Emotion Regulation in Your Friendships and Relationships
The other day, on the article on men who seem to be naturally good with women, a reader wrote in to ask about emotion regulation in relationships, and annoyance at always having to be "the rock" for women he's dating and others when they vent emotionally, when meanwhile they begin distancing themselves or just decline to give support as soon as he turns the tables and he needs to vent.
Here's his comment:
“Is it recommended to keep your emotional problems/issues separate from seduction?
Some girls (that I've known for more than couple months) seemed to have been of the stock where if I ever talked about my personal emotional issues (like the deep shit that you become aware of as you gain emotional IQ/mastery) with them, they gave me a look like how dare I speak about myself more than they talked about themselves...that's not how it's supposed to go!! Men, including lovers are people too, and have emotional moments (maybe a overbearing boss or a horrible relationship with parents or frustration from not being able to start a business or whatever). What I really wanted was for them to provide me with the value (same empathy/support) that I provided them, but they didn't really seem to care all that much...(it was more of a fake care, but not a real genuine OMG I feel your pain). Obviously they couldn't (nor volunteered) to really help me out and provide me with advice (even when asked), just an awkward silence then they turned the conversation back on them.
Have you ever seen this? What are your thoughts? Do you advise to keep have a support system separate and apart from seduction, and to not clue women into what you're feeling?
I am clueless on this. But maybe it's not women. Thing is I've seen a similar thing from my family too. Growing up, they weren't really equipped to deal with my emotional needs. Perhaps I presented them wrong? Conversation is part presentation...anyways the result was that I just kept shit bottled up inside, becoming aloof and not even recognizing it until much later. Now I'm more of a fixer, but it's really good to have someone around that says "i understand how you feel...try this." Never had that, not even from family.”
I replied; the original commenter replied to my reply to further clarify; Franco, the moderator of our discussion boards, weighed in; and the original commenter returned once more to contribute to the discussion again. All-in-all, it turned into a pretty thoughtful conversation, though clearly from parties who were coming at the problem all from rather different angles.
So, the question raised, I wanted to dive into it much further: what's the right way to go about handling emotion regulation in your interpersonal relationships? Or, is there even a right way - is there an ideal path? Or simply different shades of gray?
Emotion regulation is a potentially touchy topic... nobody wants you to tell him how to handle his emotions, usually. We tend to look on those who would with suspicious eyes, as though they are asking us to deny the very fabric of who we are and suppress ourselves, for questionable reasons at best.
Emotional expression comes in a variety of different forms, ranging from:
Those who regulate emotions via working on problems independently
Those who regulate emotions via a mixed strategy of discussing and working on problems
Those who regulate emotions via emotional venting to other people
The problem with emotional venting, of course, is that it frequently risks venturing into the realm of psychic vampirism... offloading your problems onto someone else for your gain and his or her detriment. This makes dealing with emotions the right way - in a way that does not emotionally fatigue the people in your life - a very critical concern... provided you want to retain the people in your life over the longer term and not watch them vanish from emotional overwhelm.
Problems You Can Solve vs. Problems You Can't
It's been my theory that the need to get things off your chest happens when you encounter problems you don't feel fully equipped to solve, or you otherwise feel overwhelmed emotionally.
I've had close (male, not just female) friends from every category:
Those who would vent constantly, about every minor annoyance
Those who would occasionally need to joke sardonically about some annoyance
Those who would usually be unflappable, but when hitting a major emotional period (once every year or two) would turn into waterfalls of tears and emotion
Those who would usually be unflappable, but once a year or so would get a little run down from some emotionally trying situation and need to chat about it a bit, more from a "tired" kind of emotion than anything too dramatic
My friends from the first category - the "constant venters" - were highly emotional by nature, and, even if intelligent, were the sorts that any small problem pushed them into emotional overdrive, filling them with feelings of fear, doubt, and inadequacy. Objectively, they could solve most of these problems - many of them easily. But emotionally, when the problems appeared, their responses were to say, "Oh no, not another problem! Why me?! Why do I have to always be dealing with problems!"
They essentially suffered from large degrees of victim mentality, where every bad thing that happened was another straw placed on the camel's back, bring it just that much closer to snapping.
