Emotion Regulation: Stop Trying to Regulate It

Emotion regulation is a common problem for adults with ADHD, but the concept of “regulating” feelings could lead to self-defeating efforts. We know that regulating the breath can have a calming effect on the body, but how do you regulate feelings? Wishing not to have them magnifies the very feelings you wish to escape. Wishing to escape a situation you’re in does not make the situation go away.

There is no thermostat to regulate feelings directly. “Feelings just are,” says psychologist and author, Robert Wright. What he means is that we don’t choose feelings; they choose us. The very idea that we choose them creates problems in how we relate to other people and to ourselves. We control nothing when we relate mindlessly to our emotional experience. Relating mindfully involves relinquishing effort to control what we can’t.

Honoring your feelings means accepting them as normal human experiences and suspending judgment about yourself and others. To accept feelings is to honor the reality that they have roots in old memories, and they have a normal function. Feelings protect you. Fear, for example, helps you prepare for the future, anticipate consequences, avoid risky behavior, obey laws, and meet deadlines.

Honoring feelings also allows you to detach from the notion that situations are responsible for your feelings. Suspending certainty about unfounded beliefs helps prevent believing that difficult life situations should not occur. Our story lines (the meaning we make) will create more problems than the situations and people we blame. We only feed negative feelings when we push back against life as it is.

Here’s an example of how a feeling once tricked me into believing my story line. I was certain one day that my wife’s silence meant she was angry with me, and equally certain she had no reason to be. I began to feel angry that she was angry. I grew silent along with her, wishing to avoid whatever she needed to say to me. Nothing had actually happened except for the unexamined thoughts that kept bubbling up from my discomfort! I was anticipating, judging, and generalizing from history, some of which preceded our 42-year relationship.

I was far from being mindfully present. My rejection-sensitive mind was predicting the future in a self-defeating effort to escape uncomfortable feelings. I was prepared to defend myself from what she was thinking, only to learn I was dead wrong. She had been experiencing some physical pain that she had not disclosed. Unaware of my story line, she broke her silence with a thoughtful acknowledgement: “Just so you know, I’m not feeling well and might seem irritable today.” My feelings changed immediately. My mindless effort to control the future was no longer necessary. In fact, it never was.

Practicing acceptance and compassion for self and others is good for all your relationships. Tibetan Nun Pema Chodron advises us to “embrace the feeling and drop the story line.” Zen Master Seung Sahn often told his students, “Keep a don’t know mind; a don’t know mind can do anything.”

Do you have a similar story to share?

2 Responses to Emotion Regulation: Stop Trying to Regulate It

  • Terry, that was right on time and a great reminder not to invest myself in mind reading, storytelling, and attach to the story. I can check out my story if I choose, but also, let go of needing certainty. Letting go and living in the present is a lifelong journey. Thanks for sharing!

    • Thanks for your comment and the relevant concepts: “mind-reading” and “getting attached to the story.” Joseph Goldstein presented a great idea in one of his books that I’ve found helpful. He substitutes “let it be” for “let it go.” The latter implies effort, and the former requires none.

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