Communication and Emotional Regulation in Relationships
We sat in silence for the first 5 minutes of session.
Well there was silence in the room, but my client was receiving phone call after phone call, text message after text message. She stared at me while holding her phone up.
The first words she spoke to me were, “What do I do?”
As a therapist there are moments I struggle and this moment was one of them. I quickly evaluated the lesson she could learn, the level of intensity this person who was not even in the room was bringing to our session and I decided the panic in her eyes was the most important thing to address in that moment.
I looked at her and said, “What do you think is the best thing to do for you right now?” She said, “I want it to stop.” Before I continue, I want to clarify that I had been working with this client for some time and I have learned that her partner is incredibly anxious and is not a dangerous person.
If this person was dangerous, I would advise seeking additional support (possibly a restraining order, etc.) and our conversation would be about her safety.
Back to the story…I told her, “Then, make it stop and turn off your phone. He will be okay for the next 45 minutes. He knows you are here and you know he is at work.” She turned her phone off confidently after getting permission to do so.
A growing trend I am finding in my sessions is the idea of emotional regulation and communication. We live in a culture that prides itself on immediacy. We need to know why our dog won’t eat its food- google it. We need a new set of picture frames- have Alexa order it on Amazon to be delivered tomorrow. We need to send a client a copy of their record- jump online on your phone or laptop and send it over.
In fact, we get angry when these modern conveniences do not work.
Think about it, how many times have you YELLED at Alexa because she “doesn’t understand” your request? How many times do you get furious when the promised wifi on the flight fades in and out?
We have our entire network at the tips of our fingers and while that is wonderful to an extent, it is leading us to not know how to regulate our emotions. When we get angry or frustrated, not only do we act out, but many times we turn to our phones and write a review. We respond to the troll online mainly because we can. We send a nasty text to our girlfriend.
Should we though?
When talking about emotional regulation with clients, my clients seem to feel like it is a daunting task. Emotional regulation has a complicated definition, but basically it is the ability to feel any emotion, to process it internally, and then to translate it into age appropriate behaviors. The easiest population to understand this in is children.
Kids have temper tantrums
They have feelings inside that they do not understand and the connections they have made in the past don’t seem to get them the same results, ie. Mom gave me a popsicle last week after school, but today she is not giving me one. This makes me really confused and angry.
The progression we hope for in kids is for them to learn that it is natural to feel angry or confused when things do not go our way, but we need to learn how to feel the feelings, manage them in our head, know who we can turn to to talk about it, and discuss it in a way that makes us feel like we are in control of our feelings.
When I worked with kids, emotional regulation was a huge piece of what we did in therapy. We anticipated situations happening while the child was calm and we talked about how to manage their thoughts and feelings. We came up with ideas of things to do in safe places that would help them regulate.
Things we discussed were coloring, going to their room and drawing, even picking at an orange in their room. Yes, an orange. This one is weird and if you have ADD, anxiety, or self-harming behaviors it is a GREAT tool.
Simply enough you keep oranges in your house and use your fingers to pick at it. The act alone distracts your mind and helps you soothe yourself and the smell adds to the sensation of calming down.
The goal was to create a plan for the child to independently know how to process his or her emotions. We looked to involving all the senses- sometimes kids wanted to read a book in their favorite corner. They would spray the corner with lavender oils and sit down. They would do a breathing exercise to allow their minds to relax.
As a culture, we have not been very good at emotional regulation. With phones at our fingertips, you do not even need to be around us to feel the wrath of our emotions. If we escalate via text or phone call, we escalate our relationships. Once relationships are escalated, they turn into blame games which is the opposite of healthy and will, ironically, prolong the uneasy feelings we had from the beginning.
One of my goals for this year is to make my blog posts more helpful so here it is…
Things to consider to help increase your emotional regulation
Your partner, family, and friends will thank you if you can follow some of these:
1. Create an “adult upset plan”
Do it while you are emotionally stable.
Create a plan of where to go if you are at work, where to go if you are home, etc. Make this plan as detailed and as simple as possible. Clients will tell me, I’ll go for a walk. Okay, but to where?
Your plan should include where exactly your walk routine will be and how long you will be gone. If your plan is to go to another room, what will you do?
Reading, journaling, listening to music, getting a shower, cleaning out a closet are all great ideas. Incorporate smell into your plan as well. Scents like lavender, orange, sage, vanilla all are soothing. In case you were wondering, cleaning is my personal go-to because it calms me down because I am getting something done.
Setting specifics on time and location will also help your partner/friend/family member/coworker know you are okay plus it gives you a limit.
We can all stew in negative emotions for long periods of time. Don’t fall into that trap. This plan is only to calm down from the negative emotions, not to have worked it all out. Remember the key is to regulate yourself so you don’t say or do something you will regret. We want to return to the scene ready to TALK about what you feel so you can actually have a productive conversation.
2. Create a “remember” box
You can have several of these for different aspects of your life that may bring you stress or that you know can push your buttons. In the box put things that bring you joy: for your relationship add in movie ticket stubs, notes you wrote to each other, etc.; for your work you can add in your first dollar you made, first pay stub, images of the dream job down the road, etc.
When we are in negative emotional states, sometimes it is hard to remember what is positive. The purpose of having these boxes is to trigger positive memories, which can help bring you back to emotional regulation quicker.
3. Disconnect from technology
Any form of technology is really not your friend when you are emotionally disregulated. Phone, computer, television, all can trigger you further.
I have never once met anyone who can say that making a mean comment on someone’s social media page while they were angry solved the core issue of what made them mad. Learning how to emotionally regulate sets you up for long term success and avoiding social media during emotionally intense moments is your best bet.
Also, reaching out to others when you are disregulated can be helpful sometimes, but it also can lead you to the scenario I first wrote about in this post. We cannot be dependent on others to regulate our emotions.
The path that emotional dependency leads you down is incredibly scary and more often than not will lead to resentment, abuse (emotional and physical), and a whole slew of other bad things. You are responsible for your emotions. Having others around us to support us is important and needed, but not when it comes to regulation. Have those who support you know what your plan is to regulate and they can point you in that direction.
Emotional regulation has to happen before we communicate.
We cannot ever have a productive conversation, business meeting, anything really without being emotionally regulated. All of us need time to process intense emotions, especially if we are not used to processing them. More often than not, clients will talk about anger issues and how anger is what usually gets them in trouble.
Anger, my friends, is a secondary emotion.
What is usually behind anger is fear so while you are regulating yourself (those of you who struggle with anger), try asking yourself, “What am I afraid of?” Once you become regulated, you can bring your fear to your co-worker, your partner, your parent, your sibling, etc. and you should be able to have a much more vulnerable-which leads to productive- conversation.
At the root of it, we are all humans and as long as you aren’t dealing with someone incapable of feeling, you should be able to communicate in a healthy way.
Let me know some of the things you came up with to emotionally regulate!