The further down the list you go, though, the less victim mentality you see, and the more you encounter an attitude of "another problem? Cool; let's work through it" that treats each new problem not as another cross to bear, but instead another puzzle to solve.
But, aside from victim mentality - which we already know is unhealthy for both you and your relationships - what else is there at play here?
The Science of Emotion Regulation
Of course, my concern going into this article was that I'd be coming
at it from a biased angle - I'm someone who's naturally very careful
about venting my emotions away
from other people when I must vent them... and, I've had nothing but
bad, draining, distracting experiences with those who felt the need to
vent repeatedly and emotionally to me.
I was guilty of emotionally venting on others during my teenage years,
especially family members, and I still feel shame for that to this day
- people who had been nothing but supportive of and loving toward me
and deserved none of the emotions I put onto them had some very rough
times emotionally because I didn't know where to point the barrel of my
emotion gun. And that's often how it works when you have difficulty
with emotion regulation - your
biggest supporters are the ones who take the biggest hits.
So, rather than rely solely on my possibly anti-emotion dumping perspective that comes purely from hard experience, and to make sure I had a clear and as unbiased-as-possible understanding of emotion regulation, I turned to the research of how emotion regulation works in relationships - which, fortunately, even though this is a relatively new field, there exist a handful of good studies of and findings for.
First, here's Ross A. Thompson's definition of emotion regulation:
It involves both the suppression of and the heightening of emotions
It involves the regulation of attention
It involves intrinsic factors like temperament and extrinsic factors like the quality and nature of the relationship with others
In other words, emotion regulation is about whether and how much you suppress your emotions (which leads to a heightening of those emotions), how you choose to regulate (get) the attention of others, and your own personal temperament and what your relationships are like themselves.
Thompson, who did much of the pioneering work on emotion regulation in the 1990s, focused primarily on children, but, fortunately for us, subsequent research has shown a spotlight on adult relationships and the role emotion regulation has to play there.
Below are the three (3) most interesting papers on adult emotion regulation in relationships.
From "Individual differences in two emotion regulation processes: Implications for affect, relationships, and well-being", published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology:
“Five studies tested two general hypotheses: Individuals differ in their use of emotion regulation strategies such as reappraisal and suppression, and these individual differences have implications for affect, well-being, and social relationships. Study 1 presents new measures of the habitual use of reappraisal and suppression. Study 2 examines convergent and discriminant validity. Study 3 shows that reappraisers experience and express greater positive emotion and lesser negative emotion, whereas suppressors experience and express lesser positive emotion, yet experience greater negative emotion. Study 4 indicates that using reappraisal is associated with better interpersonal functioning, whereas using suppression is associated with worse interpersonal functioning. Study 5 shows that using reappraisal is related positively to well-being, whereas using suppression is related negatively.”
So, this study looked at two strategies for dealing with emotional issues:
Reappraisal: stopping and examining a problem from a different angle and asking oneself, "What's another way of tackling this problem?"
Suppression: trying to push away or forget about the problem and its emotional implications
The findings were that those who habitually reappraised felt better, expressed more positive emotions, and had healthier relationships, while those who fell back on suppression habitually felt worse, expressed more negative emotions, and had worse, negativity-prone relationships.
Our second paper is "Emotion Regulation in Adulthood: Timing is Everything", a study from James J. Gross of Stanford University's Department of Psychology, with the following findings:
“Emotions seem to come and go as they please. However, we actually hold considerable sway over our emotions: We influence which emotions we have and how we experience and express these emotions. The process model of emotion regulation described here suggests that how we regulate our emotions matters. Regulatory strategies that act early in the emotion-generative process should have quite different outcomes than strategies that act later. This review focuses on two widely used strategies for down-regulating emotion. The first, reappraisal, comes early in the emotion-generative process. It consists of changing how we think about a situation in order to decrease its emotional impact. The second, suppression, comes later in the emotion-generative process. It involves inhibiting the outward signs of emotion. Theory and research suggest that reappraisal is more effective than suppression. Reappraisal decreases the experience and behavioral expression of emotion, and has no impact on memory. By contrast, suppression decreases behavioral expression, but fails to decrease the experience of emotion, and actually impairs memory. Suppression also increases physiological responding in both the suppressors and their social partners.”
