.
  • You will feel emotions more intensely than other people (when you suppress emotions, they will show up more intensely in your body). This leads to avoiding the emotion because it’s scary. You’ll use coping methods like alcohol, drugs, sex, food or social media to process how you feel.
  • You will engage in impulsive behaviours and bad decision-making. When you are avoiding emotions you will engage more often in decisions that are more dangerous to your well-being (eg. having sex with strangers to numb out an emotion or gambling to avoid dealing with a repressed memory).
  • You have a hard time managing stress. People who don’t practice emotional regulation don’t know how to cope with stress. This leads to developing anxiety or an anxiety disorder which can make day-to-day life hard to deal with.
  • You have a difficult time connecting with others. When you avoid negative emotions, you’ll try to avoid positive ones as well. Positive emotions like joy, excitement, sexual desire and love are crucial in relationships and so, you’ll be avoiding these as well.
  • You’ll not be able to ask for help or support. People who don’t have emotional regulation skills think that expressing an emotion is a sign of weakness or a mental health problem. And, because they are scared of showing they are ‘weak’, they won’t reach out to psychologists, therapists or support groups that are meant to guide them and help them through a tough time.

I understand that growing up with a narcissistic parent leads to emotional dysregulation. We needed to suppress our negative (and positive) emotions as children to not make the narcissistic parent mad or show them our “vulnerabilities”. We know that narcissists love to prey on others who are vulnerable, show their weakness or express an emotion that is hard to deal with. More often than not, narcissists use our negative emotions to create their famous ‘smear campaigns’.

However, as adults, we are not at the mercy of the narcissistic parent anymore. We left the toxic parent’s home and now we don’t have anyone to ‘hide’ from or ‘protect’ our vulnerable self from.

Unfortunately, not many adult children of narcissists realize this. As adults, our survival does not depend on our narcissistic parent’s approval anymore.

What we depend on now is our stamp of approval.

But have no fear. There are ways of breaking the pattern of emotional dysregulation. Here are three methods of engaging in emotional regulation according to Kati Morton. Try to practice at least one method daily.

1. Emotional awareness and acceptance

You can identify the emotion in the body and label it. Maybe it’s in your chest or your shoulders. Maybe you feel fear and it’s in your stomach. Or perhaps you’re sad and you feel a heaviness in your body. Recognize the emotion and accept it for what it is. Don’t judge the emotion, it is what it is.

You can develop this skill by doing meditation, body scans or deep breathing exercises. You can also use the Feelings Wheel from www.feelingswheel.com to see how you feel.

Another method of identifying your emotions is journaling.

By writing down how you feel and why (many people want to understand why they suddenly feel angry at a store clerk, or cry at the sight of a child, for example), you’ll get in touch with your emotions more intimately. You can also do a ‘check-in’ at the end of the day. ‘How did I feel today?’ Use this question to identify the types of emotions you had to deal with during the day.

2. Re-appraisal

This method is about identifying negative thinking patterns and challenging them. If you feel like a failure and you label an activity you have done as a ‘failure’, challenge it. Was that truly a failure or is this language the one you used as a child to criticize yourself whenever you were around your narcissistic parent?

Instead of saying ‘I am a failure because I failed’ you can say ‘I have tried to accomplish a task and have not been successful. This is an opportunity to learn more about my skills and about the mindset I need to develop to accomplish something.’ Sounds a lot better, doesn’t it?

3. Healthy coping skills

The opposite of emotional dysregulation is engaging in healthy coping methods.

These coping activities are relaxing and promote well-being. Example: going to the gym and releasing that adrenalin in your body, practising your hobbies for relaxation purposes, taking nature walks or engaging in creative activities that give you a confidence boost.

Conclusion

Growing up in a dysfunctional home will not equip you with emotional regulation skills. However, regulating your emotions will lead to a better, healthier life. Make sure you’re practising this skill as often as possible to ensure your health and the health of your relationships.

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Marlena Eva

MA in Social Psychology. Freelance Writer. Poet. Writes about: narcissism (NPD), relationships, mental health.