In the Character Strengths and Virtues Handbook, emotion regulation is included within the classification for self-regulation. Self-regulation is conceptualized as self-control, or “how a person exerts control over his or her own responses so as to pursue goals and live up to standards. These responses include thoughts, emotions, impulses, performances and other behaviors.” I’d like to expand on emotion regulation as the 25th character strength and talk a bit about how to do it.
How You Interpret Events Drives EmotionsYour interpretation – either positive or negative – can influence your emotions and aftereffects, physical sensations and behaviors. For example, let’s say you completed an important project at work (prompting event). You tell yourself, “I did a good job leading the team. We finished the project on time. We exceeded our goals” (interpretations). You feel joyful, happy, proud and satisfied (emotions). You feel physically energetic and active (physical sensations). You thank your team members for their support. You smile at your spouse when you get home that evening. You hug your children (behaviors expressing joy). The next day, you are friendly to your co-workers. You expect success on your next project (aftereffects of joy). In this situation, you are building positive emotions. One way to regulate your emotions is to be mindful of how you interpret situations.
Increasing Positive EmotionsIn addition to taking a cognitive approach to building positive emotions, there are several behavioral approaches that have proven effective in research. These are to:
* Build positive experiences. Engage in at least one pleasant activity each day. In the long term, make changes in your life so positive events will happen more often. Develop a list of positive events you want in your life and take small steps toward these goals.
* Build positive relationships. Work on current relationships, repair old relationships and reach out for new relationships.
* Be mindful of positive experiences when they happen. When you notice your mind wandering to the negative, practice refocusing on the positive.
* Be unmindful of worries. Be present in the moment. Don’t think about when a positive experience will end. Start believing that you deserve the positive experiences you are having.
Mindfulness of Your Current EmotionMindfulness can help end emotional suffering. Mindfulness applied to emotions means “the nonjudgmental observation and description of one’s current emotional responses” (Linehan, 1993). Some other ways to be mindful of your emotions are to:
- Observe your emotion. Note its presence. Step back. Get unstuck from the emotion.
- Experience your emotion as a wave, coming and going. Try not to block emotion. Try not to suppress emotion. Don’t try to get rid of emotion. Don’t push it away. Don’t try to keep emotion around. Don’t hold onto it. Don’t amplify it.
- You don’t have to act on your emotion. Try to remember times when you have felt different.
- Practice loving your emotion. Don’t judge your emotion. Practice willingness. Radically accept your emotion.
Changing Painful Emotions
Some ways to change your emotions involve acting the opposite of what your emotion is telling you to do.
- Fear: Do what you are afraid of over and over again.
- Guilt or shame: Say “I’m sorry” and make things better – then let it go.
- Sadness: Get active. Do things that make you feel confident and self-confident.
- Anger: Say something nice to the person who is making you angry instead of attacking back.
Your mom was right. Take care of your body. See a doctor when necessary. Eat balanced meals and get enough sleep. Limit sugar and caffeine. Be active and try to get some kind of exercise every day. All of the suggestions in this article are easier to do when you are feeling your best.
Linehan, M. M. (1993). Skills Training Manual for Treating Borderline Personality Disorder. New York: Guilford.
Peterson, C. & Seligman, M. (2004). Character strengths and virtues: A handbook and classification. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Spradlin, S. (2003). Don’t Let Your Emotions Run Your Life: How Dialectical Behavior Therapy Can Put You in Control (New Harbinger Self-Help Workbook). New Harbinger Publications.
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