In other words, reappraisal happens early on in emotion generation, and resolves the problem - those who reappraise pounce on emotions when they happen and deal with them. Suppression comes later, and leads to an exacerbation of emotional issues and negative physiological (body) responses in both the individuals themselves and in their partners.
It really isn't just you who
suffers when you suppress, then vent, emotions, rather than deal with
these when they happen - it's the person you're venting to, too.
Our third paper is "Gender Differences in the Relationship between Emotional Regulation and Depressive Symptoms", published in Cognitive Therapy and Research:
“Reports of gender differences in depressive symptoms are one of the most pervasive findings in the literature. In addition, women are frequently reported to be more emotionally sensitive than men. However, the paradox of women being more emotionally responsive and yet at greater risk for psychopathology is still to be unraveled. In the present study we examined emotional regulation as a possible factor in the gender difference in depressive symptom reporting. In a sample of young adults we replicated the frequently reported finding of greater depressive symptom reporting in women. In addition, we found women to report greater attention to emotions. This is consistent with the idea that women tend to think more and ruminate more about their emotions. However, when the variance associated with this greater attention to emotions was statistically controlled, the gender difference in depressive symptoms was no longer significant. Subsequent analyses found that women with low depressive symptoms reported greater attention to emotions without evidencing greater depressive symptoms. However, women with high depressive symptoms exhibited greater attention to emotions, more impaired antirumination emotional repair strategies, and greater reports of depressive symptoms than men with high depressive symptoms. We close by speculating about the neural concomitants of these findings.”
This study, a very intriguing one, found that on average women are both more emotionally sensitive and responsive and more prone to depression. So, even though the average woman ends up feeling and venting more than the average man, she feels worse off than him, too.
But the researchers dug deeper.
When they controlled for women who employed antirumination strategies - that is, exactly what we talked about in "How to Overcome Depression", the negative effects of their emotionalism went away, they became happier and, we can probably safely presume, they began employing reappraisal strategies a lot more than they did suppression strategies.
It would appear science is telling us that you aren't caught forever in a cycle of being emotional and needing to burden others with those emotions to feel better, damaging your relationships in the process - to the contrary.
The solution, rather, lies within.
When I've had friends who were wont to vent often, trying to discuss with them why this was and how they could change it was very often like running into a brick wall.
They didn't want to change how they dealt with problems or emotions. They just wanted other people to listen, goddamnit.
The problem is that this is a selfish and unempathetic approach to dealing with one's own emotional issues that doesn't consider the effects of putting those emotions on others - and it's shortsighted, too.
Much like using a loved one as a physical punching bag when you feel upset and just want to hit something will drive wedges into your relationships and cause them to crumble and decay, so too will using a loved one as an emotional dumping ground when things aren't going your way. The results of doing this are broken relationships, lost friendships, and family who keep their distances except at certain times of the year.
If you want the healthy, functional relationships of the people who properly address their emotional issues in constructive ways, rather than the destructive, depressing, victim mentality-inducing negativity of those who do not, you need to learn how to regulate.
Reappraisal vs. Suppression
Why's the difference between those employing reappraisal strategies versus those using suppression strategies so big?
Mainly, because those who reappraise deal with the emotion right away and get done with it.
Those who suppress, meanwhile, shove the emotion away... which doesn't actually get rid of it at all.
It only makes it come back again later at 10x the strength, ready to rip their cool to shreds, and take their interpersonal relationships right along with it.
You see, when you push a problem out of your conscious mind, you don't get rid of it. Your subconscious continues to work on it, but without the full force of your conscious, logical brain. But why'd the problem come to the attention of your conscious, logical brain in the first place? Because your subconscious didn't know the answer... that's why. It needed you to bring a little conscious reasoning to bear to crack that nut.
When you punt that thought back to the subconscious again, it doesn't quit working on it... it just works on it harder.
And it gets more frustrated.
And it starts feeling more helpless.
And if you've read that article on depression linked to earlier, what's depression caused by? Obsessive rumination without taking action, and subsequent feelings of helplessness.
If you're a suppressor, these bottled-up emotions bother you more and more, until you just need to get them out. You do this by venting emotionally to other people. Which makes you feel better... but them feel worse. Why? Because, subconsciously, you've shifted the burden of solving this "unsolvable" problem off of YOUR shoulders and onto THEIRS.
How about the reappraisers, though? How do they deal with emotional issues?
Someone who employs reappraisal refuses to shuttle an issue back to his subconscious in an effort to squelch it, because he knows it's only going to come roaring back later, many times more powerful, and wreck havoc on his Zen and the Zen of his relationships.
Instead, he figures that if his subconscious mind thinks this issue is so big and important that it needs to be brought to the attention of his conscious mind, he'd better address it.
So, he does just that: he addresses it, handles it, and finishes the problem.
It's done. It's dealt with.
No need to banish it to the subconscious hinterlands, only for it to emerge bigger and stronger and more tenacious than before. No need to to sit and stew and fester with his emotions. No need to offload bad feelings of his own onto the people who care about them and drive them gradually away with unhappiness and irritation.
It is, you might say, the superior way of dealing with emotional issues.
But, just saying it works better doesn't help you a whole lot. Let's talk now about how to actually do this.
How to Use Reappraisal (and Spare Your Relationships)
First thing's first: if you're someone who lets emotions build up and then has to vent them, as I unfortunately was for a few negative years of my life sometime back, you must be aware of what your brain's normal process for dealing with bad emotions is right now:
Subconscious encounters sticky situation it doesn't know how to deal with, and gets upset
Subconscious throws sticky situation up to conscious and says, "That's all I've got; you need to handle this"
Conscious feels bad emotions, looks at situation briefly, says, "I can't deal with this right now" and suppresses it, kicking it back to subconscious
Subconscious sighs and keeps working on it, becoming more and more frustrated, more and more annoyed, more and more negative, and more and more hopeless and helpless that a resolution will ever be reached
Subconscious starts throwing the problem back at conscious, which keeps suppressing it back into subconscious, which keeps growing more frustrated and escalating it back up to conscious, which keeps suppressing, and so on, and so forth, until, like a volcano that's built up too much magma underneath its stack, the top has to blow so all the negative emotions can be vented
Individual seeks an outlet to vent his built up, bad emotions - can be a creative or physical outlet, or might be a girlfriend, friend, or loved one - different people have different coping strategies
Individual now feels better, having put all the bad emotion he created playing ping pong with his problem between his conscious and subconscious; the cost is that his lover / friend / family member now has negative emotions anchored to him and has become less likely to want to spend time with him or be around him, out of fear of being made to feel bad again
That's the suppression process, and there's a good chance you're not even fully aware you're doing it unless you've taken a moment to put a magnifying glass on what processes your mind is running.
If you need a bit more evidence this is happening, do this: one particularly stressful day, take time out of your day to sit down and meditate for about 10 minutes, clearing your mind of all thoughts by focusing on your breathing and letting your thoughts go. As you observe your thoughts, you'll soon be surprised to notice two (2) things:
While we usually think we're only thinking about one thing at a time, you'll realize your brain is actually carrying somewhere between 8 and 15 distinct thought processes about all manner of different things at once that are of varying levels of conscious awareness
Those problems earlier in the day that you'd pushed away because you didn't want to deal with them or didn't have time to deal with them never actually went away - in fact, your brain's been stuck on them even since they popped up into your awareness - they're serving as a sort of wrench jammed into your cognitive gears
Reappraisal works very differently. Reappraisal takes the tack of saying, "Here's a problem; I'd better deal with it now before it fills me up with bad emotions, wrecks my day, and makes me go take these emotions out on people I care about and poisons the well water with them."
There are three main strategies someone who tackles problems head on can employ:
Solve the problem. Rather than kick it away because it's hard, clear your plate then and there and say, "Okay, I'm not going to do anything else until I deal with this problem." The instant you solve it, any need to vent about it VANISHES. Instead, you solve it - and you get an immediate testosterone boost. The winner effect kicks in, and instead of feeling like mud you now feel like a champ - this thing that was beating you down just got vanquished. And, instead of going to your friends, lovers, and family and venting, you go to them to boast about how you kicked this problem's ass... and instead of them seeing you as an emotional drain, they come to view you as an inspiring, victorious fixer instead.
Attack the problem back. A good example of this is criticism that makes you feel bad - maybe that criticism is unfair, or maybe the criticism has the sting of truth in it - regardless, it hurts, and you don't like it. Instead of push it away, you either attack the criticizer back (if it's unfair) - you can use the moral superiority or disagreement tech for this - or you say to yourself, "All right, rather than pout about this, can I see if this person might have a point?" Then you analyze it, and either chuck the criticism if you find it's unfounded, or pick out the part of it that you can use to make yourself better and throw out any of the negativity or condescension in it that comes from a negative person who just doesn't know how to give criticism without trying to get an ego boost out of it. Now, instead of taking out the bad emotions on someone who cares about you, who's done nothing to deserve this, you either take them out on the person who's the source of the distress in the FIRST place, OR (if he has a point) you take the lesson from this, mentally thank him for helping you be better, and chunk any negative wrapping of that criticism. And you feel damn good either way.
Put it in perspective. This sounds like one of those new age self-help-y nonsense things, but it legitimately works, and here's how it works: you have something that's making you feel bad and you just want to suppress and avoid (say, you're going to your tennis lessons, and you're the worst tennis player there, and you think everyone's got to be looking at you shaking their heads at how terrible you are), rather than push it away and feel bad and maybe end up skipping class altogether and having to go offload those emotions on someone else, stop for a minute, and say to yourself, "Okay, this is ridiculous. What's the worst case scenario - I go, I miss EVERY SINGLE SHOT and everyone there thinks I'm a complete newb? Who CARES? That's why I'm there - BECAUSE I'M A COMPLETE NEWB." You'll then laugh at how ridiculous you were being - and you'll go to tennis class without caring about how inexperienced you look - because now you remember that that's why you are going (as opposed to because you want to look so damn impressive to all the other, more-experienced students there).
That's reappraisal, and it's called reappraisal because you stop and consider the source of your negative emotion from a different perspective - and then you resolve it. Either through problem solving, going on the offensive, or mentally restating the issue to yourself in a way that puts it in stark relief.
And if you pounce on emotional problems the instant they appear with reappraisal, you never have to worry about the damaging effects of suppression and explosion/venting, which end up making both you and the person you're venting to feel worse.
Emotion Regulation Made Easy
Like we discussed in the article on depression, you need to spend a little time becoming more consciously aware of your emotions, and consciously directing them down a different path than you're accustomed to taking them down - and that's hard work. For the first month, at least, you'll be using a lot of willpower to force yourself to work through problems rather than just throw them on the see-saw of suppress-then-vent.
But if you take the time to learn this approach to dealing with emotions, the benefits are all kinds of good:
Your relationships become extremely stable, value-giving, and healthy
You yourself watch victim mentality and bad constant emotions dry up and go
You start to realize you yourself don't want and won't tolerate people who vent around you
Your problems, many of which remained constant thorns in your side before, suddenly start getting resolved quickly and easily, and your life progress and productivity levels go through the roof
Things that used to seem intimidating or impossible become intriguing challenges you can't wait to get your hands dirty diving into
Being able to regulate your own emotions without needing to lean on others around you as a crutch is freeing, for both you and them. It prevents you from destroying your relationships with those who care about you most by offloading your problems onto them, and it results in you discussing mainly victories with loved ones, rather than failures, defeats, and trials and tribulations.
And, it transforms you from someone who is a pessimist (since problems never get solved, they just nag and nag and nag) into someone who's far more likely to look on the bright side of things... I spent much of my life as the biggest pessimist in the world, and while I still do like to consider myself a "realist", I'm a lot more inclined to look on the brighter side of things these days (if still a mote cautiously).
And if I can do it, I don't see any reason why you can't... I was one of the most blockheaded, out-of-touch-with-my-emotions people for a big chunk of my life, and I learned how to recognize bad feelings and address them the moment they arose.
All it takes is a little mental labor to get in the habit of reappraising, rather than suppressing and venting, and you'll be flying.
If you need a little motivation... just think how awesome it will be to not feel like crap due to unresolved issues and rotting relationships from dumping those issues on others.
Instead, you end up with issues that resolve themselves toot suite, and relationships that are healthy, constructive, and largely venting-free.
Now that's a damn good way to live your life, if you ask me.
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